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RR Evoque: driven to extremes

  1. I am sat in a bothy on top of a Scottish mountain, sharing a dram of whisky with a Scotsman called Donald. Donald is wearing a kilt and has a dagger sticking out of his sock. Outside, perched forlornly on the cliffside as wind and rain charge headlong against it, sits the UK’s first Evoque, mud and grass and something that looks suspiciously like a mountain hare adorning its flanks. I am a little uncomfortable.

    Not because of the weather, or Donald and his kilt, or because until 10 minutes ago I believed a bothy to be a thick meaty stew. The reason I’m uncomfortable is that, having wrung the Evoque down a Scottish B-road and then straight up the side of this muddy, waterlogged mountain, I have that insidious feeling I’ve got things wrong.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Photos: Paul Barshon

    This feature was originally published in the August 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. This is why. Ever since the concept was unveiled three years ago, the British media
    has frotted obsequiously about the Evoque, proclaiming it the greatest breakthrough since Señor Breadslicer patented his eponymous invention. I, however, have maintained a stony scepticism.

    Yes, it’s a nice-looking thing but, beyond that, what’s so special about a hatch-SUV crossover? The BMW X1 and Mini Countryman - not to mention the Nissan Qashqai and Skoda Yeti - got there first. And let’s not even get started on the three-door version, the car we have here in Scotland today, which surely doesn’t simply shoot itself in the foot, but takes a claymore to its own thigh for good measure. An SUV for parents who care about their kids, but not enough to give them their own doors? Genius, truly genius.

  3. So, as I crowed to the office before departing on this nine-day marathon test, a four-corners-of-the-globe, no-stones-unturned work-out would be the perfect opportunity to prove in four-dimensional certainty that the Evoque - the Victoria Beckham-endorsed Evoque - was a triumph of marketing fluff over rational demand.

    But now, after the wanton destruction of a nasty Scottish road and an even nastier Scottish hillside, I’m already composing the apologetic emails in my head.

  4. True, we’re driving the finest Evoque to exploit TopGear’s inherent weakness for fast, agile things: the top-spec three-door petrol version in range-topping Dynamic trim, with a 240bhp four-cylinder turbo - essentially the same engine that’ll appear in the next Ford Focus ST - mated to a six-speed ZF auto ‘box atop the most sporting chassis and 20-inch wheels.

    But still, you should have seen the way it made mincemeat - black pudding, even - of that twisty, cambered, slippery, potholed road. In the hands of anything but a Stig-spec test driver, I am sure the Evoque would go down that road faster than even the Golf R, our current 4WD hot-hatch champion.

  5. More than anything else, that’s thanks to the Evoque’s compliant suspension and phenomenal damping. Where even the finest hot hatches would be unsettled by the lethal divots and fissures of these roads, forcing the driver to curb corner speed for fear of being bounced into a loch by a cruelly placed pothole, the Evoque simply flows over even the worst tarmac. Flat but never jarring, pliant but never sloppy, it has the same extraordinary breathability of the best Jaguars.

    The optional magnetorheological dampers play a big part in this. Though essentially the same system used in the Ferrari 599 and Audi R8, the Evoque is the first car in the world to get the third-generation ‘MagneRide’ system, and the result is phenomenal: bipolar in the nicest possible way. The adaptive damping only comes as standard on the top-spec ‘Dynamic’ model: it’s a £1,150 cost option on other trim levels, but one that’s well worth the cash.

  6. How many cars in the world can switch, in a breath, from hot-hatch botherer to mud-track demon? Eighteen months ago, I tested a BMW X1 and Infiniti EX37 on a few tame farm tracks in deepest Dorset, and the pair struggled through even the most modest mud ‘n’ puddles. But the Evoque eased over knee-deep sludgy ruts without a clank or scrape, even tackling a 45-degree, slick-mud incline with nothing more than a judder of the traction control, a hill at the very limit of even the Freelander’s abilities.

    Even Donald is impressed. Our off-road guide and possibly the nicest human being I’ve ever met, he started exploring the Highlands with a single Land Rover 20 years ago, and now runs a fleet of Defenders trekking to Scotland’s most remote corners.

