Twenty years and five months ago, I took delivery of my first Land Rover. It was a five-speed ’97 Discovery SD, black with tan interior, leased for $451 per month, driven to the absolute limit of its 15,000-mile-year contract provision as I criss-crossed the Midwest pursuing the bitter end of my ur-career as a professional BMX racer and cycling journalist.
Those early US-market Discos were infamous for giving trouble but mine was almost flawless despite enduring more than its fair share of dirt road and winter-recovery stupidity. My father was so impressed by the truck that he promptly snagged a ’99 Range Rover, which proved to be the nightmare embodiment of British quality stereotypes. His experience did not put me off. I replaced the Discovery with a Freelander then traded it in 18 months later for the ultimate final Disco, a 2003 4.6-liter seven-seater in a fetching shade of green frost.
Where am I going with this, other than into the gauze-covered abyss of nostalgia? Just here: I want you to understand that I have genuine affection for, and not inconsiderable experience with, proper Land Rovers and Range Rovers. I was an unabashed fan of the brand for a very long time. I don’t use Land Rover or its products as the punchline for a cheap auto-journo joke and I don’t mindlessly repeat stereotypes about the quality or performance of products from the formerly British firm. I approach every new product from Land Rover with the same sense of fondness that some people reserve for reunions with distant but dearly missed family.
So when I tell you that the Range Rover Evoque is an exercise in sloppily-executed cynicism that makes the Cadillac Cimarron look like the 1995 Lexus ES300 by comparison, I hope you’ll understand that it hurts me to tell you that. Want to hear why? Click the jump and join me on a less-than-solid Tennessee excursion that ends with me returning a rental car just a few hours after picking it up.
My long-time readers know how much I used to love visiting Nashville, and they know why. Alas, nowadays I’m usually just using the city as a stopover between home and somewhere else. Such was the case when I flew into BNA a while ago. My plan was to pick up a rental car and head up to NCM Motorsports Park to do some track testing of a few different vehicles. I’d reserved a Malibu (or similar!), but when I saw the Evoque sitting there in the upgrade space I thought it might be a good time to give the littlest Rangie a chance.
Start with the good parts: It clearly looks like some sort of Range Rover even if much of the design language originated in Spen King’s “100-inch wagon” has been borrowed or outright stolen in the five decades between the arrival of the Mk I truck and now. When I see it, I’m reminded of the nasty characterization of the first-generation SLK as a “stunted runt.” As the original SLK was to the R129 SL, this Evoque is to a proper full-sized Rover.
The interior riffs on the general theme set in 2003 by the third-generation Rangie, which is to say that you sit a little higher than you need to and look down on a bunch of earth-toned soft-touch plastic. Proper Rovers are known for their airy cabins, which you don’t quite get in this chop-top special. Nor do you receive a top hat’s worth of headroom, which is fine. The important part is that it doesn’t feel like a CR-V or Ford Escape from the driver’s seat. As tested, this is about a $46,000 vehicle, and there’s nothing in the quality of the interior materials to belie that price, for good or ill.
Unless you’re already a Range Rover owner, you’re going to find the infotainment system to be a surprise, and an unpleasant one at that. It is decidedly third-rate. Everything seems to require at least one more step than in, say, a Hyundai Sonata.
Phone integration with my Galaxy S7 was particularly poor, as was the audio quality of any conversation using the hands-free feature. The buttons that call up the various screens often seem to have gone on strike. Perhaps they are just sleepy. Evoque drivers whose Seeking Arrangement “daddies” are willing to spring for the $62,600 Autobiography trim level will get a 17-speaker Meridian sound system that is probably quite nice. The rental versions get no such thing.
They do, however, get the panorama roof, which sets new standards for this sort of thing. Overhead glazing is very much in keeping with Rover brand history. My 4.6 Discovery had four pieces of glass in the roof: first-row moonroof, second-row moonroof, and two “alpine windows” over the rear seats through which our European cousins could keep track of the vehicles above them on, say, the Furkapass.
