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2014 Range Rover Sport (Land Rover)
2014 Range Rover Sport (Land Rover)

Brand development

The critics were wrong. Jaguar Land Rover is alive and well - and profitable Add to ...

My right foot is pinned to the floor, the left mashed against the brake pedal. Ahead is an empty runway that long ago, in what seems like a world far, far away, was home to Second World War Spitfires and Flying Fortresses. Then I’m off.

We’re doing a timed sprint in a 2014 V-6 supercharged Range Rover Sport. It seems a tad silly to engage in this kind of horseplay behind the wheel of a luxurious sport-utility vehicle, one that just an hour ago was door-sill deep in muddy water. But here I am, screaming down the runway.

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As we get to the end, my Land Rover-supplied driving nanny, Simon with the stopwatch, says, “Brake hard.” I do, the anti-lock system muscling me to a standstill – thump, thump, thump, thump. We stop like a peaceful jetliner. Fast. No muss, no fuss. The newest Range Rover can do the dragstrip dance like a Fast and Furious entry. Mission accomplished, if you’re the Land Rover side of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR).

Minutes later, after driving the same Range Rover Sport up and in and through and down and across an empty, ex-Cathay Pacific 747 cargo plane – I’m not kidding here – I am savouring chilled salmon and a carrot and wheat salad, mulling over my 36 hours with the latest Range Rover Sport and what it means for buyers, the auto business industry and England. This new Range Rover Sport is an exceptional bit of engineering, just as JLR has become an exceptional car company over this recent handful of terribly anxious years. Exceptional in that not only has JLR started to make cars and trucks worth noticing, but the company is doing so while growing and making bags of money.

Garel Rhys, emeritus professor of motor industry economics at Cardiff Business School in Wales, recently gushed to The Detroit News about Land Rover. Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW have strong sport-utilities and crossovers, but the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and LR4/Discovery are better, he said.

“In the case of the Land Rover model range, there’s nothing to touch it,” he said. “Not even the Germans have anything to touch the product offering. They are totally outgunned by Land Rover,” Rhys said, predicting that JLR as a whole could hit global sales of 650,000 by 2015 – and perhaps 900,000 by 2020.

This sort of talk was unfathomable five years ago. In 2008, Ford sold JLR to Tata for $2.3-billion (U.S.) and even then-chairman Ratan Tata has said that all the wise commentators thought he and his company were nuts. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 should have sealed JLR’s fate, if nothing else.

Yet here we are in 2013 and JLR is in the midst of a $2.4-billion (U.S.) a year investment program through 2017. New models and new engines are flying out of JLR’s factories faster than the public relations and marketing people can dream up new slogans, sales pitches and menus to feed hungry journos. Less than two years ago came the Range Rover Evoque compact SUV, then this year a totally new Range Rover luxury SUV. The sexy Jaguar F-type two-seater is just hitting showrooms now, Europeans are getting a Jaguar XF station wagon (the Sportbrake) and this brings us to the Range Rover Sport heading to dealers right now.

Make no mistake, this is not the sort of tale we hear in England these days. Here in the 21st century, the profitable manufacturing of durable goods is an exceptional enterprise in the United Kingdom. Exceptional in that it’s the exception, not the rule. As the cruel, taunting Raoul Silva (played by Oscar-winner Javier Bardem) says in the latest James Bond film Skyfall, “England, the Empire, MI-6 ... You’re living in a ruin. It’s over. Finished. What are you doing clinging to this notion of nation?”

Our man 007 (played compassionately and deliciously by Daniel Craig) is bent but not broken in the 23rd Bond film directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame. By the end, this Bond’s inner demons have been exorcised, Silva is dead and there is a future for what we can call a resurrected secret agent and the troubled agency for which he works. Some might say the same is happening at JLR. The company’s British Leyland/BMW/Ford baggage has been jettisoned. If you, like me, suspected that JLR was finished after Ford sold it in 2008, this is a head-slapper.

Particularly so in industrial England. The country that invented the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century is now an industrial ruin and there are no British-owned car companies of any size left. JLR, however, is on the rise. Now owned by India’s Tata conglomerate, it is very much British-based and the company’s stunning turnaround has been engineered in the U.K.

Stunning. Truly, there is no other word to describe what’s happening at JLR. The BBC just reported that pre-tax annual profits at the Coventry-based vehicle maker rose 11 per cent to £1.67-billion ($2.67-billion Canadian). Total world sales at JLR were up 22 per cent to almost 375,000 vehicles. The Telegraph reports that in the last year alone, JLR added 3,000 new jobs while, over the last two years, the company has added 9,000 in total – with another 1,400 jobs “on the cards” when a new engine factory opens at the end of next year. JLR now employs about 25,000 people, all but 1,000 of them in the U.K.

Most importantly for consumers of Jags and Rovers, quality is on the rise. Finally, after years and years of substandard scores on any number of durability and reliability measures. The latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study has Jaguar ranked No. 9 overall, ahead of Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Cadillac, Lincoln, and BMW. The Land Rover brand, ranked at the bottom or near the bottom almost forever, came close to an average score – which represents a monumental achievement.

Engineers like Stuart Frith, chief of the Range Rover Sport for the last two generations and a veteran of the company for nearly three decades, openly talk about growth and the future with a confidence that is staggering to behold. He can’t dig into future product plants, but there is no shortage of detail out there in the news-sphere.

China is a priority, with a new factory surely coming now that JLR has a tie-up with Chery. JLR already has what you might call a kit-car operation in India and production surely will expand there, too. The Detroit News reports that a smaller Jaguar sedan probably called the Q-Type is coming in the next few years. It will go head-to-head with the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Something with the working title “Range Rover Grand Evoque” is a possibility, while in 2019 Land Rover will unveil a new version of its traditional Defender workhorse. Edmunds.com reports that diesel hybrid versions of the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport are coming in 2014 – and will likely be unveiled this September at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

“Jaguar Land Rover is putting in place a very good strategy. It also seems to have a good owner (Tata) this time, although Ford did a good job for a while. It’s clear that Tata is really committed to this and they want to be a big player in the global market,” Rhys told The News.

A ruin? Tosh. A decade from now, we might be talking about how JLR proved to be the ruin of those German car companies now strutting on top of the premium car world. If JLR can rise from the rubble in such a way as this, anything is certainly possible.

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