HOW RANGE ROVER BECOME A STATUS SUV

One of the most respected and coveted names in the world of off-roading vehicles is the Range Rover. They sport a strong outdoor heritage, luxurious interiors and widely acclaimed designs. The Range Rover name has gone from being a single model within the portfolio of parent Land Rover to a full line-up of vehicles, a brand in its own right.

Some in the industry say Range Rover might be more recognizable than Land Rover itself, which makes other sport utility vehicles such as the Discovery and the highly respected Defender. From a brand perspective I think Range Rover is the brand. I think it has much more notoriety than even Land Rover does. Range Rovers are equally at home in the wilderness as they are in the streets of London, New York or Dubai, and have been favored by the British royal family and Kim Kardashian.

The Range Rover combines capability with luxury. They have been so successful at this pairing that Range Rovers are more likely to be bought as prestige vehicles than what they were originally meant for. All of this has earned Range Rover and by association, Land Rover, an enviable place in the automotive market. This is fortunate for its owners, the Jaguar Land Rover group and its parent, India’s Tata Motors, which have seen their fair share of struggles in recent years.

Land Rover sold 368,066 units in the fiscal year spanning 2019 and 2020, compared with 140,593 Jaguar vehicles. Out of the seven models Land Rover sells, four are grouped under the Range Rover sub-brand and sales of the original Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport, Velar and the Evoqua together comprised 70 percent of Land Rover’s sales.

The Range Rover name has exceptional power earned for it by an extraordinary product. But its rivals are growing more numerous and more formidable every year.

RANGE ROVER HISTORY

Range Rover began as a secret project within Land Rover in the late 1960s. The original Range Rover prototypes, of which there were 26, were given the code name Velar from the Italian word “velare” which means to veil or cover. The company had the idea of taking the products in a little bit of a different direction, and they identified a more upmarket version of a Land Rover that they thought would appeal to the aristocracy, the landowners, or you know, the people who had country homes, who had land.

The Range Rover was introduced in 1970. It came with two side doors and a hatch on the back and was the first vehicle to feature Land Rovers permanent four-wheel drive system. A four-door version came out in 1981. The first-generation vehicle was a critical success. Early versions were comfortable and capable, but tended to be rugged and simple, with a lot of washable vinyl and plastic in the interiors.

What made the Range Rover special for SUVs of its time was an excellent performance, both off-road and on-road. The vehicle completed an unprecedented 18,000-mile trek from Anchorage, Alaska, to the southern tip of the Tierra del Fuego in South America, another trek 7,500 miles across the Sahara Desert and a modified version one the first Paris-Dakar rally race in 1979.

The second-generation Range Rover, which debuted in 1994 was a luxury upgrade over its predecessor, taking a bigger step toward the fancy mall prowling Range Rovers of today. Notably, this was the generation that swapped out the circular headlamps for rectangular ones, a design that stuck. In the mid-1990s Land Rover also introduced its autobiography Design Service, which allowed buyers to customize interiors with top shelf materials.

In 1994, the German luxury and performance automaker BMW bought the Rover Group, a family of British vehicle brands that owned Land Rover at the time. The third generation Range Rover, designed during this time with heavy input from BMW, moved the vehicle even further upmarket. Range Rover became a larger unibody vehicle, meaning the chassis and the body of the vehicle were fused together to form one piece.

The interior was luxurious, taking cues from high-end yachts and first-class airline cabins. BMW owned Range Rover for a really small amount of time, just a blink of the eye in terms of the auto industry, and they transformed it into the brand that we know it today. The one that, you know, you hear about it in songs and in pop culture so much it kind of took the industry by storm.

By 2000, Land Rover was split off from the Rover group and sold by BMW to Ford Motor Company, where it would become part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, that also included Aston Martin, Volvo and Jaguar, along with long time premium Ford brands Lincoln and Mercury.

2005 brought the Range Rover Sport. It gave prospective buyers a speedier variety, with its supercharged 4.2 liter engine. Cross-linked air suspension allowed drivers to raise and lower the vehicle on its wheels, giving them greater ground clearance off road or a lower center of gravity for better handling on road. Ford eventually sold Land Rover along with Jaguar to India’s Tata Motors in 2008 for $2.3 billion.

