Picture: NEWSPRESS UK
Picture: NEWSPRESS UK

If you’ve dropped the kids off at school in London or the New York suburbs recently, the idea that Jaguar Land Rover Automotive (JLR) is struggling must seem far-fetched. The British carmaker’s Range Rover SUVs have become a common feature of the upper middle-class lifestyle. How else would one get to brunch and the gym?

Yet a decade after India’s Tata Group acquired and dramatically reinvigorated these famous old brands, JLR is back on the ropes. The unit lost an eye-peeling £3.3bn  in the fiscal year to March and burned through £1.3bn of cash. No wonder Tata is casting around for help.

JLR’s cost-base has become bloated, its sales in China have collapsed, and its big bet on Jaguar saloon (sedan) models has failed to pay off. Selling SUVs to Brits and Americans has prevented its fall from being even more dramatic. However, new petrol and diesel cars are going to be banned in the U.K. and elsewhere by 2040 and the climate crisis could trigger a backlash against gas-guzzlers well before then. Either way, refashioning the company for a zero-emissions future will be very expensive.

Tata insists JLR is not for sale but that doesn’t mean it wants to continue this journey alone. The unit had about £2.2bn of net debt at the end of September.

The Indian parent has approached fellow carmakers, including China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group and Germany’s BMW, about forging partnerships to help JLR save money, Bloomberg reported this week. These would supplement existing collaborations with BMW on electric drive systems and with Waymo on autonomous vehicles.

This hunt for allies makes sense because JLR’s business model is looking shaky. More than 80% of the vehicles it sold in Europe in 2018 run on diesel, a technology that’s been undermined by Volkswagen’s (VW) emissions cheating and the threat of bans in many cities.

SUVs make up an even higher percentage of sales. The boom in these vehicles has contributed to a rise in average carbon emissions from carmakers over the past year or two. No wonder they’re in the cross-hairs of climate campaigners. In October, JLR listed “increasing environmental activism” among its biggest challenges.

The Extinction Rebellion crowd has a point here. A top-specification Range Rover can weigh more than 2,585kg, which is why the company’s vehicles tend to spew out more carbon dioxide than its peers.

Thanks to progress on cost-cutting and signs that plunging China sales have bottomed out, investors have become more confident in Tata’s ability to turn JLR around

Because it sells less than 300,000 cars annually in Europe, JLR has special dispensation from Brussels to pollute more.1 However, these lenient fleet emission targets expire in 2028, so the company needs to change its ways sharpish.

It says it’s on track to cut emissions by 45% in 2020 compared to 2007 levels, as required by regulators. From 2020 there will be a hybrid or electric variant of all of its models; and Jaguar’s all-electric I-Pace compact SUV deservedly won car of the year. Creating zero emissions versions of the group’s biggest SUVS will be more difficult, though, because of their hefty weight and poor aerodynamics.

Footing the bill will be a stretch too. The company has to manage a £4bn yearly investment budget while selling far fewer cars than its bigger rivals: JLR sold less than 600,000 vehicles last year, about 5% of VW’s haul. Lacklustre sales have left it with unused production capacity.

Its attention to detail in manufacturing has also been found wanting. The JLR brands came bottom in JD Power’s US new vehicle quality rankings, and high warranty costs are an unwelcome feature of its earnings. All of this means JLR’s profit margins are thinner than you might expect given the $210,000 price tag of a high-spec Range Rover.

Even as far out as 2023, JLR anticipates an operating return on sales of 6% at most. This is similar to Daimler’s 2022 target for Mercedes-Benz, but is way below the margins of French mass-market carmaker Peugeot.

Thanks to progress on cost-cutting and signs that plunging China sales have bottomed out, investors have become more confident in Tata’s ability to turn JLR around. It returned to profit in the second quarter, prompting a rally in Tata Motors’ shares and JLR’s beaten up bonds. US President Donald Trump’s threat of a 25% US tariff on imported vehicles appears to have receded somewhat, as has the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit that would have been ruinous for carmakers.

Might this moment of calm tempt a buyer of the company out of the shadows? Tata’s reluctance to sell isn’t the only barrier. Peugeot was rumored to be keen but its CEO Carlos Tavares has found another merger partner in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). Bernstein analyst Max Warburton says BMW would fit but the Bavarians lost a lot of money when they owned Rover in the 1990s.

There are also politics to consider. The backlash against SUVs, many built by BMW, is acute in Germany. Doubling down on gas-guzzling urban tractors might harm BMW’s emissions footprint.2 It might also be viewed poorly by the Berlin government, which boosted electric-vehicle subsidies recently.

While SUVs can carry lots of baggage, increasingly it’s the wrong kind.

1 JLR’s new cars must have average emissions of about 130g/km of carbon dioxide by 2021, compared to an industry average of 95g.

2 Depending on what happened to JLR’s emissions derogation.

• Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies.

Bloomberg