  7. No other vehicles, he says, are sturdy or versatile enough to survive the battering dished out by the Highlands. But, after seeing it skip dextrously to the top of a mountain, he’s happy to embrace the Evoque as a bona fide Land Rover. For those of you who worried the Evoque wouldn’t be off-road enough to wear the LR badge, if it’s good enough for Donald, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

    So far, most impressive, Mr Evoque. But, really, how many of your customers will be intrepid Highland adventurers? As a car that’ll spend most of its life in the urban wilderness, we need to know if it can stand out in the crowded city. Glasgow? Edinburgh? Don’t be daft. We’re heading to Vegas, baby…

  8. Midnight, downtown, and Vegas is throbbing. Quarter-clad waitresses gyrate fleshily in casino doorways as treacly basslines leak from strip clubs, a million flashbulbs vying for the attention - and cash - of a hundred thousand dolled-up, boozed-up, lucked-out punters. See them, stumbling contentedly from slot machine to lap dance to boozer, clutching cocktails the size of rugby balls and fistfuls of rumpled dollar bills to their chests.

    This is a city dedicated to lowest-common-denominator attention-grabbing: boobs and lights and noise. As Mr Sinatra never said, if you can stand out here, you can stand out anywhere.

  9. And you know what? Right here, right now, the Evoque is drawing the biggest crowd in Vegas. TopGear has driven Koenigseggs through Beijing and Merc SLR Speedsters through London, but, I swear, I’ve never seen a car receive a 10th of the attention that the Evoque is getting in Vegas. Sounds strange, I know, but don’t shoot the messenger. Here’s a modest, five-door diesel SUV-hatch putting a city of Rolls-Royces, mint-original Mustangs and Ferrari Californias - not to mention the bevies of oiled, nubile strippers - in the shade.

    “Check out that booty!” squeals a woman with a not-inconsiderable posterior herself. Camera phones flash; couples point and stare. Each time we stop, we are mobbed. Dutchmen quiz us on trim levels, Mexicans want to see the engine. A pair of Darrens from Barnsley sprint, literally sprint, two blocks just to peer at the Evoque’s bootspace.

  10. Tall Darren’s missus has already put in an order, having never seen one in the metal. Short Darren always thought the Evoque was a bit of a girl’s car, but he’s sold. The Las Vegas Land Rover dealer looking after the Evoque says when he parked it on his forecourt for a couple of hours last week, he received a dozen deposits from customers. Either Las Vegans love the Evoque, or they simply have way too much disposable income.

    “If you want a model, I can help you out,” leers a just-out-of-high-school, hot-pant-clad porn star in the making, prostrating herself over the Evoque’s bonnet as she draws from a giant, luminous fishbowl of a cocktail. Not quite sure I can explain why the Evoque is receiving so much attention. Maybe because it exists within the reach of us non-hedge-fund-managers? If you’re driving a Murciélago, people assume you’re an idiot with money, but the Evoque sits neatly at the crossroads of desirability and attainability.

  11. But there’s surely more to the Evoque fascination than its price tag. I reckon it has a lot to do with how… concept-ish it looks. The Evoque made the journey from 2008’s LRX concept to production virtually unchanged, retaining its wedgy glasshouse and glitzy jewellery.

    From those vents sliced into the back of the front wheelarches, the gorgeous light clusters, even the pinlights under the wing mirrors that throw a pool of light reading ‘RANGE ROVER’ onto the kerb below, the Evoque seems somehow to have escaped the greying influence of mass production. It’s a car at ease with showing off a little.

  12. Just like Vegas itself. ‘OUR BBQ RIBS ARE THE BEST KEPT SECRET IN TOWN!!!’ blares a 50-foot-wide neon billboard. The concept of irony hasn’t reached here, clearly. “Buy one, get one! Buy one, get one!” bellows a street vendor, hawking something unidentified and luminescent. That isn’t a special offer: that’s the definition of a transaction.

    Vegas couldn’t care less how the Evoque drives, but you’ll be happy to hear it’s as impressive in the city as it was in Scotland. We’re in the more powerful, 187bhp diesel (a 148bhp version of the same engine is available), a unit as refined as it is massively torquey, with not a hint of diesel rattle and a mighty spit of low-end torque.

