Having just spent a day at Gaydon being brainwashed into loving the new Range Rover Evoque (not that we weren't loving it already, you understand...), it was a relief to find something cynical to say about the new British SUV that seems destined to take showrooms by storm in September.
Just don't let the OH talk you into buying one with the 'Botanical' aluminium interior trim. We've just seen it coupled with a purple and cream colour combo on one of Land Rover's own prototypes, and unless you have a compelling urge to drive a car that looks like the inside of smirking TV popinjay Laurence Llewellyn Bowen's boudoir (may the Lord save and protect us), you'll need to give it the swerve.
It's not the end of the world, as a quick visit to the new Evoque configurator will reveal plenty of interior trim combo packages that evoke reassuringly masculine characteristics. They've got names like 'vortex', 'velocity' and 'pursuit', which may not be old school Rangie terms, but at least they sound as if they're supposed to be driven by proper blokes as well as ladies - even if that means chaps who are more comfortable in tight-fitting Lycra than a practical Harris tweed. (Funnily enough PH's own Mr Garlick has been known to affect both materials, although fortunately not at once...)
So yes, it's a brand new world for the premium Range Rover brand, but you knew that already. What nobody really knows yet is what the new model will be like to drive, although a few people have been thrown the keys to early production prototypes to help set the scene.
PH was lucky enough to be offered a handful of tarmac-only laps around part of JLR's Gaydon test track at the end of our tech seminar on the Evoque earlier this week. We drove the 240PS petrol engine with auto transmission, over considerably noisy, unevenly cambered and poorly surfaced roads, in a vehicle from a build batch that is still four generations from the fully finished article. While it was impossible to draw fully rounded conclusions (the road/tyre noise intrusion in particular should be improved as the next generation pre-production builds tighten up closures and cabin sealing, etc.), it was a fascinating early glimpse into the vehicle's underlying characteristics.
Prior to our own drive, we'd been chauffeured around the same course in the 190PS diesel (auto and manual versions), as well as the 'sportier' petrol-engined Evoque we got to drive later, and first impressions centred on the ride quality and body control. The optional MagneRide system gives you electronically controlled suspension that adjusts individual damper rates 50 times per second courtesy of twin magnetic coils acting on the fluid viscosity inside each unit, and although the damping system will be familiar to Ferrari owners among others, JLR says this is its first application in a SUV. It seems unlikely to be the last, because the Evoque offers a level of composure over difficult cambers and during fast cornering that's of a different order to the 'ordinary' SUV offering in this class.
There's one particularly nasty hump on the test track which, when taken at high speed, makes you tense your muscles during the 'weightless' moment in anticipation of the expected splash-down. A MagneRide equipped Evoque reacts to the rapid damper extension by tensing its own metaphorical muscles, and performs a landing that is impressively smooth and poised. The reaction feels almost cat-like (in as much as nearly two tonnes of rampant SUV can be feline), and a similar level of interaction with other road surfaces and cambers meant the Evoque comprehensively mastered the stretches of test track tarmac mimicking fast A-road sweepers and twisty undulating country lanes on the test course.
Interestingly, in spite of the Evoque's overtly sporty lines (especially in 'Coupe' form) the JLR engineers have not tied down the body roll as firmly as might have been possible. So don't buy one expecting nailed-flat GTi-style cornering, because it still has an appreciable amount of lean (albeit well-controlled as described), and there's still that extra bit of pitching under heavy braking to remind you this is a 'proper' SUV - with long-travel suspension, class-leading ground clearance and a COG to match. The difference is it's all contained within a seemingly well considered comfort zone. The objective was to be quick, composed and assured, but still with something of the feel of a bigger Range Rover, we were told.
All this was evident from our passenger rides, but getting behind the wheel reveals there is more to the Evoque's dynamic portfolio than competent body control. But let's start by getting comfortable.
You will, because the seats are accommodatingly plumptious with a wide range of adjustment and you sit moderately high-up in what JLR describes as its 'Sport Command' driving position. (JLR engineers took us on a suitably surreal tour through their Virtual Reality Cave to explain the vehicle's efficient interior packaging - suffice to say it's very big on the inside, and rear leg and headroom are excellent even in the more rakishly-roofed 'Coupe'.)
There's rake and height adjustment for the wheel, and you sit looking at a classic twin-pack instrument cluster with 'bejewelled' chaplets on the dials and an information-rich TFT screen placed between them. It's ever-so slightly 'bling', yes, but undeniably attractive in spite of that. The rest of the interior has an upmarket premium feel that will appeal to anyone who has ever enjoyed a boutique-chic hotel or a gold card airport lounge. (Although to traditional Range Rover enthusiasts - the type who weren't forced to buy their own furniture for instance - the Evoque's very contemporary charms may be a little less obvious.)
JLR has worked hard to overcome NVH issues from both diesel and petrol engines and firing up either reveals a cabin well insulated from engine noise. The Evoque's 'core' engine is a 2.2 litre four cylinder DW12C diesel making 190PS which (from the passenger seat) offers seamless flexibility through a broad mid-range, thanks to its fat and flat torque curve that we imagine is going to help make it a great 'all-rounder'. The petrol has one of those induction amplifier tubes to make the cabin sound rortier. If you're stuck out in the bush it may also (we'd like to think), be easily converted to a handy wading snorkel.
We were ushered towards the 240PS petrol version for our brief test, and while some folk will instinctively prefer its revvier nature and higher output, it will take a proper comparison to determine whether it's actually 'nicer' to drive than the diesel.
Of course the turbocharged 2.0 litre petrol is noticeably quicker, offering an impressive 0-60 time of 7.1secs and a maximum top speed of 135mph (the 190PS diesel gives you a 9.5secs sprint to 60mph and 124mph), but the fuel consumption suffers (official figures give the diesel an impressive 49.6mpg against our car's 35mpg, while CO2 is 199g/km against the diesel's 149g/km). Additionally the petrol is available only with a six speed auto, so for drivers who want maximum engagement that's potentially a minus point, especially as others have reported the diesel's (optional) six manual gears are a positive pleasure to use.
We didn't get a chance to turn the traction control off, but with the electronic systems in place the Evoque is unusually well-balanced through corners for a car of its ilk. The electric power steering is remarkably quick and turns in with surprising verve, and instead of porridgey understeer during aggressive cornering the Evoque seems most intent on performing perfectly balanced four wheel drift. Apparently switching everything off enables a hilarious oversteer mode, and you can certainly feel the back end loading up on a trailing throttle into a corner, even with all safety systems on. Which is amusing and good for a sporty 'feel', although we're still not quite sure if that's entirely relevant in what will surely be a style-led purchase in almost every case.
In almost every other respect, the Evoque seems frighteningly relevant. God knows we're not fashion gurus here at PH, but even we can spot this car's potential to be the next 'must have' accessory for the 'xyz' generation. (Which letter are we up to? Ed.)
The best news is that thanks to the efforts of the JLR engineering team at Gaydon, it won't be just a pretty face, but has been conceived as a class-leading competitor in all important respects. The Evoque, as we were repeatedly reminded, is 'a Range Rover, after all'.
Evoque prices in the UK will start from £27,955 for an eD4 Pure 5-door 6 Speed manual 2WD, or £28,705 if you want 4x4. The top-of-the-range Si4 6 Speed automatic Dynamic coupé with LUX pack is £44,320.
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