To me, though, the Range Rover Sport's "tweener" status is precisely the problem. The LR4 is infinitely more practical, much more comfortable, and a lot more capable. And the regular Range Rover is still probably the car I'd choose if I was only allowed to own one vehicle -- it's a superb long distance touring car, a lavish luxury limo around town, a useful wagon, and you can still take the damned thing almost anywhere off-road. It's probably the only car in the world that would look at home pulling up to the front door of Buckingham Palace, covered in mud. The Range Rover Sport just doesn't feel ...authentic.
The authenticity that underpins the Land Rover brand is something Carl-Peter Forster, the former GM Europe boss now running Tata Motors, the Indian company that owns both Jaguar and Land Rover, is spending a lot of time thinking about these days. Why? Because he has to figure out how to replace the Land Rover Defender.
Though every component has been revised or replaced, the Defender still closely resembles that old Series II I used to drive. Forster readily admits the Defender is Land Rover's Porsche's 911 -- part anachronism, part icon, yet still capable, still charismatic, and the touchstone vehicle that defines the brand.
The problem is the Defender's been living on borrowed time for years. Mandatory airbags killed it here in the United States in 1997, and tough new European safety regulations mean it's unlikely to survive at all beyond 2013. Though it tried after buying the company from BMW in 2000, Ford could never figure a business case for a new Defender. Part of the problem is the Defender's low volume -- global sales are barely 25,000 units a year -- did not justify the massive investment required in an all-new vehicle. The other part, though, was trying figure out exactly what a new Defender should be.
"That is the discussion for this year," Forster admitted over dinner in Geneva in March. "We will spend considerable time in defining what to do." He hints Tata's ownership of the storied British brand might prove the Defender's salvation: "One question [to be answered] is can we profitably assemble a Defender in India."
I sure hope Forster figures it out, because if Land Rover can build a new Defender that retains the honesty, character and capability of the original, count me in. And I could use the money I'd save over a Range Rover to go towards a Porsche Cayman S as well...