A Land Rover hybrid?
Perhaps that's not as far-fetched as it seems. Michael Levitan, chairman of the brand's Dealer Business Operations Council, says a gasoline-electric hybrid or possibly a vehicle that runs on diesel fuel could help Land Rover appeal to socially conscious customers seeking style. He notes that some form of a green vehicle is high on the list of things the dealers would like to see from parent Ford Motor Co.
Land Rover has long stressed ruggedness. But it has emerged as a status symbol, popping up in movies and TV shows featuring the transportation of the rich and famous.
While image is not an issue for Land Rover, quality has been. Levitan notes that improvement in quality, as well as building on its rich tradition, is critical as Land Rover faces increasing competition in the luxury SUV segment.
Levitan spoke with Special Correspondent Greg Migliore.
How is Land Rover quality?
I would say that the brand has turned around 180 degrees starting with the introduction of the '03 Range Rover and now LR3 and Range Rover Sport. We are in a completely new category.
Has the Range Rover Sport been an effective answer to competitors such as the Porsche Cayenne and BMW X5?
We can't keep Range Rovers Sports in stock. It has been selling. I think it's exceeded everybody's expectations.
Would it be smart for Land Rover to introduce a vehicle below where the Freelander was?
I don't believe that they can, in this kind of market, compete on the volume levels that they would need to, so having a car below a Freelander at this point I would not think is in anybody's best interest. I think we need to concentrate on what we do best, which is upscale luxury sport-utility vehicles.
How did soaring gasoline prices affect Land Rover?
As the gas prices began to rise, I think we saw the most effect in LR3 customers. The Land Rover Sport and Range Rover customer was not as affected by that. With Range Rover Sport being as new and as desirable as it was, fuel economy was not on their "on top of my list."
What can parent Ford Motor Co. do for Land Rover?
I think we still need to keep our eye on quality and continue in that direction. I think we need to constantly improve current products that we have and look into the future as to future products. I think all Land Rover retailers at this point would like to see either hybrid, mild hybrid or some sort of diesel concentration in the near future. We'd like to be environmentally friendly.
How would a Land Rover hybrid fare?
I don't know if it would fare as well as a diesel perhaps. That's (also) on our wish list. But I think it would fare well because I think that it would broaden our market it little bit.
Is diesel a higher priority than a hybrid?
For Ford, I would presume it's a matter of dollars and cents, developing a diesel that would be able to work in this country with the federal requirements that we're going into in 2007. I think that at this point we need to do something green for Land Rover.
Where would a new Defender fit in, if there were such a vehicle?
I think the Defender's got to fit somewhere between Freelander and LR3 perhaps. I don't know what it would look like. We can't get an agreement whether it should have two doors or four doors; whether it should be that rugged, rugged, rugged - or the luxury rugged, shall we say. We just think its something that can sell in the United States. We've seen that I think from Hummer, that there is a market for it. It's just a question of where to put it. But I don't believe at this point it's on their immediate sights, as much as we would like it. First you have to decide what it is.
Would you like to see employee pricing for Land Rover?
No, I would not. Quite frankly, we all believe in the Land Rover way. We post our prices. We're not all at one price, and posting prices doesn't mean that you sell them for MSRP, but we sell cars in a different manner than most of the other manufacturers.
What's the top priority of the dealer council in 2006?
I think balanced allocation - making sure that the allocation system is proper. Quality is always our top of mind. And competitive pricing, that we have our competitive models. That we line up well with our competition, which we believe we do today.
Does Land Rover listen to its dealer council?
I believe that there's a lot of listening going on. I think that there's a lot of open dialogue. Obviously we can't get everything that we want. There's always good, healthy discussions.
What has been your biggest challenge as dealer council chair?
Balancing some of the small and large retailers to try to have parity. And we have done very well with having a balance of small and large retailers on the council so that we can hear voices from all over.
What's your take on Land Rover's marketing?
I think the marketing has come around. Look at the new Sport ad. I think it has done very, very well for that car. I think the dealers would like to go back to seeing more of the heritage and the ruggedness.