Hot on the news that the SUV sector is the top sales focus across all of Europe, Iain Robertson does his best to rationalise the entry level to the high-end Range Rover brand and largely fails….!
My proximity to the 4×4 scene has waxed and waned over the years, since the period during which I was the youthful Public Relations Officer (big letters, small role) for the Scottish Land Rover Owners’ Club. It was a fun period of my life, parodied by various comedians, all of whom focused on the ‘Let’s off-road!’ war-cry epitomised by the wild and woolly brigade, at their various Competitive Safaris and Trials, held (fortunately) as far away from public glare as the farming community could allow them to be.
Fun is really what Land Rover was all about, once its more serious applications in farmers’ fields, or within Forestry Commission territory, or carrying out various missions in wildest Africa, Australasia and South America were contemplated. Range Rover came as something of a shock to both motoring media and Land Rover customers. It had ditched most of the rudimentary, or more agricultural, elements only to replace them with style and a presence that could be felt through a V8 engine rumble.
Range Rover made a serious statement of intent, on which it was able to dine out handsomely, since that initial £2,000 off-roader of 1970. To observe its brand development of the past 45+ years, notably with a sky’s-the-limit approach to both formulating (from a position of amusing happenstance, through several major carmakers’ hands, to its current status as a British-built, Indian-funded world player) and growing organically its image, it can only be described as a rip-snorting success.
The classless, go-anywhere, albeit slightly grubby Landy retains its mainstay position, while Rangey satisfies footballers and their wives, high-end yummy-mummies, stockbrokers, company chairmen, celebrities, chefs and senior level motoring scribes…of which I am not one! It is the preferred mode of transport for the country set and those desiring to be perceived as members of the land-owning plutocracy, which includes politicians and ne’er-do-wells in equal measure. You are scarcely royal, unless you have the keys to a bulletproof £150,000 Range Rover Autobiography in your tweed jacket pocket.
While I have no issue with the high-end representation of a product that has become iconic, even though it still needs to tip its hat reverently in the direction of the Willys Jeep, my 4×4 fascination reached a notional brick wall, when the Evoque model was unveiled. In my view, it was as much use as a chocolate fireguard; a bit of a Nancy-boy machine that would appeal to the bouffant, shampoo-and-set set, which might have acquired a Suzuki Vitara a few years back but which has now elevated itself beyond a jokey ‘British Hairways’ to the Toni & Guy sector.
Still reeling from my initial drive of an Evoque, I considered that its letterbox-slit of a rear window and the engagement of a retiring footballer’s wife, albeit one that fashion ‘designs’, to be its brand ambassador, were little more than a sorry jest, made at the expense of the typical, easily-led British car buyer. In many ways, the Evoque was the Mini to BMW’s all-singing and dancing 7-Series – quirky, slightly comic book but utterly without valid point. The Top Gear programme of the time highlighted its ‘off-road prowess’ as a 2WD car (well, you can do that, when it‘s not your car, not your expenses and is meant for entertainment purposes). It was/is a bloody Range Rover! How could such a desertion of core values exist?
Driving the latest version of the car, a five-door, in SE Tech trim, with the customary £5,600’s worth of options added (to whisk its price tag from a base-line £32,200 to £37,800), my expectations were not pegged particularly high. Featuring just 147bhp from its Ingenium 2.0-litre diesel engine, it was a tonne-and-a-half of hardware that was hardly going to set the heather alight, not that much heather would be in prospect, when the engine drives only the front wheels, through a six-speed manual transmission. As over 70% of Evoques are auto-box equipped, the major doubts had already entered my cranium. I cannot confirm how many are all-wheel-drive, I fear.
At the risk of repetition, as I have said it before, the Ingenium unit is the real star here. Refined, moderately punchy in its delivery and with 280lbs ft of torque on tap, from a lowly 1,500rpm, as smooth as silk to drive, it is a thoroughly modern engine that should have a long-term fruitful future. It is rated highly by the factory, posting a 65.6mpg Official Combined fuel return (a true 44.2mpg after a week’s worth of motoring highlights the ludicrous nature of the ‘official’ claim). Yet, I was most contented with the result and a notional range of 735 miles to every 16.5-gallon tank of diesel. Its on-road performance is not bad either, turning in a top speed of 113mph and cracking the 0-60mph benchmark in a polite 10.6 seconds. As I said, no heather burning, but respectable all the same and capable of falling into company car fodder.
The gearbox is a delight, snicking swiftly up and down the ratios that are actually quite well chosen. Its ability to pull almost 40mph/1,000rpm in top gear is a bonus in terms of on-going refinement and keeping emissions at a low level. Evoque’s CO2 figure is given as 113g/km, which makes it one of the least polluting of any car in its class, which is very impressive. The car also drives very well, its handling seldom betraying its front-driven platform, unless the surface is wet and greasy, when plough-on understeer makes its presence felt. However, the ride quality, while firm, is actual most resilient and comfortable.
Its interior architecture, from the driver’s viewpoint, is also inspiring. The materials used are all high quality. The 8-way, electrically-powered driver’s seat is exceptionally comfortable and works through an extensive range of adjustment that makes it suitable for an enormous number of driver statures. Even the instrument and controls layout is considerate and practical. Sadly, that is where the cabin plaudits end, because its rear seat space is hurt by the coupe-like roofline, a factor that also afflicts its available boot space, even though the rear seats fold virtually flat, when you need them to, as it is not quite as accommodating as you hope it might be. Two passengers in the rear will be cramped but a third will push them to breaking point.
There is no denying the style-led stance of the car and its 18-inch diameter alloys do set it off nicely. The bold wheel arches and very short front and rear overhangs certainly carry the SUV ‘thing’ to a logical extreme. Interesting, if quirky, the puddle-lamps built into the undersides of the door mirrors project the outline of an Evoque onto the road surface. Although I never quite ascertained why the Evoque has twin ‘shark’s fins’ for its in-car entertainment and sat-nav system, its on-road presence is strong.
That stance is what encourages buyer interest, although you have to wonder how to define ‘buying’, because the vast majority of Range Rover Evoques on our roads are not actually owned by the people driving them. The finance scene has been hyperactive at Land Rover dealerships and those models not supplied to corporate entities on a lease, or contract hire basis, are provided on equally enticing PCPs to the private sector, in a split that hovers around 90%/10% respectively.
How long such opportunities will remain is open to question, if the major economic downturn that has been presaged becomes real. Until it does, I am fully aware that deals are there to be done but do not be led up a garden path, should you be contemplating a Range Rover Evoque.
I have always questioned the viability of SUVs and never more so than when they cannot even boast 4WD. While appreciating that the resultant ‘official figures’ are helped immeasurably towards the averages demanded by various administrations around the world, to receive not much change from £40,000 for a 2+2 family hatchback, just because it wears a Land Rover badge is, frankly, laughable. I am not saying that the car is a ‘duffer’, because it is not, but it is one hec of a price to pay for brand loyalty. Were I seeking a ‘pseudo’, I think that I would opt for a Suzuki Vitara, which looks not dissimilar and will do everything that the Evoque can do for a tad more than half the price…now tell that to your accountant.