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2012 Range Rover Evoque: Smartened up, sized down

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  December 2, 2011 03:26 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Staff). Click photo for larger version.

A group of Range Rover Evoques take to the Vermont trails right after the freak October snowfall.

Everything you’ve heard about Range Rovers is true. They excel in the freakiest situations, say, when there’s a two-foot-deep rut on one side of the road and some raised rocks on the other, with utmost calm.

When the Ranges hug the highway, they’re as suave as SUVs go. But their air suspensions float on a different planet, a world even farther removed from four-car garages and suburbs like Wellesley. In cities where they’re seen most, Range Rovers feel clumsy, almost goofy, as they chuck nearly three tons on the street. Slow steering with the precision of mashed potatoes? True. Induced headaches from all the body wobble and dive? Also true. Not once have they averaged more than 13 mpg in our tests (when $75 Hess charges appear on my credit card, I remind myself it wasn’t theft, but a Range Rover).

Now, there’s a Range with all the comforts and nearly all the capability of the big brutes, but with the footprint of a compact hatch and a promised 28 mpg. But the zippy, little 2012 Evoque is not a concept. It’s Range Rover’s first model to make complete, rational sense. You know, for people living on this planet.

2012-Range-Rover-Evoque-front.jpg

Click photo for larger version.

We averaged 21 mpg over city and country in our Evoque, up into the snowy Vermont hills and down rocky, leaf-covered trails, the occasional deer hunter blocking our path. Heading east from Vermont’s wide-open Route 30 and crossing into New Hampshire’s windy Route 119, the Evoque went dancing like a middleweight fighter. I passed slowpokes with ample torque and dove into tighter corners at speeds that would make the bigger Rovers roll over. The steering was snappy and the body and brakes felt cinched to the chassis. Even with the tach climbing high, the Evoque knocked off a clean 26 mpg for those 50 or so miles.

There’s a lot of smart engineering behind the Evoque’s efficiency, including an automatic transmission that coasts in neutral, electric power steering, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine displacing only two liters. But instead of pure genius, the Evoque is Land Rover’s duh-told-you-so moment. If you dropped a dozen waistlines — the Evoque is a whopping 1,600 pounds lighter than the Range Rover Sport — you’d be dancing and consuming less, too.

Gone are all the heavy duty hardware we’ve come to expect from Range Rovers. Instead of true four-wheel-drive, the Evoque runs on a more conventional all-wheel-drive system that’s biased rearward for sporty handling. Lighter materials are on board, including Boron steel for the A- and B-pillars, plus aluminum on the roof, hood, engine block, and suspension. In other words, it’s a modern crossover.

Ordinarily, this setup gets disappointing when the road falls out. And even though we’ve got 10 capital letters on the hood shouting “RANGE ROVER,” the Evoque’s off-road chops are a little disappointing. The long-travel springs can’t stretch long enough to the ground when the vehicle tilts, so ruttier sections of trail must be avoided. The slim ground clearance won’t tolerate large rocks. There’s no low range, so you can’t “crawl” down steep inclines and must ride the brakes (or use Hill Descent Control, an auto-braking cruise control that makes you feel wildly out of control).

I’m not sure why I wrote that last paragraph. You’re reading this in the ‘burbs, and you don’t care if the Evoque can wade through a 20-inch deep stream (it can). But for what it’s worth, most of Range Rover’s legendary traction and pull-me-out confidence — what you’ll actually use in a New England snowstorm — are intact.

What’s really missing is any remnant of the Land Rover LR2, the compact, entry-level model on which the Evoque is based. The LR2 is heavier, saddled with a sluggish Volvo inline-six, and loaded inside with cheap plastic. Really, it’s lousy, and should be buried in the Vermont hills.

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Click photo for larger version.

The Evoque is clean-cut sexy. It’s exotic, too, with its mini square taillamps and side glass that compresses into a teensy rear window. When stacked with 20-inch black rims, lime green paint, and bright LED foglamps, the Evoque looks more at home on a Hot Wheels loop-de-loop than the average driveway. Topping it all off is a funky three-door coupe – an SUV style that’s been shelved since the insane 2001 Isuzu Vehicross – with a lower ride height. Optional magnetic shocks stiffen the ride on the sportier Dynamic trim, which offers a choice of roof colors like Mini (the enormous panoramic moonroof, however, prohibits a painted Union Jack).

Unlike the LR2, you don’t feel shortchanged inside an Evoque. The seats are more hip-hugging and thigh-supporting than the bus driver chairs of the Range Rover Sport, a vehicle that feels cramped for its size. Thick, solid aluminum lines both edges of the sloping center stack, and the controls and instrument cluster are simple and uncluttered, like on all Rovers.

Our Prestige trim, at $55,000, was fitted with softer “Oxford” leather all over the seats, steering wheel, doors, and dashboard in gorgeous cream and maroon. Lots of other two-tone combos are available. The Evoque’s touchscreen infotainment system is the company’s best. It’s quick and easy, but there’s still no live traffic overlaid on the map. The optional Meridian surround system was good, but the harman/kardon speakers on the big Ranges sound phenomenal.

Likewise, the big Ranges make sweeter music under their hoods. Land Rover V-8s may drink like Amy Winehouse (and their days may be numbered just as fast), but you get effortless performance every time. There are no nice sounds from the Evoque’s 240-horsepower engine, a modified motor from the new Ford Explorer. Land Rover programmed the 6-speed automatic to bog the engine at lower speeds, a trick that helps the Evoque ace its EPA tests but invites uncomfortable low-frequency rumbles and steering wheel vibration. In sport mode, the transmission lets the engine rev higher, but there’s no spreading butter over four cylinders. The ride, too, gets a little bumpy and busy over rough surfaces.

Even with such sacrifices, the Evoque makes a better Range Rover. It drives like a car instead of a bulldozer. It starts at $44,000, and when loaded, is still thousands less than the ridiculously popular Sport.

At those prices, the western suburbs will down Evoques like Champagne on New Year's. That’s the truth.

Clifford Atiyeh can be reached at catiyeh@globe.com. In case you were wondering, there is a cheaper Evoque in Europe with front-wheel-drive, diesel, and a manual(!).



2012 Range Rover Evoque 5-Door

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $43,995 / $55,095
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 19 city / 28 highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 21 mpg over 484 miles.
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4, 6-speed automatic, front-engine, all-wheel-drive.
Body: Five-door, five-passenger SUV.

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 240 @ 5,500 rpm.
Torque: 251 lb.-ft. @ 1,750 rpm.
Overall length: 171.9 in.
Wheelbase: 104.8 in.
Height: 64.4 in.
Width: 83.7 in. (with mirrors)
Curb weight: 3,902 lbs.

THE GOOD:
Hot bodies, gorgeous interiors, fast and nimble, acceptable fuel economy

THE BAD: Four-cylinder noise, transmission programming, can’t take the Black Diamond trail

THE BOTTOM LINE: Range Rover gets smaller – and much smarter.

ALSO CONSIDER: Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Infiniti EX35

A version of this article appeared on page J1 of The Boston Sunday Globe on Dec. 4, 2011.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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