What is it?
Twelve miles was all we had to try and reach a settled verdict on the rule-breaking new Range Rover Evoque. Twelve miles of driving that occupied about 20 minutes: the time it takes to do three medium-swift laps of JLR's Gaydon proving ground. We were offered an exclusive drive in what is surely one of Europe's most important cars this year - and plainly Britain's closest thing for years to an automotive shooting star - and we were certainly not going to pass it up for a mere lack of mileage.
The Evoque is the smallest, lightest (under 1600kg in certain guises) and most aerodynamic (Cd 0.35) Range Rover in history. It is derived from the Freelander, but with some serious modifications. All of its major suspension parts (MacPherson struts front, multilink rear) have been redesigned for lightness and better geometry; it is the first SUV anywhere to use MagneRide adaptive dampers; and it sets new standards for traction and chassis stability electronics
For our test, three Evoques were on hand: five-door manual and automatic versions of the 2.2 litre 187bhp turbodiesel four cylinder, and a three-door powered by the 236bhp 2.0 litre petrol turbo engine, which is only available as an automatic. There are to be three models Pure, Dynamic and Prestige in ascending cost order, but though close to production in some areas, our test cars were a mixture of models and not typical of the ones that will reach showrooms.
What’s it like?
One of the many triumphs of the Evoque's packaging is the way it manages to offer class-beating ground clearance, a 'sports command' driving position and impressive cabin head and knee room, while riding a cool 100mm lower than the drive-to-school Freelander.
Access is simple. You're just aware of lifting your first foot a little higher, and that the well-shaped bucket seat is a few inches further off the floor.
The cabin is plush. The emphasis is on leather, and plush-looking double stitching is prominent. The layout is most reminiscent of the Range Rover Sport, with a high console separating you from your passenger, creating a kind of driver's cocoon. There is a start button high on the dash beside the twin-dial instrument layout (with a small info screen between them) and a bigger screen for nav, phone, audio and all the rest sits above the console. There is absolutely no feeling that this vehicle's quality or comfort puts it lower in the pecking order than any other Range Rover: it is simply more compact.
The Evoque bristles with noise-excluding measures (every one of the many engine men on hand reminded me that the objective was to reach lineament levels "worthy of a Range Rover") so it glides off the mark with very little of a typical four-cylinder diesel rattle.
For all its docile and torquey power, it's the Evoque's ride that dominates. Those who know Range Rovers will expect a low-rate, nicely damped ride with near-limo comfort, and in this new car you get it. Almost. With the optional MagneRide dampers and the five-position Terrain Response control set to Normal (as opposed to Dynamic) the Evoque is quiet and comfortable, even over bad bumps. You also get a typically Range Rover feeling of robustness, as if this car simply doesn't care what it encounters.
However, there's also a strong overlay of sportiness, brought by the generous 19-inch wheels and Conti tyres, the surprisingly quick steering (EPAS, but variable rate) and the lack of body overhangs that make turning, especially fast transitions in S-bends, feel so easy.
The Evoque is almost certainly sportier than you were expecting, though no less refined and comfortable for that. The intuitive control and chassis make it feel instantly quick and capable, with body roll present but properly contained and a neutrality about its handling that allows it to be slung about with abandon.
I preferred the marginally lighter, more natural feel of the steering in Normal, and given that the dampers are intelligent enough to react to tough conditions on their own, would probably resist the Dynamic setting. But in either mode the car is quick reacting, sensitive and fun.
Should I buy one?
The 2.2 diesels, sure to be the predominant choice of British owners, feel muscular enough for any road use. The petrol car, a whisker smoother and with nominally more power, offers very little extra for the extra 20-30 per cent of fuel it consumes. The manual gearbox was a major surprise, though. We've all been brought up to associate Range Rovers with automatics, but this manual 'change, though fairly firm in the hand, has a short-throw precision that will please many drivers. I'm one.
Whichever transmission you choose, the Evoque has long legs. Its cocooned driving position, supportive seat, easy and torquey engine, elevated driving position, great steering and sense of robustness urge you to drive farther and longer. Of course, these are only first impressions. Much more testing is needed to reveal all about this fascinating machine. But the omens are positive indeed.
Range Rover Evoque
Price: range from £30,000 (est); 0-60mph: 7.1sec; Top speed: 135mph; Economy: 32.5mpg CO2: 199g/km; Engine: 4cyls, 1999cc, petrol, turbocharged; Power: 237bhp; Torque: 251lb ft; Gearbox: 6-spd automatic