What does the new Ineos Grenadier off-roader have in common with a Tesla? At first glance, not much. Tesla challenges our notions of what’s possible and acceptable in a mass-market, electric, semi-autonomous car, and has quickly become a major global player, expecting to build nearly 2 million vehicles this year. The Grenadier is the very opposite. It’s a willfully anachronistic throwback to an older, simpler style of SUV, with a choice of two old-fashioned, pure combustion engines (though an EV will follow). And Ineos says it only needs to sell around 25,000 examples each year to make a profit.
But neither a Tesla or Grenadier would exist without a billionaire backer from outside the car industry; one who has a singular vision of the kind of car he wanted to make, and the funds and patience to cover the huge investment and inevitable costly delays involved. While Tesla has Elon Musk, Ineos’s founder is Sir Jim Ratcliffe who topped Britain’s rich list when his Ineos chemical group was at its peak valuation.
Sir Jim’s turn toward automotive was precipitated when, in 2016, Land Rover ceased production of its rudimentary but much-loved Defender off-roader with its separate ladder-frame chassis and beam axles. As the new Defender has a less rugged but more refined passenger-car-style monocoque chassis, Sir Jim, a keen fisherman, adventurer and collector of old Land Rovers, figured that there would still be a market for a simple, tough and affordable 4×4.
He tried to buy the tooling for the old Defender to keep it alive, but Land Rover declined, so Sir Jim decided to build his own after a few beers in his London pub, an establishment from which his car takes its name. Unsurprisingly, the Grenadier ended up looking a lot like the old Defender, and Land Rover’s unsuccessful lawsuits, the pandemic and the supply chain crisis mean we’ve only just driven a car first announced six years ago almost to the day.
Before we get into what it’s like to drive the Grenadier, you might be asking why Robb Report is covering a basic, working all-terrain vehicle which is likely to have an entry price of around $65,000 when deliveries start in the US. But this type of SUV has often enjoyed a desirability beyond its price. The late Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip were the old Defender’s most famous customers, commissioning a series of subtle, stylish and bespoke cars in dark or lovat greens.
The conceptually similar Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen started life as a simple (if exceptionally well-made) tool for soldiers and explorers, but has surprised even its maker by staying in production for half a century and becoming the urban ride of choice for the young and very well-heeled, with the 577 hp G63 starting at $179,000. Mercedes sold over 40,000 G-Wagens last year: if the Grenadier can recreate a fraction of G-Class cachet and credibility, it might sell its target 25,000 cars quickly, and be able to shift its price point upwards.
The odds are good. Unlike Mr. Musk, who tries to make as much of his cars as possible in-house, Sir Jim has gone straight to some of the industry’s best suppliers for help, and it’s surprising how affordable the Grenadier is for the level of kit that you get. The 3.0-liter straight-six engine options (a choice of gas or diesel) are from BMW, the eight-speed auto ‘box is from ZF—as used by BMW and Rolls-Royce—and the entire car has been engineered in Austria by Magna-Steyr, which also makes the G-Wagen for Mercedes. The Grenadier is even built in a former Mercedes plant in Hambach, France, by Mercedes-trained staff.
You can feel their influence as soon as you pull the door handle. Perceived quality doesn’t equate directly to dependability, but the Grenadier seems far closer in its build standard to a G-Wagen than an old Defender, so you hope its reliability will be more like the Merc’s too.
Once you’ve climbed up and into the exceptionally comfortable Recaro seats, you can start to explore a cabin which is, again, the polar opposite to a Tesla, and an answer to anyone who’s ever complained about the ubiquity of touchscreens in modern cars. There is a screen, but there’s also a button for almost every major function, all chunky enough to be operated with gloves and extending over a large panel in the roof too, like a military helicopter. Is it actually easier to operate than a screen? Who cares: it’s unique, well-made and makes for great cabin theater.
On the road, both BMW engine options are refined, if understandably lacking the insane pace we’ve become used to in G-Wagens. More importantly, for a car with separate ladder-frame chassis and beam axles—a layout ideally suited to the rigors of extreme off-roading—the Grenadier’s road manners are remarkably civilized. It isn’t the first car you’d pick to motor from San Francisco to your ranch in Montana, but if you had to, it would be a calm, comfortable companion. Ride, handling and chassis refinement are all impressive given what lies beneath. The heavy, low-geared steering requires you to wind the lock off as actively as you wind it on: you won’t confuse the Grenadier with a conventional modern SUV, nor forget where its real priorities lie, but the compromise between its chops on asphalt and dirt is well-struck.
Yet when facing the toughest of trails, it’s predictably unstoppable. With the optional locking front and rear differentials engaged, it performs the same uncanny trick as the G-Wagen and the old Defender, almost relegating the driver to a passenger as it clambers up or down the steepest, rockiest terrain in seemingly autonomous fashion, with only the lightest of throttle and steering inputs required. We didn’t find its limits on a long off-road test in the Highlands of Scotland, but it will take you further than you dare go.
Billionaire wannabe car tycoons don’t get it all their own way. Sir James Dyson lost at least half a billion dollars on the electric SUV he attempted to develop, and the estimated $1.5 billion which has been sunk into the Grenadier will take a long time to claw black. But the quality and the distinctiveness of what Ratcliffe has produced give him a good chance of doing just that. And if not, he can console himself by driving the car he always wanted, and built himself.
Click here for more photos of the Ineos Grenadier.