Richard Truett
Richard Truett
Technology and Engineering reporter

Land Rover's Defender comes home

Land Rover sets course for Defender to come home

A door on a Land Rover Defender is inspected on the line at Jaguar Land Rover's assembly plant in Solihull, UK, in Nov. 2015.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
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The stars are starting to align for the upcoming Land Rover Defender.

Absent from Monday's news about Jaguar Land Rover transferring production of the Discovery to the company's new plant in Slovakia early next year is any mention of the Defender.

Land Rover has not said where it will build the next-generation Defender or if the body will be made of aluminum, like the original 1948-2016 model. But shifting the Discovery to Slovakia may have provided that answer. I'm here to make a strong case that the next Defender will have an aluminum body and be made in the same industrial complex -- JLR's plant in Solihull, England -- as the original Defender.

Actually, that's a fairly important detail.

Notice where the Jeep Wrangler is built -- Toledo, Ohio, its spiritual home.

Notice where Ford is building the Bronco -- metro Detroit.

Those two classic nameplates would lose a little luster if they were built in Mexico or China. It's not about quality, but perception. These authentic American vehicles must come from America.

And that's why, even though JLR has plants on three continents, there is only one manufacturing site the next Defender can come from and still retain a key portion of the heritage that has made the original one of the industry's most iconic vehicles: Lode Lane, Solihull, England.

But forget the marketing and emotional reasons for building the next Defender in its ancestral home. And never mind the fact that the British are big on tradition. The main reason why the Defender will likely come from Solihull is because that plant is JLR's center for excellence in aluminum-body construction.

Ford may be selling a ton of aluminum-bodied F-150s, but Land Rover has been building aluminum-bodied vehicles nonstop since 1948. And most have been built at Solihull.

JLR needs the Defender to be light on its tires. And an aluminum body would not only preserve that nice tradition, but also help boost fuel economy. As JLR's volume grows toward 1 million vehicles in the coming years, it will have to meet stringent European emission standards that were not quite as tough when the company's volume was much lower.

Part of the Discovery move involves producing electric vehicles at Solihull. There wasn't much detail given in Monday's plant announcement, but as JLR expands its electrified vehicle offerings and as volume increases, it makes sense to bring that production in-house. The I-Pace, Jaguar's first battery-electric vehicle, is made by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, under contract.

We don't know much about the next Defender, the most important vehicle Jaguar Land Rover has yet to undertake in the 10 years since Tata Motors acquired both brands. But we do know that JLR is anxious for the Defender to retake its position as the vehicle of choice in Africa, South America and any other topography that is inhospitable to mechanized transportation.

JLR is also hoping to sell a lot of Defenders in the U.S., where highly prized classic versions routinely sell for more than their original sticker price. The next Defender will come in many models, including a safari wagon and a Wrangler-like two-door convertible. There might even be a pickup model, as there was with the original Defender.

Bringing the Defender home to Solihull will -- assuming Gerry McGovern's team has styled the vehicle in such a way that keeps it true to its DNA but modernizes it -- make the rugged off-roader that much more appealing. At least to buyers who care about such things and are willing to open their wallets wide and pay a premium for authenticity.

That's what JLR is banking on.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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