Cars

Rugged, good looks

The most-hyped car in years finally arrives in showrooms next month. But does the Range Rover Evoque deliver on its promises, asks Simon de Burton.

August 24 2011
Simon de Burton

Beyond the raw beauty of the place, one of the more intriguing sights in the Snowdonia National Park is a vast iron pipe of about two kilometres in length. It carries water between a couple of lakes, Marchlyn Mawr and Llyn Peris, in order to propel the turbines at the mighty Dinorwig hydroelectric power station.

The terrain around here is rough and inhospitable, and the workers who have the unending task of maintaining the pipe generally get to it on quad bikes or in four-wheel-drive vehicles of the more hardcore, utilitarian type. It felt odd, then, to be sloshing along a rutted, rock-strewn track that passes beneath one of its elevated sections behind the wheel of a luxuriously appointed SUV which, just half an hour earlier, had been effortlessly keeping up with a brace of Lotus Elise sports cars being hustled hard and fast along some of the twistiest and most exhilarating driving roads in north Wales.

I’d like to be able to say that the SUV in question was one you don’t know about but it was, of course, the new Range Rover Evoque – the most long-awaited, talked-about and hyped-up new car since the Bugatti Veyron. We first heard about it at the Detroit motor show in 2008 when it was unveiled as the Land Rover LRX concept, a radical-looking two-door coupé with off-road capability and a cosseting interior.

The work of design director Gerry McGovern, the LRX dispensed with many of the Land Rover signatures, presenting instead a sporty silhouette with a “chopped” coupé roof, a slit-like rear window and large-diameter wheels – it looked like a life-sized manifestation of one of the more radical Hot Wheels toys of the 1970s.

Three years later the Evoque has become a reality and, although the first cars won’t appear in dealerships until later in September, it already seems to have captured the imagination as the grown-up toy of the moment. A remarkable 20,000 orders (and counting) fill the books, and it is believed this car will knock the opposition into a cocked hat to become the top seller in the Range Rover line-up.

A dealer in high-end sporting guns recently remarked to me that although many people no longer have the ability to recognise quality per se, they do recognise the names that symbolise it – and that is highly significant in accounting for what appears to be the Evoque’s precocious success. In its 41-year history, Range Rover has grown from being merely the name of a more comfortable version of a Land Rover into a brand synonymous with wealth, luxury and prestige, presented in a series of vehicles that not only look good, but which have consistently offered sector-leading performance.

The Evoque is not, of course, the first funky-looking, compact SUV to come to market by a long way (think, for example, how cutting-edge Honda’s HR-V seemed when it appeared in 1999), but the fact that it carries the words Range Rover on its bonnet and boot immediately put it ahead of the game because here’s a chance to spend less than £30,000, and still get the kudos of the brand and the luxury finish that goes with it.

Equally important is the relatively small size of the Evoque, making it instantly appealing to women who might not previously have been interested in owning the larger Range Rover or Range Rover Sport, and for whom the highly competent Land Rover Freelander is insufficiently car-like. “We think that 40 per cent of Evoque buyers will be women, but the ratio of women to men could be as high as 50/50,” says McGovern.

In addition to the car being available in a wide variety of external colours, the interior can also be customised across three different design themes – Pure, which gives a more minimalist, contemporary look; Prestige for heightened luxury; and the sporting Dynamic. Between them they provide a vast range of possibilities and offer the chance to create an Evoque that, if not necessarily unique, will certainly have an element of the bespoke about it.

It’s all part of Range Rover’s masterplan to turn the car into a cult item even before anyone has had the chance to report back on what it’s actually like to live with in the real world. The cutting-edge Hello Evoque website has been up and running for months; 40 life-sized wire frame Evoque sculptures have been displayed in locations as diverse as Sydney Opera House, Edinburgh Castle and Santa Monica beach; and now the Pulse of the City campaign is under way in which a group of so-called “City Shapers” will use tailored-to-taste Evoques as their daily drivers in the world’s major capitals, posting comments on the web.

So that’s the flannel, but what’s the car actually like? In a word, good; in two words, darned good. As we’ve come to expect, Range Rover chose to put its money where its mouth is by designing a launch that fully demonstrates how the Evoque performs in the environment for which it has been designed – or, to be more correct, the environments for which it has been designed. That entailed the aforementioned fast-highway and off-road work in Snowdonia followed by a few exercises that would test its mettle in the urban jungle where, in reality, the large majority of Evoques will undoubtedly be put to exclusive use. For this, the venue of choice was the happening city of Liverpool (the proximity to all those Range Rover-loving footballers’ wives being entirely coincidental), which is also close to Land Rover’s plant at Halewood, Merseyside, where the cars are being built.

Although the Evoque had already proved its off-road capability, a further all-terrain twist was added to the launch drive in the very heart of Liverpool when we were directed through the derelict, three-kilometre long Edge Hill Tunnel that, until 1972, served as a rail route for freight going to and from the city’s once-bustling dockside, and is now an eerie hinterland which is partly flooded to a depth of about 18in with muddy water. It’s not the sort of place anyone’s likely to encounter en route to the supermarket, but it did allow the Evoque to pass its wading test with flying colours (it is designed to cope to a depth of about 20in) and certainly lent a Mad Max-ish frisson to the drive.

Emerging from the tunnel, a circuitous route around the city on a quiet Sunday morning revealed the car to be an effortless in-town performer, its compact size and torquey engines (one petrol and two diesel versions are initially available) making it handy for nipping into gaps – and the optional “park assist” means that it can be programmed to assess a space and slot itself in. All the driver has to do is release the wheel and control the pedals.

The two-door coupé model is by far the coolest looking of the two body styles, although the visibility from the five-door is marginally better, and there is a little more head- and leg-room in the rear so it’s probably the sensible choice from a practical point of view.

Turning to the massive options list (which includes a surround camera system and an impressive Meridian hi-fi), one feature worth selecting is the panoramic glass roof that floods the interior with light – it’s almost an essential on the coupé to compensate for its narrower rear passenger windows.

And by the beginning of next year, Evoques will be available in two-wheel-drive form which will, of course, sacrifice much of the car’s off-road capability yet ensure better fuel consumption. Despite claims that the diesel, all-wheel-drive models should be capable of up to 50mpg with manual gearboxes and stop/start technology, I failed to achieve better than 38, although since a major part of the design of the Evoque has centred on reducing weight, fuel consumption and carbon emissions, the target figure ought to be obtainable once the engine is bedded in.

All in all, it’s been well worth the three-year wait, and the desire of the Range Rover management to attract more female buyers and open up the brand to a new, younger, funkier clientele in 160 markets around the world looks set to be swiftly realised.

But from a manly point of view, I just think it’s a rather fine piece of engineering – not unlike Dinorwig’s magnificent water pipe.