Limited drives in pre-production prototypes rarely answer many questions about a hotly anticipated new car, and that's especially true when the entire experience takes place in the churned-up mud of what is, not to put too fine a point on it, a French slag heap. But even a limited turn in the INEOS Grenadier put a definitive response against the most important query: yes, it's serious.
Because the early chapters of the Grenadier story read like an origin story crafted by an expensive PR agency. Wealthy industrialist Jim Radcliffe mourns the death of the old Land Rover Defender, gathers a group of like-minded friends in a favourite pub and illuminates the collective lightbulb with 'let's do our own, then.' The project is named after the boozer and co-branded with Radcliffe's globe-spanning chemical concern. INEOS then fights (and wins) a court case with Land Rover over the rights to produce something so obviously inspired by the square lines of the Defender before the project moves into what must have been a very strenuous cheque-signing stage.
Britain's many low-volume carmakers showed an obvious path for the car to take at this point - modest investment, small numbers and a sizeable price tag. But INEOS decided to do it the expensive, risky way, with development led by Magna Steyr in Austria and then, soon afterwards, confirmed that power would come from BMW engines and production would happen in the former Daimler plant in Hambach, France - a controversial development given Radcliffe's public enthusiasm for Brexit.
Leaving national pride aside, the decision to locate in the former Smart ForTwo plant made lots of commercial sense. Daimler had just spent a nine-figure Euro sum refitting Hambach to build the Mercedes EQA and EQB but then relocated production to another plant. INEOS acquired one of Europe's most modern car plants, including dozens of unused production robots, at what was undoubtedly a knock down price. Production of ForTwo EVs will continue there for several years, with the juxtaposition of the two designs in the final inspection area an odd one. But compared to the dingy factory where Land Rover assembled the classic Defender the contrast is almost total.
The chance to see prototype build Grenadiers in various stages of construction also proves the new car is substantially different from the one that inspired it. Like the Defender it sits on a ladder frame chassis and has substantial live axles at each end. But the need to satisfy modern safety standards means that the underbody structure is far more elaborate, a point made by the intricate shape of the secondary metalwork that sits beneath the familiar square-topped front wings to give them the deformation necessary for pedestrian impact standards. It's bigger and wider, too - actually looking more like a W461 Mercedes G-Class than a ur-Defender from many angles.
While most of it impresses, but some details don't. The cars in the factory (and the hard-beaten prototypes later) feature sizeable gaps where bumpers meet bodywork, the ones at the back large enough to make it look like a finishing piece is missing and getting me remembering some of the old jokes about the P38 Range Rover's similarly breezy apertures. It's hardly a deal breaker for a rufty-tufty off-roader, but it is a detail critics are likely to latch onto.
The underbody is more reassuring, this featuring a solid looking transfer case to allow the selection of high and low range. A centre locking differential will be standard, with electronically controlled front and rear diff locks optional - all details that closely mirror the spec of the old Defender. But the Grenadier's powerplants are very different, with a straight choice between a pair of bought-in BMW 3.0-litre six-cylinders, a 281hp petrol and a 245hp diesel. An eight-speed ZF autobox is standard on all versions.
The other thing missing is much of the switchable tech common to more expensive SUVs. INEOS says the finished Grenadier will get an off-road and wading mode, but there are no clever active modes, adaptive dampers or variable height suspension. The idea is to offer the sort of uncompromised off-roader that makes a virtue of simplicity, something the company reckons will be core to the Grenadier's appeal in more remote parts of the world.
Even by the standards of pre-production drives, my first experience of the Grenadier is a limited one. There are both petrol and diesel cars here, but the luck of the draw gives me a petrol one. Not that there is going to be much chance to experience its greater performance with the entire drive taking place in low range with the centre differential locked - the prototypes don't have the optional front and rear lockers.
Right, the basics. The Grenadier's cabin feels much more spacious than that of the Defender, and with the driving position isn't uncomfortably offset. The prototype's beaten-to-hell interior was entirely pre-production - most of the controls on the centre console didn't do anything and it didn't even have a working heater. But the basic design was both obvious and, to touchscreen sceptics, pleasingly easy to understand. (The switch layout immediately made me think of the CRM114 scrambler in Dr. Strangelove.)
BMW's chunky automatic gear selector is immediately familiar, although there is a chunky mechanical lever for the high/low ratio switch next to it. And in a neat confirmation of the Grenadier's back-to-basic credentials it is being launched with both a ratchet handbrake and a proper key rather than a wireless one. Instrumentation is limited; speed and revs are reported by the central screen with what I thought was a smaller digital instrument pack in front of the steering wheel just housing warning lights.
The off-road courses created for media events are normally designed very carefully to flatter the cars featured, and to show off their talents without the indignity of getting struck. That definitely wasn't the case at Grenadier's location, around a former mine near Crehange in France featuring a bleak moonscape of slippery, gelatinous mud. I managed to get properly bogged down several times, although never so badly that I can't extract the Grenadier and then conquer the obstacle with either more speed or an improved technique.
It's very good at gentle progress. The accelerator pedal isn't too keen at the top end, but modest pressure brings the engine's solid mid-range into play and a correspondingly muscular exhaust note. But the drive is definitely a taste rather than a meal; the highest speed I see during my time in the car is a dizzying 25km/h, and the highest gear ratio is third.
The prototype had plenty of pre-production foibles. The gearbox clunked and sometimes snatched as torque came and went, and bigger throttle openings occasionally caused the engine to bog down briefly. I also found it surprisingly hard to persuade it to turn, even taking account of the ultra-slippery surface and its tendency to clog the tread pattern of the M+S tyres. It felt as if the front differential was locked, even though it wasn't. It was only later that I realised that almost all of my off-roading in the last couple of years has been done in modern Land Rover products, with Terrain Response systems invisibly tightening their lines with selective differential locking and brake intervention. Similarly the first time the Grenadier got bogged on a muddy ascent my fingers started looking for the non-existent height adjustment control to check it was fully raised. Which, as the suspension is entirely passive, was completely pointless.
This isn't a criticism. The Grenadier's lack of active technology is key to both its appeal and what INEOS hopes will be the durability for use in parts of the world far away from well-equipped dealer workshops. But it does mean that anyone who has grown more used to the SUVs packed with such features are going to need to to some readjustment; the prototype even lacking the speed regulating hill-descent control which is close to a segment standard fit these days. In that regard it does feel close to the lack of frills that categorised the original Defender until its retirement.
The other unanswered question is the one that Radcliffe is betting a chunk of his huge fortune on: will there be enough global demand to make the Grenadier a success? Fully-equipped car factories don't come cheap and although INEOS has said the project would be profitable at 25,000 cars a year it is clear that Hambach has capacity to make many more than that. That is an annual volume that the last Defender rarely got close to inside this century.
The INEOS is set to be sold in more territories, including the United States, but is still being produced by an all-new company, and is set to carry pricing that seems set to start in the UK (for the two-seat commercial version) in the high £40Ks. The stakes really couldn't be higher. This initial experience suggests the Grenadier can deal with off-road adventure. It's the 'everything else' bit that still carries the question mark.
Specification | INEOS Grenadier prototype
Engine: 2998cc straight six, twin turbocharged
Transmission: Eight-speed auto, all-wheel drive, selectable low-range
Power (hp): 281 @ TBC
Torque (lb ft): 332 @ TBC
Top speed: TBC
Weight: c. 2700kg
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