If you’re accustomed to the Mercedes-Benz implementation of a “Pano roof,” you’ll be flat-out amazed by the uninterrupted sweep of overhead sunlight provided to both rows in the Evoque. It’s very good, although there was a bit of a rattle from the front pane of glass whenever it was fully closed and no amount of pushing or fussing could make it right. If you thought being owned by an Indian conglomerate was going to do what neither BMW nor Ford could manage in regard to initial quality measurements, you were deeply, hilariously wrong.
In addition to an extra portion of sunlight, second-row passengers in an Evoque get more space than they would have gotten in an original Range Rover or a Discovery. It’s pleasant enough and the seats are just as carefully bolstered as their avant-garde counterparts.
Cargo room is more than adequate for this class of vehicle; a CR-V might have a bit more but it doesn’t really matter. At heart, the Evoque is a frivolous vehicle, meant for wives and girlfriends and au pairs to trundle between manor and mall. Land Rover can’t make it too spacious because they don’t want the Evoque to cannibalize the Range Rover Sport, which has to suffer with a much less space-efficient platform. If you’re seriously measuring the available cargo room against what can be had in, say, the Lexus RX350, then perhaps Sir would be best served going with the Japanese offering.
As driveway ornamentation, the Evoque ain’t half bad, really. Once you start to drive it, however, things fall apart faster than you can pronounce “Chinua Achebe.” The 237-horsepower two-liter turbo four-cylinder combines with a ZF nine-speed automatic to offer fairly rapid pace when you absolutely flat-foot demand it, served with just a light dusting of torque steer to remind the driver of the Evoque’s proletarian platform roots.
The rest of the time, however, the transmission seems designed to catch the engine napping. Multiple downshifts are common in normal driving situations and they are not executed with alacrity. Fuel economy is also pretty dismal, but you don’t need me to tell you that. The Evoque is actually pretty light for a luxury CUV at 3,750 pounds, but the equivalent CR-V or RAV4 would still be a few hundred pounds south of it.
Handling is about standard for this type of vehicle, with a bit of added lead-footed feel provided by the massive running gear. If you were to grow up driving something like this, a plain Civic sedan would feel like a Formula One car by contrast. The relatively high chairs don’t help matters. I had more faith in my ’97 Discovery as a fast-road device; it would bob and weave on the long coil springs but it never surprised you with a sudden change in traction. This feels more like a Ford Escape on aftermarket dubs.
Here’s the bottom line: If you liked the Cadillac Cimarron, you’ll like this. Just like the facelifted, V6-powered Cimarrons, this Evoque looks vaguely prestigious and it’s a bit quicker than the store-brand competition. It has none of the virtues commonly associated with old-school Land Rovers, and it makes my old Freelander feel like a Series IIa by comparison in terms of usable ground clearance and maneuverability. I’m not sure why anybody would buy it. Nor do I recommend it in any way, shape, or form.
Not that it matters. As I was preparing to enjoy a solitary lunch at an Outback steakhouse south of Nashville, a woman accosted me: “That’s your Evoque? I LOVE THEM SO MUCH I’M ASKING MY HUSBAND FOR ONE FOR CHRISTMAS!”
“I’m sure you will enjoy it,” was my apathetic reply, but it did not fail to register with me that I’ve never seen anybody that randomly enthusiastic about, say, a Ford Flex. A little bit later in the day, I walked out of a music store only to find that there were three black Evoques in the line of parked cars facing me. There’s clearly a market for the vehicle.
In the end, however, I decided to return the Evoque to the rental agency and take a Malibu for the rest of my trip. The $23/day upcharge to drive a “Range Rover” felt like too much money. There’s something sad about that. I spent a lot of my life deeply involved with the Land Rover brand. It’s not worth a dollar an hour to me now. Not in this form. And since the old Rovers are never coming back, I guess it’s goodbye to all that. Land Rover doesn’t want my business. They have the real housewives of Nashville now, I suppose.
I wish them all the best of luck.
[Images: Â©2017 Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars]