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Top Gear’s Range Rover Evoque vs Scotland

  1. The reason I’m sitting on the top of a Scottish glen with a rainbow spouting out of the bonnet of my Range Rover Evoque, having driven here across a moor and up a small mountain without the use of an actual road, is because I got angry. Well, irritated, really. Annoyed by the two things that seemed to pop up every time over the past six months I’ve told anyone that I drive the littlest Range Rover. Among the general smiles and grunts of approval, one of the first things that people do is raise their eyebrows, tilt their heads conspiratorially and whisper: “Ooh, that’s a bit of a - you know - girl’s car, isn’t it?” intimating that feminism curdles under the harsh lights of a car dealership, and that somehow I am emasculated by driving a car that appeals as much to women as it does to men. It’s not even pink.

    Words: Tom Ford

    Photos: Justin Leighton

    This feature originally appeared in issue 236 of Top Gear Magazine 

  2. The second thing I’ve noticed is that some people subsequently pull a sour little face, purse their lips and announce: “Yeah, but it’s not a proper Land Rover, is it?” Which really started to annoy me. The Evoque, being actually quite small and more obviously road-biased, doesn’t fit so easily with people’s warmly entrenched view of the brand basics. It’s not square. It’s not particularly big. It doesn’t come with big engines, and the options list doesn’t include a winch fitting. Victoria Beckham (gasp!) did a special edition. You’d think Land Rover had rebranded a Suzuki Cappuccino. The Evoque is not an Aston Martin Cygnet moment. Still, it got me thinking. I wonder just how far the Evoque has wandered from the go-anywhere Land Rover foundation. Is the Evoque, after all my protestations to the contrary, all mouth and no plus fours?

    Which is how we ended up here. On the Atholl Estate in Highland Perthshire, Scotland. The estate dates back to the 13th century, and is probably most famous for the fairytale white frontage of Blair Castle, but I’m much more interested in the 145,000 acres of wild countryside that the castle calls its back garden. The aim is to find out whether the Evoque can really get you somewhere on the road - or lack of one - less travelled. Photographer Leighton has decided that he’d like to “beat the Beckham” out of the Evoque, cleanse its softcore PR image with some good old-fashioned Land Rover hardship. Well, I’m happy to forge my Evoque’s reputation. Consider Scotland the anvil. I’ll be the hammer.

  3. First, we changed the wheels and tyres and fitted an aluminium bashplate underneath the car. I’ve driven lightly off-road in my Evoque on its sports SUV tyres and 20-inch rims and never needed to be extracted, but in attempting to push the boundaries of what an Evoque can do (and because I have to drive home the following morning), the equivalent of strapping on some shin pads and hiking boots seems prudent. Otherwise, the Evoque is as I got it from the factory. The skidplate was supposed to fit on the original mountings for the smaller mild-steel, standard-fit version, but being somewhat experimental, didn’t. So an excellent man called Mick chopped it up with an angle grinder until it did. Already it feels like we’re doing butch stuff.

    As a control and safety net, we’ve roped in a standard Defender 110, Land Rover technical PR manager and off-road legend Roger Crathorne and a much-modified and darkly purposeful-looking red V8 Defender 90 owned by the rather brilliant father-and-son team of Joe and William Arthur. If the Evoque can keep up with that, it can keep up with anything. Soon enough, our odd little convoy is pottering its way up the A9 from Dunkeld towards Old Blair, to the north of Blair Atholl and the castle itself.

  4. It starts off quite sedately. The Evoque rides much better on the smaller wheels and taller tyres, and although they howl a bit at speed and look like castors after the 20s, there’s not much to tell about driving up the road. Then we run off the main carriageway and shimmy up a series of progressively smaller tracks, the houses petering out, until we come to a locked gate. We’re about to enter the estate proper - a place not open to the public, and certainly not used by motor vehicles other than the quads of the local factors (estate managers)- and we’ve got special permission to go to certain places. If we can make it. Gate dealt with, we thread through a stand of pines, red-gold needles carpeting the floor, and the sun blips through the gaps in the trees like the world’s most benign disco light. It’s all very civilised. I can even see where the ‘road’ goes - following an overgrown but fully serviceable trail up and out onto the moor.

  5. “Just keep a measure of momentum,” advises Roger from the passenger seat as we enter the first set of deeper ruts. “Keep your fingers out of the steering wheel in case the front wheels drop into a channel… let the car do the work, and let’s try to leave as little impact as possible.” Yeah, ok. I’ve pressed the Mud/Ruts button on the Evoque’s Terrain Response system, having progressed from Grass/Gravel/Snow, and can already feel the brakes and traction control clicking and whirring to maintain traction. The throttle’s also gone slightly fuzzy to prevent accidental wheelspin. The Evoque is making fairly short work of, well, pretty much all of this.

