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Mark Phelan: Timing makes all the difference for Jaguar Land Rover's new US boss

March 24, 2014

   

Joe Eberhardt understands the value of timing. After a successful career with Mercedes-Benz, he reached Chrysler at exactly the wrong time as DaimlerChrysler collapsed and then-owner Cerberus Capital Management was overwhelmed. He became the public face of falling sales, ballooning inventories and a near-revolt by dealers. As Jaguar Land Roverís new U.S. boss, since December heís in time to catch a wave of promising new vehicles.

"It was an easy decision to join Jaguar Land Rover," Eberhardt told me, sitting at a table on the Jaguar Land Rover stand in Cobo Center during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. "Theyíre two of the most iconic and historic brands in the auto industry."

The brands once appeared to have a brighter past than future, but both have flourished since Indian conglomerate Tata bought them from Ford in 2008. New vehicles, engines, transmissions and all-wheel drive systems have made Jaguar and Land Rover appealing to a broader audience than ever before, and some of the most dramatic moves are yet to come.

As luxury brands with strong images but smaller product lines than their competitors, Jag and Land Rover are in a unique position to grow as they add vehicles in new market segments. While established brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW stretch their brand images to include models like the front-wheel drive CLA250 and minivan-like 2-series Active Tourer, Jaguar and Land Rover can gain sales with new vehicles in the heart of the luxury market.

"We have a lot of opportunity," Eberhardt told me, adding that the brands need to introduce new vehicles that are consistent with their image and heritage. "We have to preserve what makes Jaguar and Land Rover special. The goal is carefully managed growth."

The next step comes when Jaguar unveils its eagerly awaited compact sport sedan at the Paris auto show in October. Called the XE, the car uses a new platform that will underpin several Jag and Land Rover models. The XE will also introduce a new family of four-cylinder gasoline engines both brands will use.

The XE should be about the same size as the BMW 3-series and Cadillac ATS. It goes on sale in Europe in 2015 and the U.S. in 2016. Itíll be the first Jaguar sold in the U.S. with a diesel engine.

Jag is re-entering market segments where it played for decades with models like the little F-type roadster that went on sale last year ó a coupe follows this spring ó and the XE.

"Itís a question of heritage," Eberhardt said. "Clearly, the compact sport sedan is an area where Jaguar has a rich history." The XE will build on the looks of the crossover C-X17 concept.

Jag may build a crossover, but thereís an argument for maintaining the distinction that Jag is a car brand and Land Rover makes ritzy SUVs.

"Other luxury automakers cover the whole spectrum from compact car to large SUV with a single brand," Eberhardt said. "With two brands, we can cover it without distorting either oneís heritage."

WHO LOST THE DRIP RAIL? After my column on the disappearance of the drip rail, the rooftop gutter that used to keep water and snow from pouring into the passenger compartment when you open a door, I got a couple of notes about vehicles that abandoned the feature earlier than I thought.

General Motors went after the drip rail in 1974 and the results hit the road in 1979, longtime GM designer Dick Ruzzin points out.

"The effort to eliminate the drip rails Ö was unrelenting," Ruzzin wrote to me. "No drip rail was the best by far for drag and noise reduction."

The far-reaching project included tests in a Lockheed wind tunnel. It led to GMís revolutionary X-cars, including the Chevrolet Citation.

While the 1986 Ford Taurus got lots of attention when it went on sale, reader Jim Frame from Asheville, N.C., points out that the 1986 Honda Accord hit the road at the same time without drip rails.

 

 


   

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