Diehard fans take some convincing that update of classic is worthy
Nobody's saying that replacing the iconic Land Rover Defender will be easy. But perhaps recreating the 63-year-old original's blend of functionality and durability in a 21st-century package will be the easy bit. Pleasing brand loyalists who are enamoured of the classic status of the Defender might be the tricky bit.
That was something acknowledged by Land Rover's global brand boss John Edwards, who visited New Zealand for the first time last week.
Land Rover said earlier this year that it was committed to replacing the Defender by 2015, marking an end to a model line that goes back to 1948.
At September's Frankfurt Motor Show, Land Rover showed the DC100 (for Defender Concept, 100-inch wheelbase) as a signal of the design direction the new model may take.
DC100 is a no-compromise off-roader, as it should be. What it's not is a retro homage. That is also as it should be, because neither was the original Defender
when it was launched more than 60 years ago. But some don't see things that way.
"In truth, some of the Defender enthusiasts were not pleased about the design that we showed at Frankfurt," Edwards says. "I absolutely predicted that. In a previous life, I was involved in the launch of the new Mini and I remember presenting the new car to a group of Mini owners.
"I nearly got chased out of the building - they were up in arms because we were replacing a classic with something completely new. The rest is history, of course."
That doesn't necessarily mean objections from the establishment will be automatically overruled when it comes to an all-new Defender.
But Land Rover must balance that sometimes overwhelming nostalgia with the need to find new customers and create a completely new product to serve it well into the future.
Defender production is now just 20,000 units a year and it's a very expensive model to produce because of the age of its design. The company must double or even triple global sales to make an all-new model viable.
"Defender owners have been huge advocates for us in the past, so we take their views very seriously," says Edwards. "But many are driving a 25-year-old car, having bought it as a 15-year-old car, rallying it at the weekends and so on. It's a slightly different area of the market that we're talking about.
"But it is a hugely exciting project and we all believe that there is a huge opportunity with the new car."
Edwards emphasises that DC100 is merely a concept.
"Production won't be until 2015 at the earliest. It will be versatile, it will be capable, it will be durable, it will be dependable, it will be abuse-able, it will be usable. It will be a car that goes back to the heart of what Defender stood for all those years ago."
One of the many decisions yet to be made is whether the old Defender might continue alongside the new one in some markets.
The 2.2-litre diesel engine just introduced to the car will meet tough new European emissions regulations and it's thought that the Defender could be granted an exemption from more stringent pedestrian-impact regulations - in Europe the Defender is classified as a commercial vehicle.
Edwards acknowledges that an even longer run for the classic model is a possibility. "We'll keep on producing the current car as long as there's demand - it is still a single-minded work tool. But there's no long-term plan at this stage. It's just something we can consider."
Edwards' visit to New Zealand was tied to Land Rover's sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup, in which 70 vehicles were used as official transport for dignitaries and media.
The RWC also provided Land Rover with an opportunity to draw a crowd to its Range Rover Evoque Experience - a global roadshow that gives the public a chance to see the maker's new fashion-oriented soft-roader in the metal, engage in multi-media activities and explore the range of personalisations available for the vehicle by configuring one on computer (no purchase necessary).
Evoque will be launched in New Zealand on November 8. The Evoque Experience marquee remains open at Britomart, in central Auckland, until 6pm on October 30.