Never a company to avoid the publicity that can be generated from its intense final trials, reports Iain Robertson, Land Rover has engendered the support of both the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Dubai.
Having posted the worst financial results in Jaguar-Land-Rover’s (JLR) history earlier this year, which has sparked intense takeover rumours about the sometime British carmaker being pursued by hovering multi-national automotive conglomerates, the company that is currently owned and continues to be funded by the Indian Tata Corporation must be ruing the day it ‘dumped’ its backbone Defender model in early 2016.
Defender had been an essential product for the best part of 67 years, which was still selling an untroubled 10,000 quite expensive units annually. Businesses utterly loved them, despite reports of grim reliability. I was not alone among critics of the decision to cease production…without a suitable replacement in the wings…a pronouncement that has cost JLR another hard won slice of market share. Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of our own government (during Blair’s reign) to cease the long-standing MOD supply contract, an important model lifeline was also severed.
Yet, international defence, military and other similar contractual arrangements have never been money-spinners, although the cachet they provide to the brand is considered to be rather important. There is hardly a trouble spot anywhere in the world that has not been serviced by Land Rover over the years. Despite a short run of very expensive, classic V8 Defenders in 2018, the company opened the doors to potential rivals.
Yet, they never came and neither did their enriched assaults. Suzuki had the best chance at the bottom-end of the raw 4x4 market and I urged it to produce a more stripped-out version that it could have sold for around £10,000 (around a third of the least costly Defender), or leased to the agricultural sector for a nominal monthly fee. Jeep was the alternative but its issues since becoming part of the Fiat-Chrysler strategic partnership apparently restricted the potential of a rubber-matted base version, as a replacement for Defender, even at a broadly similar retail price. The only other carmaker that could have ‘filled the gap’ might have been Toyota but it clearly felt that its ‘Land-Bruiser’ was unsuitable. Land Rover deserves to have lost market share and heaps of brand respect.
While Land Rover can be accused of many things, it has seldom been shy about generating public awareness at the most apposite times. For trialling purposes alone, having driven the tortuous tarmac of the Jebel Jais highway that climbs to the summit of the UAE’s highest mountain, I can confirm any on-road shakedowns are being given the ultimate test in both searing heat, hill-climbing ability and chassis cornering stability. However, the programme has also taken in both high-speed desert crossings, blasting across changeable dunes and, at somewhat slower pace, tackling destructive rocky tracks across some of the least hospitable terrain in the world.
Involving the Red Cross and its affiliates is not a fresh process, as you may be aware, Land Rover has been working closely with IFRC on past projects, in fact since 1954, and has now re-signed a three years’ global partnership that focuses on disaster preparedness and response initiatives. Having been spotted on-road in the UK (usually not too far from Land Rover’s Gaydon test facility, in the West Midlands) and at various publicity-garnering key events, such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed, while development exercises these days are seldom without end, the ‘disguise’ appliques are now less prevalent on test examples and the final outline of the new Defender model is abundantly clear.
This year marks the humanitarian organisation’s centenary as it celebrates ‘100 Years of Hope’. Over the next three years, Land Rover will support its initiatives in locations including India, Mexico and Australia.
Ilir Caushaj, IFRC’s team lead for Global Fleets and Logistics, told us: “The Red Cross supports millions of people in crisis every year, working in almost every country in the world. We operate in some of the most hard-to-reach places on earth, often working in very difficult terrain, so our teams have to be able to cope with anything. That’s why we’re proud to have partnered with Land Rover since 1954, and to be putting their new Defender to the test, as together they help us reach vulnerable communities in crisis, whoever and wherever in the world they are.”
The organisation’s fleet experts, who are based in Dubai, tested the Defender alongside Land Rover’s R&D personnel, in soft sand among the rolling dunes of the desert, where the prototype model is reported to have shrugged off the steep ascents, on demanding side slopes, traverses and blind crests that characterise all types of off-road driving in the region. With temperatures in excess of 40-degreesC, the iconic hairpins of the Jebel Jais highway became an inevitable destination, as the Defender demonstrated its on-road comfort and agile handling, scaling altitudes of nearly 2,000m.
In some ways, the new Defender is becoming more svelte in appearance, its lines being far less industrial/agricultural, as part of a bunch of measures intended to draw it more into line with other models in its broad 4x4 range. Some potential customers will find that a bitter pill to swallow, as they prefer the visible bolts and alloy panels of the original Defender, which made it easy to repair and maintain in tougher environments. Yet, other potential customers may appreciate the Discovery-like cleaner approach. Regardless, Land Rover will be praying for some form of redemption, even though it does not warrant it and even though the new car is rumoured to be priced from a base of around £45,000. Better late than never, the new Defender will make its long-awaited public launch this autumn and is sure to be a rip-snorting success…for some people at least.
So far, prototype models have covered more than 1.2 million kilometres of testing, including a week-long initiative with wildlife conservation charity Tusk, in Kenya, and a dynamic appearance on the famous hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. To view the Defender’s gruelling programme of testing, click on the following link: https://youtu.be/_9l0DbNgl2g.