It may have the reassuring look of an experienced off-roader, but the Grenadier is an entirely new car from a company that has never built one before

We’re precariously balanced on top of a steep, rocky outcrop. After six or so miles of punishing vertical strikes that have tested the suspension to its very limits, the severity of today’s testing has reached its pinnacle. Up front, the right-side wheel hangs in midair at full rebound. At the rear, the heavily loaded left-side wheel is tucked well into its wheelhouse at a truly improbable camber angle.

Welcome to the daunting off-road trail that winds its way up the Schöckl – just outside the city of Graz in Austria – to an altitude of 1445 metres. It’s here where the Ineos Grenadier is undergoing its latest phase of durability testing. In a torturous five-week programme, two prototypes of the bold new British-designed off-roader are planned to be driven 336 times up and down the murderous mountainside – and Autocar has been invited to take part.

It can do things that off-roaders of more modern construction can only dream of

Earlier, I was among the first to drive a series of Grenadier prototypes over an off-road handling course. It was demanding, taking in all sorts of obstacles. However, it was nothing compared with the intense pounding that I had just encountered. If there were any lingering doubts about the ability of Ineos, a multinational corporation that found riches in the oil and gas sector, to turn out a world-class off-roader, they’ve just been blown away in spectacular fashion. It’s a display that has taken us from the wide expanse of valley below to the treacherous 52deg incline we find ourselves at now without as much as a slight slip-up along the way.

After inspecting the scene, I clamber back into the car, select low range, engage the three differential locks and carefully head off again. I’m nearing the end of the Schöckl’s most demanding section, where the narrow trail becomes ever more technical over perilous weather-worn granite before the summit. However, the extreme conditions are clearly no impediment to the Grenadier, which continues its low-rev progress as if it were just driving to the shops. Over the next few weeks, engineers from Magna Steyr plan to cover some 1200 miles here as part of an overall 1.1 million-mile durability test programme to be carried out on the model by mid-2022.

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Regular Autocar readers might remember that this traditional-looking but otherwise contemporary off-roader was dreamed up by Ineos CEO Sir Jim Ratcliffe (one of Britain’s richest people) and a group of colleagues one evening in The Grenadier pub, close to Ineos’s headquarters in Knightsbridge, central London.

Conceived to take up where the original Land Rover Defender left off when it ceased production in 2016, it’s now at a pivotal stage of development, with less than three months to go before Ineos plans to begin accepting deposits ahead of UK sales starting next March.

To ensure things run as smoothly as possible, Ineos has commissioned Austria’s Magna Steyr – which is responsible for a variety of current production cars, including the BMW Z4, Jaguar I-Pace, Mercedes-Benz G-Class and Toyota GR Supra – to oversee initial prototype builds and the ongoing development activities.

At the same time, Ineos is busy gearing up the former Smart car factory in Hambach, France, which it purchased from Mercedes-Benz in 2019, for Grenadier production. Plans are for annual volumes of up to 30,000 by the middle of the decade.

“Our aim is to build a truly robust four-wheel drive,” Ineos Automotive boss Dirk Heilmann says. He reveals that his car will offer a payload of up to 1000kg, a braked trailer towing capacity of 3500kg and a 150kg roof-load rating, adding: “We set out to deliver a high degree of utility, and we haven’t lost sight of this.”

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Two versions of the Grenadier will be available from the outset: the five-seat station wagon driven in prototype guise here and a two-seat commercial vehicle, both based on a standard 2921mm wheelbase. Shortly afterwards, Ineos will launch a double-cab pick-up truck and a seven-seat station wagon, both using a longer (3175mm) wheelbase.

As well as private buyers seeking a traditional go-anywhere-and-do-anything off-roader, Ineos expects its first model to find its niche among tradespeople and farmers, along with companies and government organisations that do their business on the land. Heilmann says market studies Ineos carried out before Grenadier development got under way in earnest revealed that, following the recent shift in emphasis to the Defender, there’s now a gap in the 4x4 market between the likes of the Jeep Wrangler and the G-Class.

It’s hard not to think of the old Defender when you first see the Grenadier. There are obviously some clear design similarities between the two, including the round headlights, separate fenders, flat windscreen, clamshell bonnet, button-style door handles, exposed door hinges and barn-door-style tailgate.

Some will consider the familiar appearance of the new off-roader as a compliment to traditional Land Rover design; others possibly won’t be so diplomatic. Whatever, it looks tough, and it includes some hugely functional features, including ‘utility rails’ within the bodyside protection that buyers will be able to choose as part of a long list of optional extras.

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And with six-stud wheels shod with 265/70-profile Bridgestone Dueler H/T off-road tyres, the prototypes here today appear ready to take on the very worst roads.

The Grenadier isn’t completely utilitarian, though. Features such as LED lights help to give it a modern touch. One of the prototypes we drove even had rear parking sensors.

Look more carefully and you notice other modern features, including the latest in sealing technology. “This category of vehicle has in the past not been the best in this particular discipline,” says Heilmann. “Water, gas and dust tightness is one of the areas we’ve concentrated a lot of effort on getting right.”

The basis for the car is a sturdy ladder-frame chassis whose design was commissioned specifically by Ineos. It’s produced in Bielefeld, Germany, by Gestamp (the firm that was responsible for the structure of the Volkswagen Amarok pick-up), and it’s combined with a pair of very robust-looking beam axles made by Italian company Carraro. It’s hardly state of the art, harking back to the layout used by the original Defender, but it fulfils a purpose in providing outstanding ground clearance and is mated to several modern systems, including Bosch power steering.