    Yes, the heather is making nails-down-a-blackboard noises against the door panels and under the car, but we’ve not even broken traction yet, let alone been challenged. We wend our way up the moor on 100-plus-year-old trails originally built to gather timber for the British fleet, and I realise that no one has passed here in quite a while. The trees fall away, and the views romp off into the distance. It’s sunny, and I am forcibly reminded of something: Scotland is astonishingly beautiful. Even with a limited palette of green and brown, speckled with the pink flowers of the heather and squashed by steel-blue sky, the view down the glen is raw and glorious.

  6. Of course, 30 seconds later, it’s heaving it down with the kind of freezing rain that automatically seeks gaps in Gore-Tex. The ruts get slightly deeper - dredged, I can’t help noticing, by William in his V8 with his raised ride height and ridiculously aggressive Simex Centipede tyres. There are a couple of clangs from underneath the Evoque as it finds unseen rocks with the undertray. A lot of scrapes. There is more wincing. But we’re keeping on, always looking for the way to progress with the least impact on the gorgeous, wild environment, and I’m feeling very positive about our prospects. We cross a couple of drainage ditches using aluminium bridging ladders - trusting others to guide you across a pair of wobbly bridges no wider than your tyres is a small but intense challenge - bounce through a few sloughs of water and realise that we can’t get out of the car because we’re wedged in by blocks of heather. There is mud.

    The Evoque struggles on a few bits, slows, grinds, finds traction and creeps its way onwards. It seems to be beaching itself on the island between the ruts made by the other cars, its relative lack of ground clearance proving to be its major weak spot. But by this time we’re far away from a road, and it’s only Roger’s knowledge of the area that keeps us heading in the right direction. I ask when he was last here. “Oh, about 18 years ago,” he says with a straight face “I think we have to head sort of over that way, towards the hill…” We are surrounded by hills. I don’t ask which one. Grouse periodically spring from cover, their wings beating the air frantically, invariably tracked by six men with imaginary guns, who then make soft “bang, bang” noises under their breath, bringing down their quarry with imaginary perfection. I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.

  7. The sun stutters on and off for the next couple of hours, interspersed with literal lashings of ice-cold rain. And the ‘trail’ starts to fade into vagueness somewhere around Carn a’ Chlamain. The Evoque gradually requires more and more urging, until, finally, it slides up on a small raised section underneath the front bumper, the wheels fizz once, and we’re well and truly stuck, beached on our own bottom. “You should have just used a little more feeling over that one,” sighs Roger with just an edge of disappointment. Yanked neatly out by William and the V8, we’re soon off again and faced with a similar, muddier section. In an attempt to please Roger, I attack it with a bit more feeling. The Evoque yomps across the section, bouncing and banging and splashing thick, chocolatey mud everywhere, until I emerge victorious on the other side.

    In the mirrors, Justin is smirking and pointing at my rear. It’s not a pretty sight. The rear bumper of the Evoque, including the natty but decoration-only exhaust trims, has been ripped clean off. The front bumper has been squished, and parts of the side-view cameras have, kind of, gone. It’s not been stopped, but the flowery, stylish bits have been found wanting. Roger sighs again. “Bit too much feeling, there…” he says, as we gather up the various excised Land Rover parts and stow them somewhat sheepishly in the boot.

  8. Hours of grindingly slow progress follow as we creep our way up to the top of Glen Bruar, via Gleann Diridh. Roger walks in front of the Evoque, but, try as we might, it still gets hung up on big, immovable lumps concealed by the ubiquitous heather. We traverse a stony stream bed comprised entirely of rocks, in which Roger strongly urges me to “Go LEFT of the ROCK!” before I get conclusively stuck on the exact rock he was telling me to avoid. We splash through rivers, up and over hills. The rain sheets in, and then washes away to leave sunshine that smears itself through the horizon leaving low, flat rainbows in its wake. The Evoque keeps on, the undertray ringing like a bell. It’s taking a pounding and no mistake.

  9. And then, after what seems like days, we make one final push to the top of the ridgeline at Glen Bruar, up a slope you’d find hard to walk up, and the Evoque pops out on top, bracketed by the brightest rainbow I have ever seen. It might not be as capable off-road as a Defender, but it’s not supposed to be. It might have a few showy bits of plastic that require modification, and it might not be the car you’d use for a hardcore expedition. But for a car so brilliant on-road, the extent of the Evoque’s ability off it is quietly astounding. Looking back down the glen, you can see the vastness, the roads we didn’t use, and have to wonder what it takes to be a proper Land Rover. Because from where I’m sitting, this feels like it.

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