We’ve been through quite a few ownership changes over the years and with those ownership changes has come opportunity and opportunity has really fed into our ability to do the right things for the products, and move it on the way we want to move it on. Range Rover expanded its line-up yet again with the Evoqua in 2011 as the smallest Range Rover model available.

The compact SUV was critically acclaimed and allowed buyers to get into a Range Rover at a much lower price than they would have to pay for the flagship. With the fourth generation Range Rover adopted an aluminium body, a move that Ford would also later make with its bestselling F-150 full sized pickup truck. Using lightweight aluminium gave the vehicle better fuel economy.

We’re on the fourth generation now and the current one for sales. Perspective is by far the most successful one that we’ve built. Land Rover out did this fuel efficiency effort by introducing a hybrid the following year.

THE NEW PRESTIGE VEHICLE

As it developed, Range Rover transformed from a go-anywhere, do anything workhorse to a rolling status symbol. The transformation exemplified a larger shift in the automotive market in the United States and increasingly outside of it. Decades ago, off-road vehicles were tools.

Pickup trucks usually came with two doors and only one row of seats. Jeeps and other sport utilities were functional and capable of surmounting obstacles, but often came with a harsh ride, poorly insulated cabins and few creature comforts. These were vehicles for getting a job done, not for cruising. If you wanted to do that, you got a sedan or maybe an eye-catching sports car. But somewhere along the way, rich drivers started favoring pricey SUVs to ride and comfort and flaunt their wealth. And the Range Rover was the defining vehicle of this shift.

There were very few high-end SUVs at the time. I mean, you had a Navigator and Escalade and those kind of capped out at a certain price. And now you sort of develop the high end, the sort of super premium level SUV, which really didn’t exist prior to Range Rover. It has maintained this cachet and become something of a pop culture icon itself. And Range Rovers sell at very high prices. Land Rover has some of the highest transaction prices of any brand on the market.

A fully options Range Rover Autobiography can easily top $200,000. That does not seem to slow down sales, however. Range Rover sales in the US grew from about 8,746 units in 2010 to a peak of 19,030 units in 2018. They have fallen a bit since then, but so have auto sales in the U.S. overall.

A BIT OF SKEPTICISM

The often-sky-high prices have perplexed many people. In terms of capability, Range Rovers are up there with other off-road juggernauts like the Mercedes G -class, the Jeep Wrangler, the Toyota Land Cruiser and 4runner, and perhaps in some ways also a growing set of off-road ready pickups such as the Ford Raptor, Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, and the RAM Rebel Power Wagon and TRX. But the Range Rovers eye toward luxury shows and its price tag.

Newer Range Rover name bearing siblings start at above average but still attainable prices. The 2020 Evoqua starts at a relatively modest price around $43,000, which is several thousand dollars higher than the average transaction price of $37,000. But it looks downright cheap compared to the top prices for the main Range Rover model. But buyers who want the flagship model that made the Range Rover name what it is will pay at least $92,000 for the 2021 model year.

The price goes up from there and it can really go up. To be fair, plenty of other off-roaders are not exactly cheap. The Land Cruiser also starts around $90,000 and there are many, many other premium SUVs now on the market from Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and even Lamborghini and Aston Martin. But Land Rover is a name with a rugged outdoor heritage.

This is the classic British bush vehicle meant for barrelling across the African savannah, creeping through jungles and rainforests, fording rivers and climbing over rock formations. Vehicles like that are meant for taking a beating, for enduring harsh conditions, for getting scratches on their paint jobs. Who can really afford to beat up a vehicle with a six-figure price tag?

Range Rovers retain that original DNA of Land Rover, and they still can go anywhere, even if consumers don’t ever get to experience it. If they did, they would be really impressed at what their vehicle could do off road. The contrast between the sheer capability of the Range Rover and the way in which it is typically used has at times made it the butt of a few jokes. Like similar SUVs favored by well-heeled buyers who almost never drive off pavement.

Range Rovers have been called names such as “mall crawlers” and “soft-roaders.” Though it was always intended as an upmarket vehicle. Range Rovers transformation from country going 4X4 to an ever more luxurious coach has brought some criticism. The engineer who designed the original Range Rover, Charles Spencer King, said in 2004 that the Range Rover was never intended as a status symbol.

I find the people who use it as such deeply unattractive, he said. “Sadly, the 4X4 has become an alternative to a Mercedes or BMW. For the pompous, self-important driver.” Land Rovers are all about fantastic design and fantastic capability. That’s the recipe that works for us. And that’s what we found that’s really built a loyal clientele and people coming back time and time again. And it appeals to an upper end buyer who may not take you off road. But equally, if they choose to do so, it’s perfectly quick for them to do that.

