Tata-owned premium car maker Jaguar Land Rover is adding, this year, another model to the Range Rover sub-brand’s range – the Velar. Hilton Holloway, editor of ‘5054’ magazine, reflects on the thinking behind the latest Range Rover luxury car and the values of the brand.
It’s a measure of the inertia of the post-1960s British car industry that, of the Range Rover brand’s 47 years on earth, 24 of them were spent with just a single model in the showroom.
The original Range Rover was only available in the three-door form until 1981. It took 11 years for an official five-door model to appear, even though aftermarket companies had been building them.
It took 12 years for an autobox option to be offered, 14 years for what passed as a ‘luxury’ version and 15 years from launch for the option of fuel injection. The much needed long-wheelbase Range Rover didn’t appear until 1992, along with an unexpected burst of sophistication thanks to the option of air suspension. Incredibly, the original Range Rover didn’t end production until 1995, a year after the BMW take-over.
It was only two years after the 2002 launch of the BMW-engineered Range Rover 3 that Range Rover started to turn into a brand. A brand that’s now so successful that of the 583,313 cars sold in 2016, nearly 45 percent of them wore a Range Rover badge.
The 2004 Range Rover Sport was the second model line and was a most unlikely idea – a sporting Range Rover – but one that became immensely profitable and controversial at the same time.
The speed, size and presence of this car – and others like it – was beginning to be seen as a provocation by political activists who had decided the modern premium SUV did not belong in the city.
Which is where the influence of the female driver/buyer comes in. The Land Rover Discovery 3 – sister car to the Sport – was, perhaps, the first Brutalist road vehicle. The uncompromising sheerness of its exterior and big windows made it – depending on your view – something of an iconic design or a pseudo-military vehicle which was deeply inappropriate for the school run.
The campaign against SUVs gained traction in London – where else? – when political campaigner Sian Berry (now the Leader of the Green Party at the Greater London Assembly) founded the ‘Urban Alliance Against 4x4s’ in the Camden area of north London.
Piqued by the popularity of SUVs such as the Sport, BMW X5 and Discovery for the school run – and no doubt the exhibition of wealth and conspicuous consumption – she pioneered the issuing of fake parking tickets marked ‘Poor Vehicle Choice’.
The Urban Alliance’s website is still live, reminding us of its intentions. ‘The mission of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s is to inform and unite groups of concerned citizens across the United Kingdom against the growing presence of 4×4 vehicles in urban areas.’ Aside from a predictable increase in taxes it also wanted SUV advertising to be banned from the mainstream media.
Land Rover saw the impact of the campaign. Many middle class metropolitan mothers were rattled by being on the wrong side of this Green-hued trend. In turn, Land Rover was rattled as the campaign had some impact on sales. Indeed, in 2005 Greepeace activists broke into the Land Rover factory at Solihull and stopped the production lines.
According to The New York Times’ obituary for Spen King even he, the steely-minded engineer behind the creation of the original Range Rover, was distressed by what had happened to the off-roader he created for the motorway age.
‘Sadly, the 4×4 has become an acceptable alternative to Mercedes or BMW for the pompous, self-important driver. To use them for the school run, or even in cities or towns at all, is completely stupid’ he is quoted as saying in 2004.
Where Berry’s campaign was especially effective is that ended up targeting mainly female drivers. Today, many in the motor industry believe that women have an influence on 75% of new car sales. Where the purchase is not by a woman driver, they also seen to have a heavy influence as a wife or girlfriend. You lose the female vote at your peril.
Which is why you can probably claim that the tiny (just 4.3m long, barely bigger than a VW Golf) Range Rover Evoque was directly inspired by that Sian Berry campaign. Sized for city, and wildly successful, the Evoque – born of the 2008 LRX concept – was a clever way of selling a beautifully-turned and high-margin SUV to the urban, and often female, elites.
Which brings us to the new Velar. After the Green backlash against the SUV subsided into the global recession, Range Rover has headed even further upmarket. Today’s land yachts are even more substantial and show-stopping than their predecessors. We have looped back to 2004, when bigger was better but also vulnerable to a change in the political weather.
The Velar slots neatly into the gaping showroom hole between the tiny Evoque and the muscular Sport. It is actually the same length as the Sport, but significantly lower and styled to have a significantly less aggressive pavement-side impact. While Land Rover’s design department is careful not to sex the Velar, it is, says design boss McGovern, unashamedly for the urban jungle.
The key to the exterior treatment is the luminosity of the very fine body surfacing, which ensures the Velar’s impact comes from polished beauty rather than elegant beastliness. Superfluous details such as bonnet vents and blocky sill extensions have been massaged away. The door handles retract flush into the door skin. The longer tail and rear overhang and low-roof are said to be direct nods to the form of the original Range Rover.
This ‘reductive’ philosophy is expressed more clearly inside, which has taken the form and constructional detailing of the iPhone and translated it into a premium automotive cabin. A dash-mounted touchscreen flows into a touchscreen centre stack, whose inky blackness is troubled only by a pair of thin-rimmed dials.
This is technology supplied by Panasonic and its adoption here makes the button-heavy interiors of rivals such as Porsche look distinctly dated. The whole cabin has been designed to look both simple and sophisticated and yet it is constructed in such as way that the tight shut lines between the volumes and tasteful brightwork give a strong impression of quality.
There’s one interesting option which says, to me at least, that the high fashion world has been consulted. Land Rover is flagging up an new high-end trim option for the Velar that isn’t leather.
Amy Frascella, head of colour and materials, was quoted in the Telegraph newspaper as saying this new material is a hedge against the shifting climate of high-end opinion.
‘I think it’s the right thing to do for our customers in terms of curator choice and the changing climate – I mean that literally and figuratively’ she said, adding that the ‘definition of luxury materials is changing and what customers value in the products they buy is changing as well. We had to be ready for that.’
As she didn’t quite say, leather and the production chain needed for its mass use in premium vehicles, could become a toxic issue in a matter of months with the right kind of celebrity involvement and media coverage. If it did, Range Rover is ready with an alternative.
I’m sure that that the experience of Sian Berry’s Urban Alliance and Greenpeace’s actions are still lodged in the back of the company’s corporate mind whose effect, 12 years later, would be super-supercharged by global social media.
The Velar demonstrates that the affluent still crave ultra-luxury and will pay handsomely for it, but they now want to modulate its public expression, especially in the city. Capturing upmarket female buyers, especially, also requires careful thought about the shifting of the ‘a la mode’ sands.
Perhaps like some kind of huge Aston Martin, the Velar should seduce and draw in observers with its beauty, rather than force an impression by sheer scale.
This article first appeared in the magazine ‘5054’. Its mission is to cover ‘automotive culture’ and re-think the idea of a ‘motoring magazine’. Magazine founder and editor Hilton Holloway says the ‘culture’ part of the publication’s mission is to investigate the wider world and wider impact of the automotive world. And why 5054? It’s the serial number of the Spitfire prototype that first flew in 1936. ‘Automotive might mean most things with an engine. And engines mean engineering.’