Land Rover Defender family to get all-new luxury flagship

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Land Rover will soon crown its Defender range with the largest 130 model – but it is already investigating plans to turn the Defender nameplate into a model range in its own right.

Under consideration is a luxurious version based on the next Range Rover’s underpinnings, along with a pick-up based on the standard model – but plans for a smaller version based on the Discovery Sport have been axed.

Sources say Jaguar Land Rover bosses believe the Defender has the potential to become another high-profit business in the mould of Range Rover, with a line-up of distinct Defender-badged models in dealerships set to arrive by early 2025. If they prove successful, JLR’s fortunes would be transformed, with at least six of its nine future Land Rover nameplates generating high profit margins.

JLR has increasingly focused on strengthening its three Land Rover model families – Defender, Range Rover and Discovery – in recent years. Under the new plan, it could become a kind of supercharged Porsche: selling high-margin vehicles (JLR is targeting 10% margins) and generating enough cash to continue to invest in new models, as well as paying down its existing debts.

The stakes are particularly high with the Defender because a successful expansion of this revered model line could eventually put JLR in the best financial shape of its existence. Although JLR has not officially revealed any fine detail of the Defender plan, we understand that a high-specification range-topper is planned, built on the new MLA platform, but a smaller and more affordable model on the upcoming EMA range-extender platform has been put on ice. The highly sophisticated MLA platform will make its debut underpinning the all-new Range Rover at the end of the year. It will also be used for the next-generation Range Rover Sport, Velar and Discovery 6.

disco final sketchThe MLA is what’s known as a ‘flex’ platform with an electric bias. It can be produced in mild-hybrid combustion-engine form, as a plug-in hybrid and in solely battery-electric guise. It has been designed to be “highly capable off road” but also to deliver exceptional refinement in road use.

An MLA-based Defender will inevitably be more of a luxury car than today’s Slovakia-built model. It is expected to have a less rugged-style interior but distinguish itself from the forthcoming Range Rover’s. The Defender already has a $210,000 + luxury range-topper in the form of the new V8 version, but the larger, more sophisticated MLA underpinnings could open up the model to a wider audience, while allowing for a full-electric version to rival the inbound Mercedes-Benz EQG. However, the Range Rover and Velar are likely to be initially prioritised as EVs on the MLA platform.

Instead of smooth, traditional wood and leather luxury, an MLA Defender will probably use more extravagant colours, more sportily styled seats and a dashboard design that retains the high-mounted gearshifter as the main theme. Unusual materials are also likely, including metallic trims with experimental ‘naturally weathered’ looks and new types of wooden finishes, all in keeping with the Defender’s link to nature and the outdoors.

Basing the luxury Defender on the MLA platform gives JLR the option of building a seven-seat version. However, JLR will need to balance the expansion of the Defender range against the Discovery line, with sales of the fifth-generation Discovery seemingly directly affected by the launch of the Defender. In the first six months of 2021, Discovery retail sales slumped to below 10,000 units, making it the slowest-selling Land Rover of all the seven nameplates. (The next lowest was the Velar, at nearly 22,000 units.) Discovery sales were even down 17% on the first six months of a locked-down 2020.

lr def v8 90 22my 250221 11Obviously, a seven-seat luxury Defender would clash directly with the next-generation Discovery. So defining the Discovery brand more clearly is essential for JLR if it is to take full advantage of the significant opportunity presented by a more luxurious Defender model.

JLR’s engine line-up will have developed further by the time the MLA-based Defender appears, but the 3.0-litre straight-six petrol and diesel engines are expected to be the main powertrains in both hybrid and plug-in hybrid guises.

Given that the plans to expand the Defender family are quite recent, the new luxury flagship version isn’t expected to be in showrooms before late 2024 or early 2025.

But before that, the current Defender line-up will expand in 2022 with the launch of the eight-seat 130. This vehicle is a significant stretch over the current 110 model, with most of the extra length being inserted into the rear overhang.

Sources say the new Defender 130 will be 5.1 metres long and aimed largely at the crucial US and Chinese markets, where demand for large SUVs remains high. It’s also expected to be available in high-end trim only.

Along with the long-mooted pick-up version (see story, left) this new addition to the range will be crucial in expanding the Defender’s target market and cementing the model line as a spin-off brand in the vein of Ford’s Mustang. The 130 is likely to offer an extra seat over the current 110 and be available with the whole gamut of Land Rover powertrains, from the P300e PHEV option up to the 386kW supercharged V8.

At the other end of the line-up, Land Rover had been expected to use the recently announced EMA (Electric Modular Architecture) platform for an entry-level Defender model in 2025, much like Ford has done in the US with the Bronco and Bronco Sport. However, these plans are now understood to have been scrapped. As previously reported, this platform will be used for the next-generation Evoque and Discovery Sport, with its flat floor enabling much more spacious interiors than the current models’.

The new EMA architecture is described by JLR as “native BEV”, which means it is designed as a battery-electric ‘skateboard’ platform. But it is also capable of housing a small lean-burn petrol engine – thought to be a 1.5-litre three-pot – that can be used as a range-extending generator when the battery is depleted. The engine is expected to be available in at least 110kW and 135kW versions.

The platform will initially be sold with a smaller battery for normal hybrid operation in conjunction with the petrol engine and with a much larger battery pack for a plug-in range of as much as 240 kilometres. The EMA has been future-proofed to accommodate a number of different battery chemistries and JLR promises electric drive motors that are 92% efficient at turning power from the batteries into forward motion.

The company also says the EMA platform will be equipped with a brand-new electrical and software architecture that will support autonomous driving functions from level two (advanced driver assistance features) to level four (allowing for fully autonomous driving on certain enabled roads), communication with other vehicles and street infrastructure and automatic payment capability, as well as “curated digital media and brand experiences”.

Hilton Holloway

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