When the original Range Rover was launched back in 1970, Land Rover's chief engineer, Tom Barton, demanded vinyl seats and a rubber floor so you could hose out the cabin when it got muddy. He allowed a trace of carpet but that was only to dampen down the whine from the gearbox.
Imagine what Barton would think of the new 2012 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque. Here is a Range Rover built for trendy urbanites that'll be offered with an interior designed by Victoria Beckham. It's a conscious attempt to cash in on the appeal of compact crossovers and to give Land Rover a relevancy in a world more obsessed by appearances and exhaust emissions than off-road prowess.
Its pre-sale hype alone is indicative of its mission. First unveiled as the LRX Concept at the Detroit auto show in January 2008, there have been technical presentations, celebrity galas and even wireframe statues posing as art. But now, at long last, we've had the opportunity to drive it. And not just around the block, but from Land Rover's headquarters in Gaydon all the way into the heart of Ireland.
About That Name
You might be wondering about the clunky naming convention applied to the Evoque. Land Rover is now pushing Range Rover as a sub-brand that produces trendy toys, while Land Rover proper will focus on more practical vehicles. That's why the Evoque can sit happily beside the similarly sized LR2, with which it shares a platform. Land Rover sees the LR2 as a rival to the Volkswagen Tiguan, while the Evoque is more of an Audi Q5 competitor. Get it? Yeah, it's a stretch.
It's less difficult to imagine when you consider that few vehicles have progressed so seamlessly from the designer's sketch pad to production. With its bulbous wheel arches, squinting headlights, shallow windows and dramatically sloping roof line, the Evoque has cartoonlike proportions. It divides opinion but that's surely no bad thing. If you want safe and elegant design, Land Rover figures you'll just buy an Audi.
The Evoque's voluptuous curves also give it a presence beyond its dimensions. At 171.5 inches, the Evoque is nearly 17 inches shorter than a Range Rover Sport and 10.7 inches shorter than a Q5. Indeed, it's almost exactly the same length as the new Ford Focus hatchback. Interesting company to say the least.
Low Roof Equals No Room
There is a price to pay for such proportions, at least in the coupe we drove. Anyone expecting to fit comfortably in the rear of an Evoque is going to be disappointed. Although there's more headroom in the back of the two-door Evoque than you might expect, the shallow side windows won't please the claustrophobic and the legroom is no more than adequate.
The five-door, which is 1.2 inches taller and has a flatter roof line, is significantly more passenger-friendly and is really the only choice for families. Opting for the panoramic glass roof also helps improve the feeling of space.
Those in the front have a much better time. Sometime around the face-lift of the Range Rover Sport, Land Rover discovered how to do interiors. More welcoming than the cockpits of its German rivals, the Evoque's fascia wraps around the driver and offers a neat mix of leather, wood, aluminum and high-grade plastics. Inside, the Evoque feels like a proper Range Rover.
Most of the major functions are controlled through an 8-inch touchscreen. It's a tweaked version of the system found in the Jaguar XF and works well. Another feature pinched from Land Rover's sister brand is the rotary gearknob that emerges from the center console when you start the Evoque. It could be lampooned as a gimmick, but it's a bit of street theatre that suits the Evoque's character.
The options list is predictably vast and includes nearly everything you can find on a big daddy Range Rover. The Evoque can be asked to park itself and play tunes through a superb 17-speaker Meridian audio system. The inference is clear — this is a baby Range Rover, not a cut-price alternative.
Everybody Is Going Turbocharged
There is nothing cut-rate about the Evoque's engine either. It's an all-new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with direct injection and twin variable valve timing. Land Rover claims it weighs 88 pounds less than the 3.2-liter inline-6 it replaces and develops a healthy 237 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 251 pound-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm. It's hooked to a six-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel-mounted paddles standard.
Land Rover reckons it's good for zero to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, which feels about right. There's a pleasingly sporty rasp when it's extended, and the refinement is good all the way to the 6,500 rpm redline. It's a nicely tuned engine but we reckon there's still room for an Evoque R with a dollop more thrust.
