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Range Rover Evoque (Land Rover)
Range Rover Evoque (Land Rover)

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Land Rover wants you to think British for your next luxury ride Add to ...

Simon and Shelley are exactly the sort of customers Land Rover wants to reel in with the new Range Rover Evoque: thirtysomething professionals, no kids, their best earning years ahead.

Shelley is an accountant who specializes in international tax matters. Simon is an IT consultant. Married last fall, they plan to buy a new vehicle later this year and at the top of their list is - wait for it - the BMW X3.

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Yes, they've been toying with the idea of a Land Rover and because they live in the British Midlands less than an hour's drive from Land Rover's headquarters in Solihull, their decision-making is tinged with just a hint of patriotic flavour. But flag-waving goes only so far.

Over dinner last week, they told me they would like to see good-paying Land Rover jobs stay in Britain, but they won't buy a vehicle or even a toaster simply because it's made in the United Kingdom - where, by the way, JLR employs more than 15,000 people. That said, they like the look of what Land Rover is doing now to reinvent the company. What worries them is the brand's quality history.

Indeed, in North America the Land Rover brand finished dead last in the latest J.D. Power and Associates three-year Vehicle Dependability Study. Dead last for a brand that in Canada sells $112,200 supercharged Range Rovers, $59,900 LR4s and $44,900 LR2s.

That's the bad news. The good news, at least from Land Rover's perspective, is that the brand in Canada finished seventh among luxury brands for resale value in the 2011 ALG Retained Value Awards. Land Rover actually came out ahead of such powerhouse brands as Lexus and Porsche.

Sales are strong, too. Land Rover Canada in March saw sales jump 18.8 per cent, while Jaguar Canada sales were up 7.7 per cent. In the United Kingdom, more Land Rovers were sold in March than in any month in the history of the 63-year-old company: 11,400 snapped up, beating the previous record of 11,300 set last year.

Despite their reservations, Shelley and Simon put Land Rover back on their shopping list in the wake of JLR's dramatic recovery since the recession. They might have opposed JLR seeking help from the former Labour government here in Britain, but now they see a future at JLR. So does Phil Popham.

The group sales operations director told the BBC last week: "Despite a challenging business environment, Jaguar Land Rover is flourishing on a global scale with March sales reflecting the confidence consumers have in our brands and products.

"We have ambitious plans to grow our business and it is clear that there is a strong appetite in the market for exciting new products, power trains and technologies which will further improve our penetration in key markets and segments."

The big news today and for the coming months at Land Rover is the Range Rover Evoque. The headline writers in Britain last week went gaga over the announcement of an entry-level price of £27,955 ($43,750) for the starter Evoque, with the sticker ranging up to £44,320 ($69,370).

For Canada, well, JLR Canada president Lindsay Duffield won't pin an exact price on the car-based Evoque, which hits showrooms this September. Not yet. But he suggests the first models for sale in Canada will be well equipped all-wheel-drive Evoques in the range of about $50,000.

We'll only get AWD Evoques, in fact, even though a front-drive version will be sold elsewhere. And the only engine choice for Canada will be the 240-horsepower, direct-injection, turbocharged four-cylinder bought from former owner Ford. No diesel-powered Evoques for Canada. And no stripped-down loss leaders, either. JLR, says Duffield, is focused on long-term, utterly sustainable growth and that explains the pared-down Canadian lineup. That said, he expects to sell several thousand Evoques a year. If so, Land Rover Canada could sell perhaps 4,000 vehicles in 2011, with JLR Canada overall topping 5,000 units, perhaps more. 

Duffield argues JLR is transforming into an entirely new company.

"It almost feels like a startup to me," says Duffield, the former CEO of BMW Group Canada who joined JLR late last year. Where BMW is the world's largest premium car maker and has been highly profitable for years with a brand identity to die for, JLR while on the growth trail now was on life support when Tata Group took over in mid-2008, having paid Ford $2.3-billion (U.S.) for the privilege.

At the time, Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata made it clear he was in this for the long haul.

"Our plan is to retain the image, the touch, and the feel of Jaguar and Land Rover," Tata told reporters at the 2008 Geneva auto show. "We will not tinker with the brands in any way. They are special global brands and whoever acquires them has a responsibility to nurture them and enable them to prosper."

Three years later, he's been true to those words. Tata could have sliced and diced JLR, particularly during the darkest days of the recession. But Tata chose to stay the course during rough times when the world was on the verge of an economic meltdown.

For Tata, that meant continued investment in new models, particularly the Evoque. The newest Land Rover is intended to shift the brand's image from ruggedly luxurious to fashionably conscious. Its gas-guzzling SUVs may be at the core of the business now, but the Evoque is proof of change at Land Rover.

Between now and launch day and beyond, Land Rover and Jaguar will push ahead with what can only be called a dramatic revival. Sales of both brands are strong, revenues are up, profits are up and JLR has scrapped plans to close one of its U.K. plants. The British press is speculating JLR could make a £1-billion profit in the year to March 31, with even richer returns to come.

At least that's the plan being crafted by JLR CEO Carl Peter Forster and his team. Forster, the former head of General Motors in Europe and before that a BMW executive, has said JLR is looking at many growth opportunities.

"Jaguar currently sells a third of what Land Rover sells, but we will fix that," he recently told The Times. "We want to direct Jaguar into a more sporty ... forward-looking brand."

Forster said the Evoque is just one piece of a "10-year project" crafted to guide JLR's growth. Beyond the Evoque and its derivatives, Jaguar is likely to expand to a five-model range, including a small sports car and a small sedan.

"It must be a goal to have a smaller car," he said. "But it must live up to the brand values."

JLF, he said, is also looking closely at making a production version of the CX-75 electric concept car unveiled as last fall's Paris Motor Show. The car is powered by turbine jets and capable of top speeds of more than 300 km/h.

The CX-75 has been a thundering hit on the auto show circuit. Simon and Shelley say it, in fact, had an impact on their thinking about Jaguar and by extension, Land Rover. Some might argue, perhaps even Forster himself, that such a change in attitude among target buyers suggests the company is well on its way to challenging the established German premium brands - BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi.

The eventual goal, JLR types argue, is to fashion JLR into the "other" premium manufacturer, the one from Britain, not Germany.

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