January 7, 2008

Photo Gallery: Land Rover LRX

Click image to enlarge

Toronto, Ontario – I’ve always had a soft spot for Land Rovers. A Discovery was one of the first vehicles I drove as an automotive journalist; I had terrific fun bashing through the wilderness in one. I’ve admired the brand’s authenticity. In an age where even Jeep has watered down its image with vehicles like the Compass that can’t go off-road, I like the fact that Land Rover has stuck to what it’s really good at. It builds all-conquering, all-capable machines that can tackle the toughest adventures and the roughest terrain the world has to offer.

Then again, off-road adventuring isn’t as cool as it once was. Nor, these days, when we’re concerned about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions, are big, heavy SUVs with a surefit of ability for the urban situations they’re driven in. If you’re Land Rover – coming off two consecutive years of the best sales ever, wanting to maintain that momentum in these more socially conscious times – what do you do?

Well, you start thinking about evolving your products and, along with it, the brand’s image. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this, with the Range Rover Sport. Advertisements running over the last year have been shot in urban locations as often as in the great outdoors. With styling based on the Range Stormer concept, the Range Rover Sport puts an emphasis on on-road performance, but it’s still a big, heavy thing with a thirsty supercharged engine.

And that’s where this new LRX concept car comes in. Only the second concept car in Land Rover’s entire history, it’s designed to demonstrate that Land Rover’s trademark capability and versatility can be applied to a much smaller, more urban-focused vehicle without sacrificing the style and premium image which has served it so well in its larger SUVs.

Due to be unveiled at the Detroit auto show this month, the LRX rolls on the same platform as the LR2, but is 250 mm shorter overall and has two doors instead of four. In profile, it is much sportier, with an aggressive wedge shape to the side and a low, floating roof reminiscent of the Range Rover Sport. It sits show-car low to the ground on big 20-inch alloy wheels, suggesting an even greater on-road bias, while the rear end is punctuated by huge trapezoidal exhaust outlets.

Land Rover’s chief designer, Gerry McGovern, is quick to point out that while the LRX represents a big step in terms of the company’s positioning, its styling is a clear evolution of the Land Rover cues we’ve become familiar with. The headlamps, while resembling pulled-back cat’s eyes, still have the double-ring motif familiar from the LR3 and Range Rover. The engine cover is still a clamshell (enabling easier access to the mechanicals), punctuated on either side by functional air extractors. Castellations on top of the hood make the LRX easier to drive off-road and easier to place in town. Strong side sills, circular rear lights inset into rectangular covers and a two-piece tailgate are also enduring elements.

Click image to enlarge

It’s inside, however, where Land Rover’s intentions for this vehicle become clear. While the very structural look of other Land Rovers remains – there’s a strong central tunnel supported by two "spars" and even the glass roof seems vaguely architectural – the richness of the materials and the upscale nature of the finishes reveals this car’s target market. Unlike previous Land Rovers (which McGovern describes as "hardly a tailored suit"), the LRX is awash in high-grade leather and high-tech aluminum. The buyers of an LRX-like vehicle, says McGovern, expect a much higher level of precision and quality than they used to, so the seams are double-stitched and the aluminum is polished to a high gloss. The buttons aren’t buttons so much as touch-sensitive pads, their outlines backlit like on a Motorola RAZR phone.

Indeed, phones were an important bit of inspiration for the LRX’s designers. In a bid, they say, to reduce the amount of electronic componentry in the car, they imagined that a few years down the road, people will have almost everything they need in the car – music, phone numbers, et cetera – on their mobile phone. So instead of having a bulky infotainment unit, the LRX simply has a docking station, where you plug in your iPhone or similar device and control your selections using an interface you’re already familiar with. Why burden owners of the car with yet another manual to read and another operating logic to learn?

Whether that fanciful (though logical) thinking will actually translate to a production model is up in the air for now; Land Rover admits that, while an iPhone sits in the centre console with an Engine Start button alongside its music player, telephone and Web browser, none of the software engineering to make it all work has been done yet. The floating seats, which are mounted to the centre console, probably wouldn’t make production (though their skeletal frames and thin but comfortable leather surfaces would) and the champagne holder in the rear compartment would probably have to go.

Nevertheless, as a show car, the LRX has been thought through and executed to a higher level than most show cars. The fact that its touch-sensitive door releases work as promised, the fact that you actually can fold those skeletal seats and throw a bike in the back, mean the car’s design team has put in the requisite work to make many of the ideas in this car viable should Land Rover decide to go ahead.

I certainly hope they do. Even though I’m a big fan of Land Rovers, I would never have in the past considered owning one because I live in the city and rarely venture off-pavement. Something that combined the brand’s authenticity, distinctive styling and luxury along with more sensible levels of fuel consumption and a more manageable size would be an awfully attractive car to me.

More importantly, given the fact that Land Rover, along with Jaguar, is up for sale, it would be an awfully attractive car to have in the line-up for a prospective corporate buyer as well.

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