Land-Rover owners in revolt at quality defects

The famed off-roader has now plunged to bottom of the reliability league tables as Chris Godsmark reports
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Land-Rover owners are in revolt at a succession of "horrendous" quality defects on the four-wheel-drive vehicles which Rover's German owner, BMW, is said to have labelled a disgrace.

The catalogue of problems was highlighted in the latest influential US car quality survey by consultants JD Power, which placed Land-Rover bottom out of 37 manufacturers. BMW was said to have "gone ballistic" at the survey statistics and has drafted in extra engineers and quality controllers at the Solihull plant near Birmingham to sort matters out. Worst of all, the top of the range model, the pounds 50,000 Range Rover, is gaining a reputation for unreliability.

Critics of Rover suggest these difficulties are part of a wider malaise. They come as BMW is grappling to turn the loss-making company round, pouring in pounds 500m a year in investment. The Germans are said to be desperate not to suffer the same problems with Rover that Ford had when it acquired Jaguar.

Land-Rover dealers are understandably reluctant about speaking out at the quality problems, but the head of one dealership, who did not want to be named, said: "I'm afraid we can only confirm the horrendous reliability problems. We're trying to be loyal because it is a British make, but it is not a good situation. The only bright thing about it is that it makes lots of after-sales warranty work for us sorting things out."

Warwick Banks, who runs a business modifying Land-Rovers, is one owner who has complained endlessly at the defects in his Discovery model. "There's no question about it. This is by far the worst vehicle I have ever had. It started with a noisy gearbox, but then I found the front suspension was lopsided and the car veered to the left all the time. The windscreen has fallen out three times and the car leaks oil constantly," he said.

The high profile Range Rover, launched in a blaze of publicity at the UK's most exclusive country house hotel, Cliveden, has been recalledtwice in its short life, the first time because of suspected air conditioning faults, the second because of problems with the rear suspension.

One owner of a two-year-old Range Rover, who runs a manufacturing company in the Midlands, said: "This is the third Range Rover I've had and stupid things seem to go wrong constantly. The central locking plays up all the time, the front wheels seem to wobble when I go round bends, I don't think it's ever been in for a service without masses of warranty work. Worst of all, my 48,000 mile service cost pounds 940. I had a Jeep before this and nothing went wrong with that at all."

One suggested cause of the reliability failings is complacency at Land- Rover itself. Quentin Wilson, from the BBC's Top Gear programme which helps to produce the UK version of the JD Power survey, explained: "Solihull has for far too long sat back and sat on its laurels. People just seem to shrug their shoulders about the quality problem, but owners are increasingly realising the situation is not specific to them."

Rover said it was disappointed at the JD Power survey, but does not agree that Land-Rover has a particular problem compared to other off-road makes. "I wouldn't say there are more quality difficulties here than elsewhere," said a spokesman, "and we've got plenty of people addressing quality on a day to day basis."

For BMW, which saw Land-Rover as the jewel in the Rover crown when it bought the company almost three years ago, the reliability record is deeply embarrassing. For several weeks there have been reports that the German management now running Rover is not happy with many aspects of the way the company operates. Equally, British insiders at Rover say much the same thing about their German counterparts, claiming BMW makes agreements, only to break them the next day.

A more fundamental cause of the difficulties at Solihull appears to be the way managers there have coped with expansion. A recent report by brokers Salomon Brothers on the European motor industry said Rover had "some of the worst production economics in the industry".

Production is on course to have almost doubled in the past four years. In 1993 Land-Rover made 68,159 vehicles, by 1995 production had soared to 127,287. In the first seven months of 1996 it was up a further 6 per cent. The growth is not confined to the Discovery or new Range Rover. Even the traditional "workhorse" Land-Rover which launched the marque has seen dramatic sales increases - appealing to buyers who will probably never use them for off-road work. Yet according to Professor Garel Rhys OBE, from Cardiff Business School, Solihull still has vast spare capacity. For BMW, a question mark hangs over whether this can effectively be used.

Professor Rhys said: "BMW has clearly taken a great interest in Land- Rover and has apparently not liked everything it has seen. It has gradually been taking more and more control. The alarm bells have suddenly rung because there are just too many failings on Land-Rover vehicles."

Worryingly for BMW demand for four-wheel-drive vehicles, which rose so sharply during the late 1980s and early 1990s, appears to be tailing off. At the same time, buyers are becoming more quality-conscious as the number of rivals from the US and the Far East continues to grow.

Meanwhile investment at Solihull will run into hundreds of millions of pounds, some of it for a new body shop, but much of it being ploughed into quality control. Some dealers insist the quality picture is mixed, with customers still generally satisfied. But according to one, "at least when you're at the bottom of a survey like JD Power, the only way is up".