  13. It’s an easy car to slot through Vegas’s 24-hour traffic, feeling compact and dainty, the steering sharp and the visibility surprisingly bearable, considering the Evoque’s squished rear.

    Despite its wedged profile, there’s plenty of rear-seat space in both the three-and five-door Evoque, but if you’re planning on putting kids back there, bear in mind that the narrow windowline will make long journeys claustrophobic. Solve this by speccing the giant, panoramic sunroof of our test car - a £460 option, and the ideal birthday present for any budding junior astronomer.

  14. “Hey, BUDDY?” A greeting delivered like a gunshot. “Is that your car?” I turn to see a four-foot high, four-foot wide, sharp-suited chauffeur prodding a purposeful finger against the rear bumper of the Evoque.

    “Well, it’s… Land Rover’s car,” I stutter, somewhat thrown. It’s not often you’re confronted by an aggressive, obese midget in the dead of night. “I know it’s a damn Land Rover,” he snaps, with more than a hint of angry frustration in his surprisingly deep voice. “I’m not blind. I’ve been looking for this one. Can’t get it anywhere. How much do you want for it?”

  15. “Er,” I find myself doing an alarmingly accurate impression of King George VI. “It’s, er, not mine to sell…” “OK, buddy,” the midget scowls. “I require this car. Now, how much does it cost?” A combination of speedy mental conversion and sheer guesswork. “About… fifty thousand dollars? Maybe fifty-five?” “I’ll give you sixty. Cash. Here and now.”

    What kind of insane midget has sixty thousand dollars in cash waiting in the trunk of his car? “I don’t think I ca-” “Seventy. Seventy thousand. Right now.” “Like I said, I’m not sure tha-” “Eighty. Ninety thousand. Am I making myself clear? I need this car, buddy.” I make a helpless, whimpering noise.

  16. “OK, OK, I get it.” Hell. He clearly thinks I’m playing games. I’m not playing games. I’m scared. “I’ll give you my card. You talk to your people, do what you gotta do. When you’re ready, you call me. I’ll be waiting.”

    He produces a card from his breast pocket, hands it to me, slaps me on the flank and waddles off back to his stretch limo. I look at the card. ROMELO, it reads, CHAUFFEURTAINER.

  17. If the Evoque can impress a chauffeurtainer - that notoriously discerning profession - what more proof do you need of its urban credentials? Leaving Vegas trembly-kneed and salivating, it’s time to find out how the Evoque copes with a more… abrasive environment.

  18. Welcome to car hell. High noon in the middle of the Dubai desert, and the temperature is cresting 50°C, the boiling, broiling sun turning the Evoque into the Middle East’s most fashionable hotplate. Even forgetting the searing heat - not easy when the soles of your shoes are literally melting - this place is still an automotive torture chamber.

    The dusty desert sand is an engineer’s nightmare: treacherous, powdery grit that bores its way into the tiniest gaps in a car’s internals, gluing itself to any water, oil or fuel to form a vicious, sandpapery solution that grinds bearings out of existence and clogs engines.

  19. And then there are the monster dunes, impossible to walk up and barely easier to drive on: too slow, and you’ll sink; too fast, and you’ll dig in. Either way you’ll be swallowed up to the doorframes, and then you will die. The odds of another human stumbling upon you before you’ve been turned into a sun-dried tomato are long to non-existent. Suffering jetlag so thick you could cut it with a bread knife, we should tread carefully out here, hundreds of miles from civilisation and water.

    But that would be to neglect our commitments to the Lord of Overambitious Road Tests. So we are dune-drifting instead.

  20. This sport - the potentially deadly but entirely addictive pursuit of surfing your SUV along a near-vertical wall of sand - is unquestionably the most fun you can have in 50°C heat without sunburning parts of your body that shouldn’t be sunburned. The Evoque is bloody brilliant at dune-drifting: with stubby overhangs, impressive ground clearance and that same zingy petrol engine we drove in Scotland, it launches sideways across the dunes, throwing sheets of powder-sand out behind like a jet ski’s surf-wake.

    So disarmingly comfortable is the Evoque with carving merrily across these shifting, drifting, deadly dunes, it becomes easy to forget that we’re driving not a dedicated off-roader with long-travel suspension and diff locks, but instead a dinky hatchback that copes with roads as tautly as a Ford Focus does.

