Evoque lives up to the spin
It is one of the most high-profile debuts of 2011, but Land Rover seems to have got it right with the Evoque, which gets here next month, says Andrew English
WE pulled down a tree last weekend. It took five of us . . . and a Land Rover. The oak was dead, but still had enough spring left to yank the two-tonne Defender four feet backwards while it was crawling forward in low gear with the diffs locked.
I've got a feeling that owners of the new Range Rover Evoque won't be pulling down oaks, but I bet that they'd like to think they could. This new mini-sport utility vehicle, the smallest ever Range Rover, is targeted at BMW's X1 and Audi's Q3. Land Rover says that 90 per cent of Evoque buyers will be new to the brand and younger, more urban and a lot more female than its traditional customers.
Those owners will love the Evoque as much for its origins 67 years ago, when Maurice Wilks sketched the first Land Rover in the sand at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey, as for its striking looks derived from the LRX 2008 Detroit show concept. The Evoque's authenticity matters even if it is aimed at a latte generation of urbanites; they like to believe they're craggy horse whisperers at heart.
Some at Land Rover don't appear to agree, however. "We don't talk about off-road capability any more," said John Edwards, Land Rover's brand director, earlier this year dismissing the old company motto of "The best 4x4 by far".
"Whaaaat?" spluttered one rival German marketing director. "We'd kill for that kind of brand image, and they're throwing it away?"
Drive this car anywhere and heads will turn. Most makers like to think there's a buzz behind their launches, but on this one there is, with an unprecedented 18,000 orders already. We've seen fantastic Detroit concepts pork up in production (Porsche Boxster/VW Beetle), but Gerry McGovern's design team has done a wonderful job. From the glittering lamps to the rally-like wheel arches and rear spoiler, the Evoque exudes crispness and desirability as was found in testing it in Anglesey last weekend prior to the Evoque's arrival in Ireland next month.
The delight continues in the cabin, with glistening switches and dials from pricier Range Rover models and beautifully upholstered and supportive seats in the front which, with the adjustable steering column, give a perfect driving position. Features from a higher grade of cars include one-touch interior lighting and the split-screen centre console display, which allows passengers to watch television or DVDs while the driver can see only the satnav.
Look farther down in the cabin, however, and the cost accountant's hand is just visible as plastic quality drops off. Accommodation in the rear is just big enough for a couple of six-footers in the five-door, which has 1.2 inches of extra headroom. The back of the three-door is cramped, however, and the small windows make it feel claustrophobic. The boot is hardly huge, but big enough for a couple of medium-sized suitcases.
The chassis has been carefully wrought to make the most of its Freelander-derived independent suspension. The swaying induced by a tall ride height is partly assuaged by savings in top weight and unsprung mass, with an aluminium bonnet, roof and suspension components, and composite plastics one-piece tailgate. It's a shame they couldn't fit a split/fold item in the style of the original Range Rover, which proved impossible given the Evoque's pert rump. Weighing in at 1.64 tons (plus 62lb for the optional panoramic glass roof), the Evoque is 220lb less than the Freelander, which also helps to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
It also feels completely different to drive, similar to a car in response but with an off-roader's driving position. At medium-fast speeds it rides firmly, but is supple and positive over bumps. There's enough suspension travel to shrug off most potholes, but it's asking a lot of a single set of dampers to provide off-road agility and 100mph swerve safety combined with stability and ride comfort.
Land Rover's engineers have managed pretty well even with the standard steel suspension, but the off-road ability is compromised by a lack of suspension travel and the electronic traction and hill descent features have to make up for a lack of mechanical traction. The electronic power-assisted steering is almost brilliant but for occasionally variable weighting. The brakes are powerful, with a linear pedal feel.
Driven hard, the Evoque is fun, safe and more rewarding than anything in its class, or on the Land Rover price list. You can also opt for the Magnaride adjustable dampers, which extend the Evoque's competence and sporting mien across a wider range of road types.
Two engines are offered: a 2.2-litre turbodiesel with 148bhp or 187bhp, and the 237bhp, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol unit. Prices start at €40,975 for a 148bhp turbodiesel five-door, with four-wheel drive and six-speed manual. With Co2 emissions of 149g/km the road tax will be €302. While the petrol engine is the smoothest, lightest and most powerful unit, it is also thirsty. The 2.2-litre diesel is gruff under hard acceleration and the extra weight dulls the petrol version's peppy handling responses, but the combined consumption of 49.6mpg and the good emissions make it an appealing proposition.
John Edwards isn't really abandoning Land Rover's 4x4 brand identity, even though the company's first two-wheel drive model will go on sale here in early 2012. It is a measure of the degree of nervousness at the company, however, that the Evoque is being marketed half to death, which occasionally leads to management making some strange statements.
They should relax. The Evoque is one of the most innovative, interesting cars to come out of Land Rover since the original Range Rover 41 years ago. What's more, it's also one of the most desirable.
Campbell Spray is on leave. His column will return in two weeks.