An American is in charge of the biggest product-development push in the history of Land Rover, the British off-road icon.
Steve Ross, a veteran Ford engineer, was appointed Land Rover director of product development on July 1, 2000 - the day Ford bought Land Rover from BMW.
Ross took over the rollout of an ambitious product plan. In 53 years, Land Rover has created seven new products. By 2006, Land Rover will create five more. With the new-product surge, Land Rover hopes to boost volume by 50 percent in the USA, its largest export market.
Land Rover averages annual sales of 30,000 in the USA.
'When I think of Land Rover, I think of opportunity,' said Ross. 'There is tremendous potential for growth. [Land Rover] is a strong brand that really has not been taken advantage of.'
Ross has reported directly to Land Rover President Bob Dover. But the importance of Ross's role at Land Rover increased this month after Dover became president of both Land Rover and Jaguar. Dover also heads the operating committee to more closely align Premier Automotive Group's British brands, which also includes Aston Martin.
Ross still has a couple of people looking over his shoulder. Premier Automotive Group boss Wolfgang Reitzle is one of the industry's top product men. And Ford Motor Chief Technical Officer Richard Parry-Jones was reassigned to England to help Premier Automotive Group product development.
That gives Land Rover a trio of skilled engineers overseeing the launch of the next generation of models into an increasingly crowded sport-utility segment. Simultan-eously, Land Rover will try to overcome a reputation for poor manufacturing quality.
Midwest to midlands
Before coming to the British midlands, where Land Rover is based, Ross built his skills in the American midwest developing some of Ford's most successful sport-utility vehicles and trucks. His resume reads like a list of off-road dream vehicles: Explorer Sport, Explorer Sport Trac, F-series Super Duty pickup, the original Ford Explorer.
In an interview at Land Rover's Gaydon, England, headquarters, Ross acknowledged the difficulties of Land Rover's task.
Land Rover has an image as a maker of tough - and often utilitarian - off-road vehicles. But most Land Rover vehicles are now being converted from traditional solid-axle suspensions to smoother-riding independent suspensions.
'The new Range Rover is far better off-road than the old one, so it's more than just articulation angles [of the suspension bits],' Ross said. 'Off-road driving has to do with traction in a lot of different environments, be it in rock, sand, snow or mud.'
Adding traction enhancements and dynamic stability control makes the new Range Rover much better overall, he said.
'It's easier to make an outstanding independently suspended vehicle work off-road than make non-independent vehicle work on-road,' Ross said. 'The devil is in the details. Purists tend to simplify a bit to make their points, and we still have a Defender for the purists.'
But Land Rover is also trying to broaden its customer base.
'As we move into the future, you will see more technology applied to Land Rover vehicles,' Ross said.
One difficulty in Ford's acquisition of Land Rover is bringing to market a premium sport-utility created mostly during BMW ownership. Ford has a different role for the upcoming Range Rover than BMW did.
BMW was worried the Range Rover would compete against its X5. So BMW repositioned the Range Rover considerably upscale. Ford wants Range Rover to be 'king of the hill,' but has battled to make it more affordable.
'We price based on the competition, and in that market the competition goes beyond sport-utilities,' Ross said. 'In that category, you have to look at luxury cars as well when doing your pricing strategy.'
Internally code-named L322, the new Range Rover represents a massive leap forward for Land Rover. Independent suspensions and traction technology aside, the Range Rover will use a BMW engine.
Ross acknowledges the engine and BMW processes incorporated in the Land Rover production system, but he denies the Range Rover is somehow a BMW product.
'The new Range Rover was designed in Gaydon,' Ross said. 'There was a lot of BMW engineering support in the Range Rover, but it wouldn't be fair to say it was some sort of BMW program. There are people here who were with the program since day one.'
The new Range Rover is due for launch in the UK in February 2002, after which it will be rolled out across Europe.