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September 2014 Issue of 4x4 Magazine
As far as off-road heroes go, Sergio Marchionne might not be a name you are familiar with. In many respects, however, if you are a 4x4 enthusiast today, he’s probably up there with the Wilks brothers, Spen King and the Indian Tata family; without whom, Land Rover wouldn’t be what it is today. Without Sergio Marchionne, we’d simply be without Jeep. Full stop.
Apparently back in 2009, the weeds around the Jeep factory in Detroit were three feet high as the company shuddered in the shadows of bankruptcy. It wasn’t a great time to be a Jeep dealer anywhere, certainly not in the UK. Fast forward five years to January 2014 and the Italian Fiat SpA company secured full ownership of the Chrysler Group in an eye-watering $4.35 billion agreement, and the man behind the deal (and with it the complete revival of the Jeep brand) is Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Chrysler (Source: www.bloomberg.com).
Do you have a problem when people start moaning that ‘things were better back in the day’? It always seems an odd comment to me, and not something I ever want to get drawn into discussing. You just know that it will get a bit heated. There are, however, lots of examples today where we seem to be ‘looking back’ and reviving things that many had thought had long been discarded. I am a keen vinyl record collector as it happens, but you won’t get me declaring it’s ‘better’ than modern digitised sound. In my view, it’s certainly different, and I enjoy it, but if you want to listen to downloaded music on an MP3 player that’s your call. Personally, I think you are missing out, but it doesn’t bother me that much.
You hear similar when mixing with classic car enthusiasts. Discuss the merits, indeed the incredible technological benefits, of a ‘modern’ vehicle and you are likely to get the cross-fingered, sign of the devil, salute. Get behind me Satan, and leave me mopping up the oil on my driveway from my classic’s leaking sump. It’s similar with 4x4s, of course, and that is never more obvious than when something like the Discovery Concept is announced. It’s a display of technological wizardry that is mind-blowing, and surely for anyone interested in this market, a fascinating subject to learn more about. (Hopefully, we have helped here with our insight piece in this issue). Of course, trouble comes when you hear one of Land Rover’s engineers, or researchers, as they seem to be called today, saying that they are “lowering the need for the driver to do anything.” You can hear the hackles rising, the pints of real ale being spluttered into untrimmed moustaches and Imperial gauge torque wrenches being waved in frustration.
It’s fair to say that each month that I receive the copy and photographs from regular correspondent Robert Pepper, my well of resentment begins to fill. Once again he tells us of loading wife, kids, a few steaks and even some cold beer into his Discovery and just driving off into the Bush. The pictures show the family’s campsite in some wonderful remote location, and you know he’s had a great off-road drive to get there. The only saving grace is that Robert’s an ex-pat, a nice bloke and not a freshly grown Australian; otherwise the resentment might overflow completely. Of course there’s also the email I might get from America asking if I want a story of someone driving their Jeep through the desert, and the excitement of rock-crawling along some National Park trail. Then you learn from somewhere like Portugal that it is completely legal to follow dirt tracks into the mountains without worrying about whether you are actually allowed to be there, because you can…
Here in jam-packed Blighty, any greenlaning trip is best done with a fully qualified High Court barrister on-board to argue the case should you bump into Mr and Mrs We-know-our-rights, out ‘rambling’ with their best friend and spinster of the parish, Ms I-know-even-better who will doubtless expound that you ‘and your massive dirty horrible four-wheel drive machine’ shouldn’t be on this track. Even if legally, you have every right to be there. Let’s face it, off-roading in the UK is not as easy a task as the one that confronts Mr Pepper each weekend!
So there we have it then. You no longer need to be in your 4x4 to go off-roading. Thanks to the boffins at Land Rover, it is going to be possible to remotely control your machine while you stand out of harm’s way. That’s just one of the amazing new technical achievements that was announced this month by JLR at the New York Auto Show, where the Discovery Vision Concept was unveiled. Remote Control Drive ‘enables the driver to manoeuvre the car at low speed while not actually seated inside it.’ Can you truly be described as the driver, if that’s the case? Interesting legal point should your vehicle then run over the neighbour’s cat. Useful though should you need to hitch up a trailer on your own.
At present this is a Discovery Concept, so whether we are going to see all this in a production machine in the near future is still in question, but you get the idea that it won’t be long. Some of it does appear somewhat unnerving, however. Apparently there’s the ‘next generation’ of HMI, which – and I kid you not – is the Human-Machine Interface, which allows video calls between passengers. Talking to each other is obviously so passé. Any grumpy old man mockery from me does cause concern and head scratching when you learn that the Discovery’s Smart Glass has ‘the power of augmented reality’. Emails have been sent to Stephen Hawkings and Brian Cox to check this one out, but my understanding of the English language means that it’s not possible to augment reality. Surely you cannot make something ‘more real’? Perhaps this is due to the company’s new commercial link with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft project; Land Rover Discovery bravely goes where no off-roader has gone before…
Opinions are mixed about the new small 4x4 Renegade from Jeep. The traditional view may be that it’s not a ‘real’ Jeep, that it’s unfit to carry the famous badge. Jeep has, after all, been building 4x4s ‘Since 1941’ as the badging proudly embossed on the new Renegade’s facia confirms. But a vehicle based on an Italian Fiat 500 floorpan, with an on-demand ‘leverless’ 4x4 system is hardly a Willys or a Wrangler, no matter how bright the red paint on the signature tow hooks may shine. However, contemptuous dismissal is not the answer. Perhaps, there is a different way of looking at this, and perhaps, even the most diehard Jeep enthusiast can be persuaded to take a step back, re-evaluate, and concede that the new Jeep Renegade is indeed a very good thing.
Firstly, however, you have to accept that 1941 was a very long time ago. It’s all very well having a heritage to be proud of, but to slavishly refuse to change with the times, the culture, and more importantly, the market is – amongst other things – a recipe for disaster. Turn the clock back only a few years to the height of our recent global recession and the very existence of Jeep as a manufacturer was in doubt. The only place you would find the iconic Jeep badge looked like being at an autojumble, certainly not on a brand new design of new small 4x4 SUV. Things had to change, and with the help of the US government and the drive of the British-born president and CEO of the Jeep brand, Mike Manley, a merger with Fiat was established. Fiat? What on earth does this Italian manufacturer know about 4x4, for heaven’s sake? Well, for one thing, it seems to understand the global value of the Jeep brand, as the excellent newly revised Grand Cherokee, new Cherokee and now the new small 4x4 Renegade clearly demonstrates. And the most important part of that sentence is ‘new small 4x4’.