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Jaguar Land Rover Boss Talks Defender, We Listen

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This interview should’ve been posted months ago.

I sat with Jaguar Land Rover North America Product Planning Director Rob Filipovic at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show (remember those?) to talk about the reborn Defender.

Then, I screwed up. I didn’t write the piece right away due to other work and travel. Still, the first drive was scheduled for mid-April, and I thought maybe the interview would work well as a companion piece to our first drive of the Defender.

You know the rest.

This week would’ve been the week in which the Detroit Auto Show took place in June for the first time. So in honor of that, I decided to publish my chat with Filipovic now.

That’s not just a shout-out to a Detroit show that didn’t happen – as I wrote recently, the Defender is on sale now.

Hard to get, perhaps, but on sale. So there’s news peg number two.

Just to refresh your memory: the new Defender comes with either turbo-four or inline-six mild hybrid (turbocharged and supercharged) power under the hood (296 and 395 horsepower, respectively), and the design is a bit of a reimagining of the classic Defender’s boxy looks into a rounder, softer modernized version.

I asked Filipovic how a brand brings back such an iconic vehicle that was so well-known, and well-loved, for being “old school” when today’s auto world doesn’t really allow for such no-frills/low-frills models. Even bare-bone vehicles are loaded up with mandated safety tech and convenience and comfort goodies that consumers, even those buying base models, demand.

“I think the key is, for us, Defender was the genesis of the brand, effectively, if you go back all the way to the original concept. The biggest thing it always represented for us was, it is the most capable SUV,” Filipovic said.

“The design and the capability need to be true to the original and the heritage of the brand, and kind of take them all to a new level. But then at the same time, the vehicle has to live up to what people expect in 2020 and beyond, as far as connectivity, functionality, comfort, and then overall quality as well.”

I asked how JLR balances the off-road capability of the Defender against the likelihood that most owners will never take their Defender any further off-road than a gravel parking lot. We’ll see how things shake out, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Defenders will be seen more often in Chicago’s Gold Coast than at Moab – no matter how well the Defender can actually handle gnarly trails.

It’s not just a question of usage versus capability – even Land Rovers that seem built for the street, like the Velar, can manage a rocky trail far from civilization. I know, because when Land Rover launched the Velar, I spent several hours in one on a California fire road in the desert outside Palm Springs. We got back in one piece.

So, Land Rover will likely market the Defender based on what it can do off-road (hopefully we’ll get to experience that someday), but how does the brand manage the juxtaposition being its marketing and the behaviors of well-heeled buyers who would rather be seen on Rodeo Drive than on the Rubicon Trail?

“That’s obviously a huge challenge, because I think, as you make something more and more capable off-road, traditionally, that [has] meant serious compromises with every other aspect of it, especially roll control, overall comfort over street surfaces, potholes and such. The big thing with Defender was it started its life off the platform that underpins Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, and Discovery. Which, I think, hopefully everyone would agree, that’s an extremely capable on-road platform, and extremely comfortable one.”

He added, “From there, that platform was enhanced to deliver more off-road.”

Filipovic credits the design – especially the short overhangs, along with the air suspension, the advent of adaptive suspensions, and the terrain management system – as key to the Defender’s potential.

The brand’s product gurus, he said, asked themselves “how do we leverage technology, and design, to deliver what Defender needs to be off-road, but also give it really comfortable on-road feel?”

Looking at pricing, the Defender overlaps on the low end with another vehicle that’s well-known, and certainly well-loved, for its off-road prowess. That’s the Jeep Wrangler. While top-end Defenders won’t be priced against feature-leaden Jeeps, there’s enough overlap that some cross-shopping between the two is possible, even likely.

So I queried Filipovic – will the Defender be better on-road, and if so, will it be a selling point?

Unsurprisingly, he suggested it would be better on-road – again, we’ll be the judge of whether he’s right once we drive one – and implied that it would a selling point. Again, ourselves, the rest of the automotive press, and the new-car buyer will be the ultimate judges of the first answer.

A thornier question for JLR to answer is how can a new, luxed-up Defender that appeals to the high-end shopper also hold sway over the true trail rat who wants capability without frou-frou and frills?

“I think it just depends on what Defender do you want?”, he said. He mentioned the rubberized floor, which in theory should be easy to clean after a day of muddin’, and talked about the spread of Defender trims. So, mudders, the base model might be best for you. Filipovic said 10-20 percent of Land Rover customers go off-roading, and he expects the percentage of Defender buyers who plan to go off-road will be a “step higher”, though he didn’t give a specific number.

I had to ask about #savethemanuals, and the answer was the same I’ve heard for so many models: The take-rate is projected to be just too damn low to justify the cost.

He doesn’t expect the Defender name to carry much weight with non-car-folk, but did say he thinks the design might catch shoppers’ eyes, even if they don’t know about the Defender’s past.

He didn’t have specific numbers available for hand-raisers back in February, but he mentioned that consumer Web site traffic has been at an all-time high, along with the use of build configurators.

I pressed him on future electrification plans beyond the mild-hybrid powertrain and got the usual response about future products: “Stay tuned.” There are no plans for off-road motorsports right now, though.

With Defender and Ford’s off-road-oriented Bronco on the way, Filipovic says he thinks of the segment as more than a niche, because, according to JLR’s internal research, Defender is drawing interest from everywhere.

Finally, we closed with a sore subject for JLR, one I’ve experienced firsthand – quality. He mentioned a simplified infotainment system and over-the-air updates as examples of how the brand is addressing quality. Still, he knows there is work to be done.

“The proof is in the delivery. We’ve got to continue to kind of improve quality over and over again.”

[Image: Jaguar Land Rover]

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