I learned to drive in a Land Rover. It was an ex-Australian Army Series II short wheelbase, probably built around 1960, with several tours of duty on the odometer. It was a shabby dark green with a khaki canvas roof that flapped like a MASH tent in a Force 10 gale when you went over 30mph. There was no synchromesh on first or second gears, so double declutch shifts were mandatory (and to this day, I still dip the clutch pedal twice on downshifts, heeling-and-toeing to match revs, on every manual transmission car I drive). It was slow, yet lug tires, grabby brakes, and heavy steering made every corner an adventure.
I loved that Land Rover. It was indestructible and unstoppable; totally functional and utterly authentic, right down to the last rivet. Land Rovers had conquered continents: it's been claimed it was the first car seen by 60 percent of the developing world's population. Royalty drove them: Land Rover at one point had four Royal Warrants (a mark of recognition to companies or individuals that have supplied goods or services to senior members of the British royal family); the best Rolls-Royce ever managed was three (until the 1950s, the British royals actually preferred Daimlers).
The Range Rover Sport Supercharged I picked up in London last month was about as far removed from that old Series II Landy as could be imagined. It looked every inch the black label Land Rover the new badging proclaimed it to be (for 2010 model year, all Range Rovers have black and silver badges, instead of Land Rover's traditional green and gold). Glossy black paint. Shiny 20-in. alloy wheels wrapped in low profile tires. Inside, tasteful black leather seats with contrasting white stitching, plus carpets, climate control air conditioning, and satellite navigation. Under the hood, a 510-hp supercharged V-8. That's twice as many cylinders, and about seven times the power the old Series II had.
But is it seven times the fun? I'm not so sure. Of course the Sport Supercharged is an impressively fast and civilized tool with which to navigate the wilds of London's leafier suburbs. It does pretty much everything today's generation of luxury performance SUVs -- Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, BMW X6 M -- are expected to do on the road, and is still way better than any of them off it. It's cheaper than a regular Range Rover, and racier than a Land Rover LR4, which perhaps explains why I saw so many of them in London (though most, admittedly, were powered by the economical 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6).
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...