  21. Not for the first time on this gargantuan, world-spanning mission, I find myself wondering what the catch is here. The price, perhaps? The Evoque starts at £28,000 for the lower-powered, two-wheel-drive five-door diesel, rising to £40,000 for the turbo three-door petrol with all the Dynamic goodies (yep, the five-door is £500 cheaper than the three-door).

    We would love Land Rover to offer a proper budget-spec Evoque with a modest little diesel - an entry-level, two-wheel-drive version priced closer to £20,000 than £30,000, but that would undermine its billing as a treat-yourself, premium thing.

  22. But though its price tag puts the Evoque a division above your standard family hatches, even the basest Evoques come with a tidy list of goodies: part-leather, heated seats and 18-inch alloys. Spec a Golf or a Focus equivalently, and you’re looking at a premium of hundreds, not thousands, for the go-anywhere, 4x4 superhatch.

    So maybe you’re not planning on re-enacting Operation Desert Storm in your next family car. But since the Evoque does the boring urban stuff perfectly, what’s wrong with having that span of abilities in reserve? Call it future-proofing against global warming.

  23. Basingstoke could look like this one day, y’know. And even if you don’t care about the Evoque’s sand-destroying capabilities, you should care about its cabin. What a comforting place the Evoque’s interior is, and not only because it’s the only area of shade and cool for miles around.

    With its deep-dish steering wheel, pop-up gear-selector borrowed from Jaguar (on the auto versions only, obviously) and the contrasting centre rails, it feels smart and different without trying to be wilfully quirky. Of course, you pay for all the posh extras, but they’re immaculately executed: the leather, in particular, is softer and classier than a…

  24. “Camel!” yells photographer Paul. Cresting the blind hump of a dune, we find ourselves bearing down at pace on a wall of further humps: those mounted on the backs of a squadron of grisly, heat-toughened dromedaries.

    I bloody hate camels, with their knobbly knees and floppy lips and facial expressions straight from The Grinch. If ever there was an argument against the existence of a benevolent god, surely the camel is it. There is no way this odd mishmash of wonky limbs, straggly fur and mournful, misfitting face could be the product of intelligent design. Unless, of course, that design was to make a horrible mess of a shiny new Range Rover Evoque, an outcome that looks increasingly certain as the Evoque slides and slithers towards the fetid, fly-infested herd.

  25. The camels make no attempt to move, eyeing the hot, dark lump of metal charging upon them with baleful stares and a sardonic roll of the lips. Hard on the brakes, and the Evoque nosedives into the sand, drifting to a sandy stop just a couple of feet from the squadron leader. He hoicks a well-aimed bolus of spit at the front of the Evoque and harrumphs.

    Camel: not dead. Evoque: certified dune-bashing hero. But we can’t proclaim it a winner yet, for there’s one more vital question to answer…

  26. Made it. Our Evoque journey ends on top of the world on the longest day of the year. Deep in the snow on Europe’s largest glacier with the sun shining brightly at 2am, the Evoque is, somehow, in one piece. The same can’t be said for the humans that have accompanied it.

    Iceland in the eternal sunshine of high summer is a trippy enough place at the best of times. Factor in a blend of sleep deprivation and time-zone disorientation so potent it could be bottled up and sold to the military as a biological weapon, a satnav that believes us to be in a small suburb west of Brussels and an aircon system that insists on pumping white-hot air into the cabin no matter what temperature we set it to.

  27. Don’t worry, these aren’t design features but mere glitches on our not-quite-production-ready car that’ll be ironed out before the Evoque reaches forecourts. Anyway, I’m looking at a recipe for complete mental disintegration and a sudden, uncontrollable desire to starting licking windows.

    And that’s before trying to comprehend the landscape. What a strange, beautiful country this is, an all-you-can-eat buffet of geology. In any given five-mile stretch, the scenery flips from purple, lupus-strewn meadows to fields of black lava - coated in soft, gloopy, moss-like chocolate sauce atop profiteroles - to desolate, charcoal-sand beaches. Then craggy, piercing cliffs and lumpen glaciers, to rocky plateaus dotted with steaming geysers.

