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Why is the Land Rover Defender really killed?

As announced almost a year ago, 2015 will mark the end of production of one of the longest running vehicle designs currently on sale. The Land Rover Defender was introduced as the Land Rover Series I in 1948, was renamed Ninety and One Ten in 1983 and renamed again as Defender in the 1990’s, but the basic structure and design haven’t changed much over the past decades.

Jaguar-Land Rover claims that it’s impossible to make the iconic Defender meet the stricter European Union emission standards that go into effect by 2020. The Defender had already been pulled out of the North American market in 1998 when it couldn’t meet the stricter safety regulations of the US and Canada. However, if we look at the sales figures, we can conclude that Europe is one of the Defender’s smallest markets, and not being allowed to sell the model in the European market wouldn’t result in a loss of sales large enough to blame the demise of the model on the regulations.

A real off-roader

Land Rover sold 17.137 Defenders worldwide in JLR’s fiscal year 2013, compared to 16.199 in 2012 and 19.736 in 2012. Europe only accounted for 810 of those 2013 sales, or less than 5%, and as the Defender is not sold in North America, we can conclude that the bulk of the model’s orders come from other regions, where emission and safety standards are less strict. Regions where off-road capabilities, easy-to-repair and towing capabilities are more important than a comfortable ride, a plush interior and 20 inch wheels.

And that makes perfect sense, as the Defender was never designed to be driven on Europe’s smoothly paved roads. Whereas the furthest off-road that other SUV’s will ever go is when they are parked with two wheels on the sidewalk in front of Harrods, the world’s first mass-produced civilian 4×4 comes into its own in the deserts of Africa, the rainforests of South-America and wherever the Red Cross need to carry their rescue troops and supplies. The fact that it’s sold mainly in second- and third world countries confirms the fact that the Defender doesn’t need to meet European emission standards to continue its successful 67-year production run.

Development costs of the Defender have been paid for decades ago, so even at a production of just 20.000 units a year, the model should be profitable or at least add enough to JLR’s bottom line to be sustained as an image-builder for the brand. And to put things into perspective: it’s corporate sibling the Jaguar XJ sells around 15.000 to 20.000 units a year as well and the similar Mercedes-Benz G-Class sells less than half as many as the Defender (8.404 in 2013 and just 4.750 in 2012).

A new Defender family

As a replacement to the iconic vehicle, Land Rover is developing a small “family” of Defenders, similar to the Range Rover “family”, and even a sporty beach-buggy style Defender may be in the pipeline. A newly developed modern platform would need a volume of at least 50.000 annual units to make a viable business case, so the European and North American markets will be very important to reach these kinds of figures. Of course, a new model that meets emission and safety regulations in Europe and the US would boost sales and is likely to achieve the targeted sales numbers, but it will be less of an iconic image-builder as the Defender.

Naturally, Land Rover claims best-in-class off-road capabilities for the new model, but the reality will be that the closest these cars will ever get to off-roading is the parking lot of the golf course. That’s why I believe it would make sense to keep the original in production next to the “lifestyle” family of Defenders. Even selling the Defender at a loss would benefit the Land Rover brand, as it gives credibility and authenticity to the other vehicles in the line-up.

That’s because despite the harsh environments where most defenders are used, about three-quarters of the 2 million Defenders produced since 1948 are still in regular use. There is no better marketing proposition for proving a brand’s trustworthiness and durability in the toughest of circumstances than this, even when the latest Range Rover doesn’t share a single part with the Defender, with the exception of the badge. And the badge is exactly the reason why people buy Land Rovers and Range Rovers. Not to take them out in the country to go deer hunting and wading through rivers.

Making the Defender’s successor a trendy car means saying goodbye a trustworthy and capable work horse and an off-roader’s favorite for decades, and the cheapest marketing item a brand can wish for. Land Rover has plenty of vehicles in their line-up to cover the Footballer’s Wife part of the market. What they need is a vehicle that gives those SUV’s credibility and help them stand out from the ever increasing crowd of soft-roaders.