Land
Rover should be on a roll in the US now that it is finally launching the Freelander
SUV in the US, three years after it went on sale in Europe, writes John Rettie.

Better late than never. Land Rover is allowing buyers to pre-order the car
via a unique web site where they can configure a Freelander and have it built
to their specifications for delivery in December when the vehicle goes on sale
in the US and Canada.

As part of the massive pre-launch publicity for the vehicle, Land Rover invited
over 50 US and Canadian journalists to Iceland last week to show off the vehicle’s
prowess on dirt roads and across a slippery windswept glacier.

“It’s a hugely important launch for Land Rover as North America is
the most important market,” said Land Rover chairman and CEO Bob Dover.
Iceland was chosen for the launch venue to emphasise the vehicle’s strategic
position bridging the link between Europe and North America.

It’s certainly great news for Land Rover workers in Solihull who will
see Freelander production increase by 25% to 100,000 units in 2002 just because
of the 20,000 vehicles that will be sold in North America.

The Freelander joins a crowded marketplace in the land of SUVs. Although it
might be going head to head against the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, it is
the first premium European sport utility, which gives it some cachet.

For starters it will only be available with a 2.5-litre petrol V6 engine, sport
shift automatic transmission, four-wheel drive, hill descent control and traction
control. The CRV and the RAV 4 on the other hand are offered in both 2WD and
4WD forms but come only with four-cylinder engines.

In Europe the Freelander is the top selling SUV, easily outselling these two
vehicles but it’s going to be impossible for Land Rover to beat them in
the US, where the CR-V and RAV4 each sell four to six times the Freelander’s
projected volume each year.

Nevertheless, ever since the Range Rover first went on sale in the US in 1986,
Land Rover has managed to maintain a strong position at the luxury SUV end of
the marketplace, which will help Freelander.

The Freelander S will retail in the US for $24,975, the SE for $27,795 and
$31,575 for the HSE model, a price range which is more than $5,000 above that
of a comparably equipped CR-V or RAV4.

According to Land Rover, current US owners of Range Rovers have Mercedes-Benz,
BMW and Porsche as garage mates. It sees Freelander appealing to those who appreciate
European vehicles and are willing to pay more for European handling and panache.

Land Rover’s latest publicity coup only added to its image of toughness.
A few weeks ago, a Range Rover Classic was stolen from a woman in Los Angeles
and a lengthy high-speed police chase ensued.

As usual, it was captured live on the many LA area TV stations yet its finish
was different from usual – the police laid down a spike strip on the freeway
and the tyres were blown out. Yet the 17-year old driver managed to keep going
for another 12 miles on the Range Rover’s rims, stopping only when the front
wheel was worn down to the hub. It amazed the police how long the Range Rover
kept going.

According to Land Rover officials, the publicity generated 10 extra Range Rover
sales the next day in LA as a result of the free publicity and the woman’s local
Land Rover retailer gave her an identical Range Rover in exchange for the damaged
vehicle which was kept for publicity. In the car chase capital of the world
this sort of publicity is priceless!

So the future bodes well for Land Rover North America just as it joins its
fellow Brit marques in Ford’s Premium Automotive Group to form ASTON Martin
Land Rover Jaguar in the US. It means there will be more dealerships added to
the current 136 Land Rover retailers as only about 20% are currently dual-franchise
outlets with Jaguar.

Dover believes that the synergies between Jaguar and Land Rover reach beyond
the States, as many owners in England already own a Jaguar and a Range Rover.
He points out that the newest dealer in Holland also sells Jaguar and Aston
Martins.

Land Rover says that Ford has had a major impact on quality since it took over
ownership and only 10% of vehicles need some fixing at the end of the production
line. Officials like to point out that Jaguar’s quality has improved enormously
since Ford’s influence began and that the same thing is already happening
with Land Rover.

Even if there is a downturn in US demand for SUVs, Land Rover is convinced
that its sales will be largely unaffected as its volume is relatively low and
Land Rover vehicles will continue to appeal to those looking for genuine off-road
vehicles. Dover says this will work as long as the company stays true to its
heritage – which means no two-wheel drive SUVs like those sold by other
manufacturers.

Dover reiterated that all Land Rover models will be replaced in the next five
years. An all-new Range Rover is due to be launched at the Detroit Auto Show
in January 2002 with a new Discovery a year or so later, followed by a new Defender
and Freelander as well as an all-new fifth vehicle about which Land Rover is
mum on details.

“All future products will be designed for the US from the start,”
says Dover.

So Americans will no longer have to wait several years for new Land Rover models
after they have been introduced in Europe.















To view related research reports, please follow
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The
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Automotive
regional report: North America (download)