Land Rover targets new markets in off-roaders: Russell Hotten reports on a two-pronged attack to capitalise on a fast-growing sector of vehicle sales

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The Independent Online
ROVER Group is planning to develop a smaller version of its Range Rover to compete with the successful Japanese off-road vehicles.

The bid to capture more of the booming off-road market comes as the company prepares to launch a revamped Range Rover as a competitor to luxury makes such as Jaguar and Mercedes.

Rover's attack on both ends of the market follows the spectacular growth in sales of off-road vehicles. What was once just a utility vehicle for farmers and others living in the country has become something of a fashion item.

Executives at Rover Group's Land Rover subsidiary said there was no evidence to back predictions that sales would dry up once 'Fulham farmers' tired of their new toy.

UK sales of off-road vehicles between January and July, at 34,874, are 9,000 up on the same period in 1993. Total sales in 1990 were 27,000. Total off-road sales account for 10 per cent of worldwide vehicles sales, with the Ford Explorer outselling any conventional car.

Land Rover's Discovery, the company's mid-market Range Rover, has been one of the most successful British vehicles. More than 37,000 Discoverys were sold worldwide in 1993. Production has been raised eight times since its launch in 1989, and a nightshift was introduced for the first time this year to cope with demand.

Last month, Land Rover announced a pounds 68m investment programme to expand production by 20 per cent.

The Range Rover overhaul is the model's first in its 24-year history and cost pounds 300m, the biggest single investment Land Rover has made. A Land Rover manager said the model, expected to be launched next month, would break down the idea of what constituted a luxury car. The price range will be pounds 32,000 to pounds 46,000.

An ambitious plan for a 'baby' Discovery, targeting models such as Suzuki's Vitara, is said to have been given the go-ahead, for launch in 1997.

John Towers, Rover Group's chief executive, would not confirm the plan, believed to be codenamed Odin and CB40. However, he said yesterday: 'There is an opportunity to get customers below the Discovery net.'

Not everyone remains as confident about the off-road market as Land Rover, however, and some analysts have trimmed annual growth forecasts from 15 per cent to 5 per cent.

Garel Rhys, motor industry professor at Cardiff Business School, said: 'You don't need four-by- four to park on a pavement in Fulham, and customers find they use a lot of fuel and are too high for the car-park.

'The four-by-four market is much more a fashion product than anything else in the motor industry, which is why it could evaporate quickly.' Insurance premiums are also rising as thieves target more off-road vehicles.

Land Rover will also face intense competition from new off- roaders from Korean manufacturers, and from Ford and Chrysler which plan to bring new products to Europe.

There is the additional threat from multi-purpose vehicles, such as the Renault Espace, with their market share forecast to grow from 1.4 per cent to 3 per cent by 1997.

(Photograph omitted)