For now, it's the only engine option headed for the U.S., but don't bet against the turbodiesels crossing the pond at some point. Land Rover claims that more than 60 percent of the parts in its 2.2-liter turbodiesel have either been replaced or redesigned for its debut in the Evoque and the Jaguar XF. There's common-rail direct injection, piezoelectric injectors and a variable-nozzle turbocharger. It's offered in three versions all the way up to 187 hp. The top-spec engine gives away little to its gasoline counterpart in either performance or refinement, but offers significantly better fuel economy. It would be a shame if Land Rover didn't at least consider bringing the diesel to the U.S.
Engineered for the Road
The 2012 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque is built around a steel monocoque, but the carmaker's engineers have worked hard to minimize the mass. The hood, roof panels and key suspension components are aluminum, the structural cross beam is magnesium and the front fenders and tailgate assembly are plastic. The gas-powered coupe weighs 3,615 pounds, with the five-door just 65 pounds heavier. The equivalent Audi Q5 weighs 3,957 pounds.
In Europe, Land Rover will offer a front-wheel-drive Evoque fitted with the diesel engine, but all Evoques for the U.S. will have an all-wheel-drive system with an electronically controlled Haldex center coupling. There are MacPherson struts and antiroll bars front and rear. In "Dynamic" trim the Evoque will also boast an Adaptive Dynamics system that features MagneRide continuously variable dampers just like the ZR1 Corvette and Ferrari 599.
Within the first five yards of travel, it's clear that the Evoque is much more than an LR2 in a posh frock. The traditional "command" driving position, where you look down upon the hood, is gone, as if to emphasize the Evoque's sporting pretensions. The electromechanical steering feels muted on center but it weights up nicely around turns. Its agility is impressive, and while you never quite escape the feeling that the center of gravity is higher than ideal, it represents a quantum leap forward for Land Rover and stands comparison with other sharp-handling SUVs such as the BMW X6.
This impression is enhanced if you opt for the Adaptive Dynamics. MagneRide might sound like a gadget but it really works. In the standard mode, the ride is excellent, or you can trade some comfort for the enhanced control of "Dynamic" mode, which also reduces the steering assistance. The standard, passive system picks a spot somewhere between comfort and Dynamic. The ride at first can feel a little firm around town and it fidgets on the highway, but overall it's a sensible compromise given the Evoque's role in life.
It Can Go Off-Road, Sort of
Land Rover describes the Evoque as "offering all-weather, all-surface capability, which is a hallmark of the brand." What traditional Defender buyers would make of this watered-down narrative is unclear, but it's indicative of a change of emphasis as Land Rover seeks to broaden its appeal.
Compared with most fashion-focused SUVs, the Evoque packs some significant off-road toys. The Terrain Response system offers different settings for different terrain, tweaking the throttle response, gearbox, center coupling and braking/stability systems to suit. Also standard are Hill Descent Control (HDC) and Gradient Release Control (GRC), which carefully modulate the braking performance to guide the car down steep descents.
Couple this with a short wheelbase, decent approach and departure angles and an engine with plentiful torque, and you have a surprisingly capable 4x4. You can't have a low-ratio gearbox or diff locks, but the Evoque was never supposed to be a genuine mud-plugger. It's at least a match off-road for all its rivals, which is enough for Land Rover and, we suspect, its customers.
Will It Matter?
It's hard to imagine that Land Rover, starting with a clean sheet of paper instead of the LR2 platform, would have created an SUV quite as small as the Evoque. There are inevitable compromises, and while the trend for downsizing is gathering pace in Europe, U.S. buyers are less likely to pay so much for something so small. With a base price of $44,995 for the coupe, the 2012 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque is playing in nearly the same league as the midsize LR4, not to mention any number of compact luxury rivals.
Land Rover would argue, though, that the comparison is irrelevant and that the whole point of the Evoque is to target customers who would not normally be drawn to the marque. They will point to an army of younger, predominantly urban buyers who don't want or need a vast off-roader, but crave the style and posture of an SUV.
Given the huge growth in the compact SUV market, Land Rover may well have a point. It's a world away from the original Range Rover and it won't excite the purists, but those purists aren't going to keep the company going forever. The Evoque won't pay the bills on its own either, but don't be surprised if it becomes the best-selling Range Rover ever.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report, which originally appeared on insideline.com.