German engineering firm MBtech, which is part-owned by Mercedes-Benz, has signed a deal with Ineos Automotive to engineer its Land Rover Defender-inspired Projekt Grenadier SUV.
The technical tie-up will involve MBtech allocating 200 full-time engineers to the project from its Stuttgart base. According to Ineos Automotive CEO Dirk Heilmann, the deal will: "bring together German engineering and British design and entrepreneurship".
Projekt Grenadier will produce a rugged SUV that's in the spirit of – but not diretly related to – the original Defender.
Ineos Automotive, the car brand established by Jim Ratcliffe, CEO and founder of multinational chemicals company Ineos, intends to reveal early sketches of the car later this year. It is aiming to finalise the car's specifications by mid-2018, with MBtech producing the first "mule vehicles" soon after, with proper prototypes following later this year. MBtech will be tasked with "working up" the exact specifications of the vehicle to ensure that it is a "truly rugged, reliable and uncompromising 4x4."
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Ineos Automotive's plans for the Grenadier to go into proper production next year, with finished cars on the roads in 2020.
MBtech was founded in 1995 as Mercedes-Benz Technologies, although the car giant sold a 65% share of the firm to AKKA Technologies in 2012. MBtech continues to work on multiple projects for Mercedes-Benz, and also works with other car firms. Under the deal with Ineos, it will take the lead on overall vehicle development of the Grenadier, overseeing all components.
Ineos turned over £43 billion in 2017, making a £3.8 billion profit. It has plans to invest around £700 million in a chosen site for Projekt Grenadier. Prior to the announcement of the MBtech deal – which only mentions production of the test mules and protoypes - an Ineos spokesman told Autocar that an announcement for where production will take place is due later this year.
The company has previouly stated that it's open to a number of possible solutions; it could share a facility with another company, convert a used plant or build a new one. “We’d originally said our desire is to build it in the UK, and that remains the case,” Ineos director Tom Crotty told Autocar last year. But the company has also received a number of offers from European sites.
Ineos is still keen to start production in the UK, despite uncertainty over the automotive industry in the country following the Brexit vote.
“We’ve gone into this decision with eyes wide open,” Crotty said when asked about Brexit's impact. “It really doesn’t have an impact. We think this is a project for the UK that would be hugely beneficial post-Brexit because we would be exporting 70-80% of the cars we would make."
Ineos is targeting sales of around 25,000 units per year. The company has previously outlined its vision for the 4x4 to be sold globally, but particularly targeting the US, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. Prices are set to stick closely to those of the outgoing Defender, which was priced from £25,000.
The car has been dubbed Projekt Grenadier, which references the Grenadier pub in Knightsbridge that's close to the Ineos office and where plans for this Defender-inspired model were first discussed, according to Crotty. The German spelling of 'project' is a nod to the nationality of Heilmann.
“We want the best-quality engineering under the skin of this vehicle, hence the nod in this direction,” Crotty said. “We want to remind everyone that what we’re trying to do is make an uncompromising 4x4 with high levels of engineering.”
Much of the design and powertrain options are still to be decided, but Crotty told Autocar last year that it's likely to have a diesel option, while hybrid and electric technology is being explored.
“We’re looking at a range of options for powertrains,” he said. “Hybrid technology could well be on the cards, especially because it would help with emissions management, but we would want it to retain its off-road values.
“Pure EV is also a possibility. We’re looking at everything and haven’t closed anything off. I’d be very surprised if a diesel option wasn’t part of that."
“It will be extremely high-quality and extremely reliable,” Crotty added.
As for styling, Crotty said the SUV will have the “spirit of the Defender” but it won’t be a lookalike. “It won’t be a modern SUV,” he explained. “It will be much more like an old-style, very rugged off-roader.”
Ineos claims to be one of the world’s largest manufacturers, but this will be the first time that it has produced a vehicle.
Crotty accepted that the project is a risk, but maintained that it had the full backing of the company and the team was determined to make the car a profitable success.
“People probably think we’re crazy because we’re not in the car industry,” he said. “There’s risk in everything you do, but we can manage that risk. We are manufacturers; we know what we’re doing and we know we need high quality from the people in the industry.”
Ratcliffe is a big fan of the Defender and was behind the company’s move to make its own model.
“This is a fantastically exciting project,” Ratcliffe said. “We want to build the world’s purest 4x4 and are aiming it at explorers, farmers and off-road enthusiasts across the globe.”
Ineos said it “is determined that the vehicle will not only fill a gap in the market vacated by the Defender but also provide a step-change improvement in build quality and reliability”.
Ratcliffe added: “I am a great admirer of the old Defender and have enormous respect for its off-road capability, and our new 4x4 has been inspired by it. But while our off-roader might share its spirit, our new car will be a major improvement on previous models.”
Jaguar Land Rover is fiercely protective of its Defender. In 2016, it prevented a Canadian company from using the name Defender for an all-terrain vehicle.
At the time, JLR legal boss Keith Benjamin said: “The Defender is an iconic vehicle that is part of JLR’s past, present and future. The success of our business is based on unique design and engineering attributes, and we intend to protect the brand robustly around the world.”
Ineos has informed JLR of its plans. Crotty said there was no conflict between the two parties and that JLR’s response was “neutral”. “There have been no great fallings out – just sensible conversation,” he said.
“We’re not out to produce a copy; we’re out to produce a new vehicle that is filling a space that the Defender used to fill.”