They have an image of rugged reliability but, says Richard Feast, bits keep falling off. Here's how Land Rover plans to change all that

A survey on dependability of three-year-old vehicles published at the end of last month by JD Power & Associates in the United States produced a typical result for Land Rover: dead last among the 37 marques analysed.

A survey on dependability of three-year-old vehicles published at the end of last month by JD Power & Associates in the United States produced a typical result for Land Rover: dead last among the 37 marques analysed.

Land Rovers lead charmed existences in car showrooms. Buyers appear to have complete faith in their reputation for rugged construction and go-anywhere ability. They buy the image of game parks in Africa and sunsets in Arizona, even if an owner's usual routine is a shopping expedition to Asda.

Worldwide sales this year will be similar to last year's 165,000, which was the second-highest on record. Next year will probably see another record.

And yet, Land Rovers are consistently in the relegation zone in any survey of quality and reliability. The reality is that bits fall off and the cars conk out. The astonishing thing is that buyers did not rumble the truth years ago.

Ford, which bought Land Rover from BMW four years ago, knew the myth would not withstand the blast of competition much longer.

Mark Fields, the group's top executive in Europe, and Land Rover and Jaguar chairman Joe Greenwell spelled out the realities to Land Rover management and unions once more last month. Quality and productivity have to improve, they said, or the future of Solihull, the firm's sole manufacturing site, is in doubt.

Whether Ford really would walk away from Solihull is uncertain, but standards clearly have to improve. Phil Popham, managing director of Land Rover (and Jaguar) in the UK, acknowledges: "In the past, the Land Rover brand has succeeded in spite of poor quality. Today, excellent quality is simply the cost of entry to the market.

"We've made huge steps forward in terms of quality. The results of surveys always lag behind the improvements."

Big improvements in quality -- and productivity -- are achieved only with the introduction of new models: an opportunity to design the products and their manufacture properly.

The process began with the latest Range Rover, a model designed under the BMW reign. It continued with last year's revised Freelander but gathers pace with the Discovery.

The replacement for the Freelander, scheduled for 2006, represents a radical departure for Land Rover. Ford will switch production of the next Freelander from Solihull to Halewood on Merseyside, where it will be made alongside Jaguars. It is also an indication of Ford's determination to cut costs by sharing as much as possible between marques.

In another cost-saving move, Land Rover plans to replace the utilitarian Defender -- already two decades' old -- with a model built on the T5 platform of the latest Discovery. The move will effectively reduce Land Rover platforms from four to two.

These new models are being developed to appeal to buyers around the world, particularly in emerging markets and the United States. The decision represents a change in emphasis, because until recently Land Rovers were aimed primarily at customers in the UK and the rest of Europe.

Land Rover is making another important shift, towards customers who traditionally buy saloons and estate cars. Popham explains: "People know about Land Rover's off-road ability. We have to spread the word about our on-road ability. Today, there's no difference between a Range Rover and a luxury car in terms of vehicle dynamics."

The focus of attention at Solihull at the moment is Discovery III. The model is now in its start-up phase, but it will become Land Rover's best seller when full production is reached at the end of this year.

Discovery is put together in Solihull's renovated North Works. The trim and final-assembly area in any car factory has the potential to generate many of the little faults that irritate new owners, so Land Rover was particularly careful when planning this one. Martin Strazdins, senior manufacturing manager, reports: "We designed quality into the system. This is a world-class factory, for world-class quality."

The changes at Land Rover, where Ford has invested over £450 million since 2000, gave the company enough confidence to re-open Solihull's gates to outsiders. BMW was half-hearted about allowing visitors onto the site and giving them a taste of off-road driving. The old Land Rover Experience centre disappeared. Ford needed little persuasion to resurrect the idea. An all-new Land Rover Experience opened in February this year.

Visitors are able to choose tours from £50 to £170. The top-price tour lasts all day and includes a factory visit, lunch, off-road demonstration and opportunities to drive a variety of models.

For many visitors, the highlight will be the off-road driving, which includes seemingly impossible climbs and descents. The famous jungle track -- 15 acres of winding dirt track, woodland and ponds -- is also part of the course.

Gwil Berry, one of the tour guides, says: "We need to make it interesting to people who don't understand engineering. It gives a flavour of manufacturing to someone who's only ever been to a dealer."

Land Rover Experience: e-mail or call 0121 700 4619

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