Again as with the old Defender, the Grenadier’s inner body is a steel structure while the body panels, including the fenders, roof and doors, are manufactured from aluminium. Power comes from a pair of BMW-produced turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder engines. These were chosen for their ability to deliver the sort of relaxed performance and strong torque that Ineos deemed crucial to providing the Grenadier with class-leading off-road performance as well as sufficient refinement to enable it to be used every day on the road.

“We looked at quite a number of possibilities when we started out, both four-cylinder and six-cylinder,” says Heilmann. “However, we quickly came to the conclusion that it was the inline six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines from BMW that were the best fit, from both financial and packaging standpoints.”

Both engines have been tuned specifically for the new two-and-a-half-tonne-plus off-roader. The petrol delivers 283bhp and 332lb ft of torque, while the diesel offers 250bhp and 369lb ft. These output figures aren’t final, however; Heilmann says the diesel could receive an added 37lb ft by the time the Grenadier goes into production.

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Drive is sent permanently to each wheel through a standard eight-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox manufactured by German transmission specialist ZF and a low-range transfer case from American engineering firm Tremec.

Climbing into the Grenadier puts clearly into focus just how high it sits from the ground. It takes more than just a simple step to enter. The driving position, though, is great, with a large seat and a broad ledge that allows you to rest your elbow atop the door trim – unlike in the original Defender, whose driver’s door always impinged on its driver.

The dashboard, which is unfashionably short in depth but wonderfully utilitarian in design, is set quite high. But as the driver’s seat is as well, you’re afforded good visibility all round. You see the bonnet and front corners out front, while the mirrors are large enough to give you a good view to the rear.

Having been sworn to secrecy on certain elements, we can’t tell you much more about the cabin other than that it will definitely surprise some. It’s architecturally quite traditional and extremely roomy up front, but Ineos has come up with some special touches for the instruments and controls that we think will appeal greatly to the sort of customers who it’s targeting.

When we get under way, it’s the apparent strength of that BMW petrol engine and the rather slick action of the automatic gearbox that initially impress. The Grenadier is a heavy machine (Heilmann puts its kerb weight at somewhere between 2600kg and 2700kg in the current development phase), but there are sufficient reserves – most notably of torque – to give it more than reasonable step-off and in-gear qualities in high range on the road.

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It’s fairly refined, too. Perhaps not at luxury car levels, but apart from some distant transfer-case whine in the prototype we drove, the mechanical properties are definitely well ahead of the clunky Defenders I remember driving a decade ago.

However, while the upright windscreen does wonders for visibility, it and the big side mirrors contribute to quite a lot of wind buffeting at speed. This, among decisions about the gearing, is one of the reasons that the production Grenadier will be limited to 100mph.

With all of that ground clearance and those rigid beam axles, you don’t expect the Grenadier to offer its driver too much in terms of handling finesse. There’s lots of body roll when it’s turning, owing to its fairly soft spring rates and masses of travel, but the rate of roll is quite progressive, building with the steering input to keep you well aware of just how much you can push through the corner.

The prototypes we drove had yet to receive the latest steering software. Right now, they work at a rather long-winded 3.5 turns lock to lock, giving them a less-than-precise feel at higher speeds and lack of self-centring of the steering wheel. A 13.5-metre turning circle also hampers overall manoeuvrability at lower speeds. “We’re working on it,” says Heilmann. “There are some solutions in the pipeline that we think will greatly improve it in this respect.”

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Even with that substantial roll, the Grenadier can be coaxed to carry quite a bit of speed into corners; but with all that weight to contend with, it doesn’t take long before the off road-biased tyres lose their grip. This car is old-fashioned in many respects, but its rather relaxed movements form a huge part of its appeal. It dislikes being hurried, feeling at its very best in measured driving. Simply cruise everywhere and it’s right in its element.

We’re going to receive a lot of vital off-road-relevant statistics from Ineos in the coming months – approach, departure and breakover angles, wading depth etc – but the sheer ability of the Grenadier over the more technical sections of the Schöckl is proof that the decision to employ a traditional body-on-frame design was the right one.

No modern-day monocoque could ever hope to provide quite the same degree of axle articulation, spring travel or sheer climbing ability. It can do things that off-roaders of more modern construction can only dream of. It also feels wonderfully engineered, with an almost Teutonic feel to the rigidity of its structure and weighting of various functions, including the door and boot closures.

With development still ongoing, it’s going to be some time before we get to experience the Grenadier in its final production form. Right now, though, the signs are looking good. It doesn’t rewrite the automotive rule book, but then it never set out to.

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It’s refreshingly authentic in what it offers, with the sort of driving characteristics that will no doubt appeal to a select group of people who have long been ignored by traditional car makers. It has bags of charm in its on-road qualities and, from what we’ve seen so far, it’s virtually unbeatable in low range off road, making few excuses for its traditional construction along the way.

Ineos Grenadier petrol prototype specifications

Price £40,000 (estimated) Engine 6 cyls in line, 2998cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 283bhp Torque 332lb ft Transmission 8-speed automatic plus 2-speed transfer case Kerb weight 2650kg (estimated) Top speed 100mph Dimensions 4927(L) x 1930(W) x 2033(H) Towing capacity 3500kg Ground clearance 257.8mm Approach angle 35.9deg Departure angle 35.9deg

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