Of course, now Mercedes and BMW are also selling luxury SUVs that compete in similar sized segments. If there’s one other reservation a buyer might have about a Range Rover. It’s that the Land Rover brand name does not have a sterling reputation for reliability. For example, Land Rover ranks lowest on J.D. Power’s dependability survey. Days gone by, there have certainly been quality issues with our cars and we’ve worked to resolve those.

There’s always a story, but big picture it’s very important to us and we’ll continue to work exceptionally hard to keep making our products better.

AN INDISPENSABLE PRODUCT

In 2020, the Range Rover has been overshadowed a bit by the revival of The Defender, a product much of the automotive world has been anticipating. Defender, in its original form, represented the ultimate civilian off-roading machine for countless admirers. Land Rovers other product line is the Discovery.

On average, lower priced pair of sport utilities the company markets as vehicles more intended as functional off-roaders and family cars. Still nice, but not quite at the same level of luxury as the Range Rover. But the Range Rover sub-brand is Land Rover’s biggest product line. Four out of Land Rovers, seven models bear the Range Rover name, and together they comprised 70 percent of all Land Rovers sold in the fiscal year ending in March 2020. And the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, the two most expensive models, make up 70 percent of sales in the Range Rover line-up. In fact, the biggest, most expensive model is the top seller, and it is unusual for a brand’s Halo vehicle to also be its most popular.

That makes Range Rover a crown jewel within a crown jewel. When they added Sport, and called it Range Rover Sport. I know those of us in the industry kind of scratch our heads and we’re like, well, that’s confusing. Well, then they rounded out and kept adding more and more models to it. Now they’ve got this sort of sub-brand that is clearly identified. And in some cases, you could say that the sub-brand is actually bigger than the brand itself, I mean, very few people that would own a Range Rover would say, “I have a Land Rover,” whereas you might say you have a foreigner, you have a Chevrolet. Land Rover is part of the Jaguar Land Rover group, which is partly named for Jaguar, another British brand with a very strong heritage, but one that has had some trouble adapting to a changing global market.

While Land Rover has been well positioned for the broader shift to SUVs, Jaguar, historically known as a maker of luxurious and high-performing sedans and sports cars, has struggled. In recent years, Jaguar has tried to carve out its own niche in the sport utility market by focusing on street performance and by being the first of the JLR brands to launch a fully electric vehicle.

Electrification is coming to Land Rover as well though. There are plug-in versions of both the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport and Land Rover plans to electrify its entire line-up. Developing electric vehicle tech is expensive, and Jaguar Land Rover will need help from its parent, India’s Tata Motors. Fortunately, Land Rover is a brand Tata Motors needs as well. In 2020, an analyst from CLSA said Tata Motors was worth nothing without the Jaguar Land Rover brand, which is itself heavily dependent on Land Rover for volume and profitability.

For now, Range Rover seems to have few true competitors. I don’t think anyone had as much brand recognition in this space as a Range Rover did. And of course, everyone is wanting to build out an SUV model that is ultra-luxury, that is very expensive, but not everyone is necessarily going to succeed.

So I think kind of being one of the first people to the party is helping them out there, because it seems like the original and the original was always a good place to be. And I think that’s why we’ve seen a lot of success with, you know, the Mercedes G-Wagon as well. The auto market, in the U.S. and increasingly elsewhere, is still shifting towards sport utility vehicles and toward higher priced vehicles.

Brands such as Porsche, Lamborghini and Aston Martin are all making sport utilities, something that would have been once unthinkable for brands synonymous with sports cars. But SUVs are where the buyers are. To be in all SUV brand in a time when SUV mix is over 50 percent of the industry and that’s all consumers seem to want, has really worked out in Land Rover’s favor.

That means that the rarefied air Range Rover occupies could soon see some new entries that chip away at its market share. And if that happens, many more dominoes could begin to fall. But Range Rover does have something a lot of rivals don’t, a strong brand heritage. There’s not a lot around it for it to really draw consumers away from. So maybe there’s a risk of fatigue. But I got to be honest, it’s really not materializing with the way consumers are behaving. So it could continue to be the high-end SUV of choice for quite some time.

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