  28. Didn’t bother the Evoque. Sand, gravel, snow, this little monster - no longer than a Ford Focus - demonstrates a rottweiler-like determination to haul its way over everything in its path. Yesterday, we found ourselves on a rocky beach beside an iceberg-filled lagoon, where the giant floes queued patiently, waiting their turn to escape to sea.

    Our only escape route, however, was a mile of bouldery beach, the ultimate test of the Evoque’s suspension. In sand or mud, a car can simply sink, which is inconvenient but rarely terminal. But fail to deal with a foot-high rock, and it’ll simply shear the wheels straight from the car.

  29. I won’t lie to you - the Evoque doesn’t cope with this hideous, wheel-shattering surface as well as a Defender on giant tyres, the most popular mode of off-road transport around here.

    Though the cabin was, from time to time, penetrated by the alarming crack of something rocky impacting at pace against something metal, the Evoque survived without lasting damage. (Probably. If your local Land Rover dealer is offering a special discount on a black, diesel, ex-demonstrator Evoque this autumn, best give it a miss).

  30. Iceland is a country where you learn not to expect just the unexpected, but also the frankly implausible. Earlier, on Iceland’s main highway (yes, there is just one), we swept past Eyjafjallajökull - the volcano that last year grounded virtually every plane in Europe and covered most of Iceland in thick sooty ash - looking as peaceful and dormant as a Cotswolds hill.

    Barrelling at 60mph next to the sea on the main road under a sunny sky, the Evoque’s temperature gauge reading a balmy 15°C, we hit a half-mile long patch of snow across the road. Eh? Cue a wild, panicking slide towards a tour bus heading the other way, a slide the Evoque managed to collect about 20 yards before we wiped out a sizeable chunk of Iceland’s pensioner population. No idea how the snow came to be there. I mention it to a few Icelanders. They shrug and nod. This kind of thing happens here.

  31. Aside from being boiled, frozen or stabbed to death by Las Vegan chauffeurtainers, our biggest worry on this trip was that the Evoque would turn out to be - and apologies for the cultural shorthand here - a bit of a hairdresser’s car.

    But the wee Rangey has scrambled its way up a mountain, bashed its way across the world’s biggest dunes, clambered over hideous rock fields and even made a fair fist of skiing a glacier. Unless you spec your Evoque with the dubious aluminium-flower-pattern trim of our Iceland test car, there’s nothing hairdresser-ish about it. On a pluck-per-pound basis, the Evoque is the ballsiest car in the world. I’m sold. I want one.

  32. If you do, a warning: Land Rover will give you ample opportunity to get your Evoque very, very wrong. You can spec the roof in black, white or body colour (the same colour as the rest of the car’s exterior I mean, not the same colour as your body, although ask nicely, and LR will probably whip you up a roof in blotchy flesh). The cabin, too, is available in a host of eye-threatening combos. Option carefully, prospective buyer.

    Back in Scotland, before driving the car, I wondered what set of criteria would possibly lead potential customers to an Evoque (“Hello, dealer? I was wondering if you had a family car, ideally without rear doors, that can’t really decide whether it’s an off-roader or a city car. Ooh, and if it’s endorsed by a Spice Girl, that’d be perfect…”).

  33. Nine days and a couple of thousand miles later, I’ve figured it out. Firstly, most Evoque buyers won’t choose this car on a box-ticking basis. Instead, it’s an iPad, an I-want-one-of-those purchases. There isn’t, so far as I can tell, any rational reason to buy Apple’s shiny tablet over a cheaper, more flexible netbook, but millions still do, because the iPad has that halo glow of… specialness.

    Similarly the Evoque. But it’s more than a mere luxury purchase, a flavour-of-the-month addendum for the family with four cars on their driveway already. The Evoque adds up on strictly rational grounds, too. It’s an impeccably behaved, luxurious road car with the ability to tackle almost any terrain.

  34. Time for the airport, home, shower and to sleep until November. Down below the glacier, we charge along a gravel-and-dirt road, a rough track that would shake any standard road car to pieces within half a mile.

    The sun is low in the sky, and, in the Evoque’s mirrors, I watch our slipstream of dust glinting in the soft morning light. Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, but I am laughing, literally laughing out loud. Who knew it’d feel this good to be proved wrong?

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