We all embrace underdog stories: the once down-and-out Rocky going 15 rounds with the formidable Apollo Creed; a dyslexic Rudy gaining admission to Notre Dame, finally making the football squad and then on the final play against Georgia Tech, getting a sack to the roar of the crowd; the undersized and knobby-kneed Seabiscuit going head-to-head against the powerful War Admiral, winning in an upset and being named Horse of the Year.
To the list, let's add Tata Motors' Jaguar Land Rover unit.
"It's been like working for a start-up," says Jaguar Land Rover Canada president Lindsay Duffield, who came on board in 2010, at a time when JLR was no sure thing.
Two years earlier in 2008, Ford had sold JLR to Tata, cutting adrift its British luxury brands after losing billions and billions on investments that never panned out. With Ford leaving, says Duffield, JLR lost the purchasing weight of a world motoring powerhouse. Worse, Ford took with it all the internal processes that lay behind the scenes of big auto makers – and much expertise in electronics, safety and manufacturing engineering. It was devastating. But over these past four years, bit by bit, JLR has reinvented itself. And that journey continues even as the world staggers along during this tepid comeback from the great financial crisis and devastating recession of 2008-2009.
Yes, Rocky, Rudy and Seabiscuit have nothing on JLR. The final chapter, the happy ending has yet to be written, of course, but we do know the company is profitable and is in the early stages of the biggest product overhaul and new-model launch in the company's history.
On the Land Rover side of the business, there is a new Range Rover for 2013, the first total redesign of the brand's flagship model since BMW paid the bills back in the early part of the last decade. Meanwhile, the affordable LR2 has been given a new engine and a new interior and, in Canada, a less-than-$40,000 price tag. This is happening while the LR4 is only a year into its redesign and selling well, and the Evoque has proven to be a global hit in its very first year.
On the Jaguar side, the changes are equally dramatic. The XF and XJ are available with all-wheel-drive for the first time. Jaguar is also stuffing supercharged 340-horsepower V-6 engines into the XF and XJ and a turbocharged 240-hp engine will be available in the XF. All XF and XJ models will get a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission and, to further help with fleet-wide fuel economy, some XF and XJ models will get an automatic stop/start system. Next spring, the F-Type roadster will arrive to compete against the likes of the Boxster.
Of course, there have been setbacks, too, in the last year. The Evoque was handily out-pointed by the rival BMW X3 in a head-to-head matchup conducted by Consumer Reports. The Evoque received a total score of 60 to the X3's 80 in CR's road test. "With its unique styling, the new Evoque turns heads, but it has many shortcomings, including a cramped cabin, stiff ride, artificial-feeling steering, and troubling emergency handling," the publication said.
That result hasn't slowed sales, however. Land Rover's global sales are up a stunning 41 per cent this year and factories in England are running flat-out – including 24/7 production at the company's Halewood plant to meet demand for the Evoque. Earlier this year, JLR announced a £370-million ($592-miillion) plan to upgrade its manufacturing facilities in the United Kingdom in anticipation of the on-sale date of the fourth-generation Range Rover.
And almost shockingly, JLR is making money. Last month, Jaguar Land Rover, notes just-auto.com, reported a before-tax profit of £431-million in the second quarter for a 100 per cent increase on the same period last year. JLR sales worldwide were up 29 per cent in the second quarter (84,749 vehicles in total). On top of that, reports just-auto.com, JLR claims to invest more in research and development than anyone else in the U.K. automotive sector, "and ranks in the top 10 across all sectors of the British economy."
To think that a mere four years ago Tata was being panned for taking the troubled JLR from Ford, itself in the early stages of a recovery and transformation. Ratan Tata, who retires as chairman this month, recently told Automotive News that critics at the time were saying: "You stupid people who would go and acquire this company that is already struggling and you will bankrupt your entire group as a result. It looked a little scary at that time. But it's completely changed. People are not saying we are smart, but they aren't saying we are stupid, either."
The truth is, JLR is spinning off cash to fund growth. JLR will move into new premium segments, he says, but don't look for a return of a car along the lines of disastrous X-Type – a rebadged Ford Mondeo that spent years as the butt of jokes before the car was finally, mercifully cancelled. Jaguar will not sell any car that does not look, feel and drive like a premium car – "not the kind of car that he would get in a Hertz rental car," Tata told the industry publication.
For Jaguar to be successful, says Duffield, its cars must "communicate emotion … to hit on some of the heartstrings. It is a passionate and aspirational brand, and we have an incredible DNA and heritage. We want to bring them to life."
Still, by adding AWD to its lineup, Jaguar is also taking a practical move. "The new all-wheel-drive products are another example of how we are taking the Jaguar business forward," adds Duffield, noting AWD will not necessarily be popular in warm-weather climates, but in a market like Canada, it's almost essential.
More importantly than AWD is getting out the message about Jaguar's quality, says Duffield. Jaguar does not enjoy a Lexus-like reputation for durability and reliability, he concedes, but in the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, Jaguar was ranked No. 2. He concedes, "It will take time to change misperceptions," but Jaguar has a quality story to tell.
At Land Rover, however, quality issues continue to bedevil the brand. In that same IQS, Land Rover ranked seventh from the bottom. The reinvented Range Rover, say company types, should help address some of those quality woes that have plagued Land Rover for years. Here's what is certain: the outgoing Range Rover was a BMW design that JLR updated over the years. This 2013 Range Rover has been invented in-house; JLR owns any quality issues, then.
Of course, no one at JLR expects anything but the best from the new Land Rover and the rest of the lineup. Brand director John Edwards expects the 2013 Range Rover to silence the critics, in fact.
"The reaction to the car has been phenomenal," he told just-auto.com in November. "It really demonstrates how we have rediscovered our self-belief. Three years ago, Land Rover was selling around 150,000 vehicles a year and now we are up to 300,000 and there is potential for more." Among the "more:" A hybrid Range Rover is scheduled for late next year.
Back when Ford dumped JLR on Tata, the idea of a hybrid Range Rover seemed utterly fanciful for a company that didn't even have a proper purchasing process in place, much less high-tech electronics. Underdog? Perhaps not any more.