When last we encountered the new Range Rover Evoque Convertible, it was in pre-production form and coloured Tango orange, and its maker had supplied a Swiss Alp on which to drive it.
Up there, above the tree line and under cornflower skies, in three fingers of snow, the contentious open-top addition to the Evoque line-up made a smidgen of show-off sense.
But that felt like cheating. Many things appear to make sense in the airbrushed, Eurotrash world of ski resorts: DayGlo suncream, adult-sized jump suits, wet-look gel, a mahogany tan, tartiflette… but just as these wouldn’t feel right in Reigate or Ruislip or Reading, so, I wagered, the Evoque wouldn’t, either.
Nearly six months on and a right-hand-drive full-production car has turned up in something called Yulong White, wearing 20in alloy wheels as part of the HSE Dynamic trim level. The fabric roof is black, and your bank balance will need to be that colour, too, because the car costs £50,355 with options. That hefty sum – which would also buy the Porsche 718 Cayman S road tested this week – gets you the latest 2.0-litre diesel Ingenium engine in its 178bhp guise. But what it really purchases is the idea: Range Rover attitude, open-top lifestyle and SUV desirability all bundled up into the same package deal – like discovering your Sunseeker yacht includes fold-out wings and a turbofan.
On paper, the formula works: X+Y+Z = 4x4 dead cert. Twenty-four hours in snow-globe Verbier, though, had that idea wobbling and now it’s only got a Tuesday in the south of England to prove appealing in the real world. Certainly, it doesn’t get any more real than 7.34am and weather that’s more Falklands than Faliraki. No convertible is particularly compelling in the rain, and for all the trends bucked by the Evoque, that isn’t one of them. Without a mountain in the background to distract me, it’s clear the fabric hood doesn’t quite replicate the chiselled roofline of the hard-top, and the cumbersomely big doors of the coupé remain – as does its emaciated rear seat accommodation, where adults are likely to shelter only under protest.
Fortunately, my day doesn’t include passengers. Nor does it include luggage – also a good thing with the Evoque’s already modest boot having been halved in size by the stowage requirements of that necessarily large electric roof. Instead, I’ve selected an expedition from the open-top old school: a quick blat to the south coast for a lungful of salty sea air and a tummy full of fresh ice cream. It’s a Caterham keeper classic, a journey completed mostly for its own sake and the associated wind-in-your-hair satisfaction.
A Seven is the benchmark for this kind of thing, and it goes without saying that a diesel SUV trails in its wake – but the Evoque’s party trick is not without promise. Why, for example, gallop around Leith Hill’s peak when you can meander over it? Green laning, after all, is the ultimate scenic route – God’s B-road. Recently, we’ve seen Ariel’s fantabulous Nomad successfully tap into that notion – but, honestly, Somerset’s stripped-out tearaway is far too fast and brash for most of Surrey’s gentle byways. The topless Range Rover, in contrast, takes to it like a mallard to a millpond.
That the car makes short work of wet and muddy trails is no great surprise. The all-wheel drive powertrain is standard Evoque, so it gets Land Rover’s Terrain Response system, Hill Descent Control and a healthy 208mm of ground clearance. Consequently, the convertible moseys towards the horizon with confidence, its nine-speed automatic deliberately fettled to offer formidable thrust at very low speeds, a virtue backed by appreciably robust levels of traction and, impressively, not a debilitating degree of body frame flex when a back wheel leaves the ground.
The real surprise, then, is not how the Evoque takes to the countryside but how the countryside takes to it. For those unaccustomed to green laning, other people’s reactions to encountering a filthy 4x4 in the woods tend toward the stand-offish. Not so in Land Rover’s compact convertible. Dog walkers, horse riders, hikers, holiday makers… almost to a man, they move to the side wearing the bemused smile of someone faced with a novelty Toby jug. The goodwill is uncannily good-natured – especially considering the limited size of the byway we’re talking about.
I think it helps that goodwill has started to flow the other way, too. The conventional relationship with the outdoors offered by a cabriolet is with the airflow ceaselessly rushing by. In the Evoque, under an admittedly evocative canopy of leaves and mist, a sentimental affinity with the landscape suddenly becomes palpable. Water splashes cheerily in, low branches brush past, the tyres volubly bite, even the rain – trickling through the trees – pitter-patters the optional leather trim suggestively.
The impression, then, is less Ariel Nomad and more Norfolk Broads narrow boat. By which I mean that the presence of creature comforts and diesel power takes nothing away from the feeling that you’re nudging lazily through the scenery in the most harmonious way imaginable. Meaning, in turn, that every smiling face encountered is answered in kind.
The effect is so long-lasting, in fact, that even with the off-road stuff done and the weather far from settled, I opt not to put the roof back up and drive the rest of the way south with only the seat heater for company. Admittedly, the Evoque’s rapport with asphalt is immediately less endearing. The pinched ride quality discovered in Switzerland remains noticeable (but not unforgivable), and the handling labours under the strain of hodcarrying all the extra reinforcement required in the platform.
It ambles along adequately enough, though, aided by the mid-range 317lb ft generosity of the quiet engine, the adroitness of the ZF gearbox and the twangy feedback of the variable-rate steering. There’s plenty of shelter behind the substantial arrangement of A-pillars and windscreen, too. You’d need the optional wind deflector (taking up valuable space in the boot) to dampen more of the breeze, but I find what swirl there is rather invigorating and conducive to the Evoque’s natural height.
The vaunted driving position becomes more desirable as I hit the south coast’s endless conurbation. It’s odd to be above everyone else’s eye line while out in the open – and preferable, too. My trajectory means I’m going from west to east, making Brighton my final destination. The town is ideal not only geographically but also for the famed open-mindedness of its citizens. Anyone accustomed to seeing Chris Eubank in a truck, for example, probably isn’t going to baulk at the idea of a Range Rover relieved of its roof.
Ignoring the dog-eared sogginess of the seafront, I make for the rather more twee surroundings of The Lanes. Among Brighton’s standard menagerie of characters, lost souls, tourists, seekers, shoppers and dossers, the Evoque makes a pleasing little wave – pleasing to anyone expecting to get noticed, at any rate – and, it must be said, it looks very much at home parked in a loading bay outside the preciousness of an upmarket ice cream parlour.
Inside, bewilderingly on message, one of the shop’s student-age waitresses gleefully erupts: “I didn’t know you could get a Range Rover without a roof! I want one.” That may sound a little glib, but it’s the reaction that every car maker yearns to hear from a twenty-something girl when she’s confronted with the product. Apparently desperate to serve up a yang to this emphatic yin, five minutes later the universe produces an even younger passer-by who announces to her friend: “No 4x4 should ever have its roof cut off.”
After another day spent with the Evoque’s company, I’d quibble with that statement. The convertible concept is far from perfect; it is inherently compromised in several foreseeable ways, and the drag factor of its two-tonne kerb weight and too-high sticker price is the equivalent of trying to close its Z-fold hood at 50mph.
None of that need count against it, though. Range Rover, as a brand, has already ringfenced for itself a level of chic recognition that Brighton would die for, and much like the frivolous 162-metre i360 ‘vertical pier’ that now lives along the town's seafront, there’s easily room in the line-up for the mild giddiness of a drop-top. Approach it tongue in cheek, as you would a sparkly high-top trainer in a cupboard full of hobnail boots, and you might just find the idea a decent one.