Thursday, August 4, 2011

First drive: Range Rover Evoque

All it took was a couple of short passenger rides on the Land Rover test track back in April, then I was convinced that the forthcoming Range Rover Evoque had to be one of the most exciting cars to be launched in 2011.

Could the production-ready version of the baby Range Rover live up to my expectations? Or would I be disappointed? Well, it's just four months on and I'm in Liverpool to drive the finished Evoque at the international launch to find out.

Designed to appeal to a younger audience than models of the past, Land Rover is anticipating that 90 per cent of Evoque customers will be new to the off-roading brand. With Posh Spice Victoria Beckham as creative design executive, younger, more urban and more female buyers are also expected to be attracted to the new Range Rover.

Jaguar Land Rover anticipate that the Evoque will be their best-selling model and with 20,000 confirmed orders globally, of which 5,000 are ear-marked for the UK alone, it's not difficult to believe this.

The Evoque gets off to a good start on the outside, with the slippery 0.39 shape thankfully looking barely changed from the attractive 2008 LRX concept.

Highlights from the front include a modern take on the classic Range Rover styling clamshell bonnet, the slim headlights with the intricate detail for the daytime running lights, the aggressive grille and the chunky airdam with its skid plate detailing.

From the side, there's the sweeping, floating roof (which was mostly of the glass variety on the test cars) which is most obvious on the Coupe and in my view is the better-looking of the two Evoque versions. There's also the distinctive beltline which rises sharply towards the rear of the car, the large wing mirrors and bulbous wheel arches.

At the back, the short rear overhang is distinctive and attractive. Other neat design touches include the slim jewel-like 3D petal design rear lights, the small rear window and the chunky rear bumper.

Land Rover have tried to use weight-saving techniques where possible, this means for example, that the clamshell bonnet is manufactured in aluminium, with the one-piece tailgate made out of composite plastic.

About the only thing I'd change, are the wing mirrors that just look too big and angular and the small rear window which is difficult to see out of. Still, Land Rover should be congratulated for keeping the look of the production car so close to the concept.

The feel good factor carries on to the interior of the Evoque, which is dominated by the tall centre console, which sweeps down from the central control touch screen to the rotary gearlever dial. The edges were also tastefully trimmed in polished aluminium on all of the cars I drove, but there are other choices available to personalise.

With the multi-adjustable steering column the driving position is comfortable. Of the three different types of front seats that I tried, my favourites were the high-back, Recaro-style sports seats that also looked classy whether trimmed in red or black leather.

Rear space in both Coupe and five-door models is more than adequate, but the sweeping roofline means tall passengers will moan about the lack of headroom and with the upswept rear glass means it can feel claustrophobic too. A 550 litre boot is also a surprise considering the curvy shape; fold the rear seats forward and this increases to 1,350 litres.

Overall, the interior of the Evoque feels a special place to be and is worthy of the Range Rover name, with its attractive mix of leather and aluminium trims but there are still some parts of the design that I'm not keen on.

Firstly there are the instruments, with their jewel-like calibrations, which I think are over-fussy and look plain gaudy when you select Dynamic mode as they glow red. Then there are the switches for the climate control, which feel a bit cheap and insubstantial. Finally, some of the plastics, such as the glove box and the bottom of the doors feel cheap considering the price and appear as though they will scratch easily.

I had the chance to drive four different versions of the Evoque, both petrol and diesel over the course of two day launch. First up was a Dynamic Si4 Coupe with the LUX Pack, priced at £44,320; it was the most expensive version of the baby Rangie and also was my favourite if price and image wasn't an issue.

Powered by a 240bhp version of the latest turbocharged 2.0-litre Ford Ecoboost engine, it also has a healthy 251lb ft of torque on tap. Top speed is 135mph, with 60mph coming up in just 7.6 seconds, so with this engine, the Evoque comes closest to being a hot-hatch SUV. Well matched to the six-speed automatic transmission, the gearchanges are quick and smooth even in sport and dynamic modes.

In fact, the only downside to the Si4 petrol engine is that it isn't the most frugal engine in the Evoque line-up, with its 32.5mpg combined consumption figure.

As if the performance of the petrol engine isn't enough, the Si4 also makes the most of the Evoque's fine dynamics. On 19-inch alloy wheels (20-inch alloys will be standard on customer cars) with the passive dampers and a lighter engine than the diesel, it turns into corners with the confidence and body control that I've never seen with an SUV. It rides surprisingly well too and only occasionally, when on the absolute limit, did I feel the extra height of the SUV body.

After the petrol, I moved on to a 190bhp SD4 diesel which was also a coupe in Dynamic trim with the LUX Pack. Only just cheaper than the petrol at £44,320, it's powered by the same 2.2-litre diesel engine that's also used in Fords, Peugeots and Citroens. Refinement is good for a diesel engine and again it's well-matched to the six-speed automatic box.

Top speed for the SD4 is 124mph, with the dash to 60mph covered in 8.5 seconds. However, you have to work it harder to get the best performance and because the diesel engine is slightly heavier, the handling and turn in isn't quite so sharp.

Still, in the real world, there's little difference between the performance of the Si4 and SD4 engines and the diesel engine perhaps sits better with the Range Rover badge.

The final two Evoques I drove were both five-door versions, one was the fitted with the Si4 petrol engine that didn't feel much different to the three-door Coupe.

The other five-door, a 150bhp TD4 manual Pure with Tech Pack, will probably appeal most to fleet and private buyers with its more realistic £30,605 list price and 149g/km emissions.

The slowest of the Evoques that I drove, the TD4 had a top speed of 115mph and acceleration to 60mph in 10.3 seconds. Still, the lack of performance made me appreciate the excellent dynamics and the sweet, close ratio six-speed manual gearbox more.

So with the fancy styling and the performance you would be forgiven for thinking that the Evoque would be rubbish in the rough stuff. Well, you'd be wrong as I was given ample opportunities to drive the Evoque off-road and it didn't disappoint. Living up to Land Rover badge, it's far more capable than most owners will ever need.

So to sum up, the Evoque lived up to the promise shown earlier this year. It's definitely a game-changer for the brand and Land Rover should be justifiably proud of its abilities. The baby Range Rover isn't cheap but deserves every success and I want one.

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