I'm driving in a sewer. Well, not a sewer per se, but a big tunnel beneath the city of Liverpool. The tunnel is filled with a knee-high river of fetid water, and I can definitely picture Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles living down here, so if you called it a sewer I wouldn't correct you. "Have you ever read Stephen King's It?" I ask Micah, my driving partner. He has. And if you haven't, it's about a murderous clown who lives in the sewer. Let's talk about something else, like the Land Rover Evoque we're driving, which has puddle lights in the side mirrors that project an image of the car on the ground when the door is opened. I'd try that, but I really don't want to get out of the car, on account of the stinky water down here in the not-a-sewer.
We make it to daylight, where a Defender awaits with a tow strap. Sometimes off-road demonstrations are overly contrived, but this seems like an earnest test of the Evoque's water-fording abilities. I watch the car behind us drop into the final gully, and the water is up to its headlights, perilously close to air-intake height. Knowing that you might become stranded in the dark beneath Liverpool adds a bit of frisson to the off-road experience, I think.
The Evoque, as the latest member of the posh crossover class, probably won't do much deep-water fording in its daily duties. But since it's a Range Rover, its credibility is tied to a measure of off-road prowess, however modest. And, in the tunnel beneath Liverpool and in the soggy countryside of Wales, the Evoque showed it's got some chops. Enough to differentiate itself from other Euro crossovers, not to mention the Ford Explorer, which shares the Evoque's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. In the Range Rover, the engine makes 240 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque (similar to the Explorer's numbers), but the British version gets improved oil delivery for driving at extreme angles, as well as better waterproofing. As I witnessed, the waterproofing works. No puddle will breach the door seals and stain your Christian Louboutins.
Did I just insinuate that this car will be popular with the ladies? Yes, I did. Before you say I'm sexist, allow me to point out that, in Britain, there'll be a Victoria Beckham Edition of the Evoque. The Evoque, as a four-cylinder crossover, is already bucking a headwind in terms of traditional Land Rover masculinity. And people who are inclined to think of it as a bauble for the Real Housewives of Wherever-shire won't have their minds changed when the Posh Spice Edition rolls into dealerships. The only way I'll approve of this alliance is if the Spice Girls record an Evoque jingle that goes, "If you wannabe my Rover, you've gotta get with my friends."
But back to the car itself. This thing is going to sell by the shipload for one basic reason: It looks cool. The major challenge for any crossover is standing out in the sea of tall wagons. The Evoque is somehow blunt yet rakish, by far the most confident-looking little trucklet on the market. The two-door model is especially fetching -- it's the same length as the four-door, but the roofline is about an inch lower, giving it dramatic, concept-car proportions. Rear bucket seats are a no-cost option in the coupe, and I say, why not? If you're going impractical, go all the way.
The four-door Evoque starts at $43,995; the two-door costs $44,995. Prices don't stray too far, with the priciest Evoque (the Dynamic Premium two-door) going for $52,895. Range Rover isn't so gauche as to assign status to each trim level, however, insisting that the Pure Plus, Pure Premium, Dynamic Premium, and Prestige Premium iterations each correspond to a different "personality." So it's not like you've got a base version and a loaded version, OK? You've simply got one model that has less stuff and doesn't cost as much, and some others that have more things and are more expensive. Nobody's making any judgments or noticing that your four-door Evoque Pure Plus is the least expensive Range Rover you can buy, because maybe your husband's bonus wasn't so great this year.
The Evoque might share its engine with the Explorer, but the Rover offers the kind of boutique features that identify it with more rarefied company. You can choose contrasting roof colors, three headliner colors, two different wood veneers. The two-door comes standard with a full-length glass roof that does wonders to counteract the spelunker vibe that often results from a high beltline and narrow side glass. Magnetic dampers are an option. The shift knob motors up out of the console, in a nod to corporate kin Jaguar. Pure Premium models have five exterior cameras, so you can look at fish or underwater sewer creatures without leaving the driver's seat.
And maybe I'm easily impressed, but I found the dual-view dash screen to be an endless source of golly-gee wonder. I was riding shotgun when I pushed a button and inadvertently engaged dual-view mode. Then I hit another button, and the navigation display vanished, replaced by static from the Euro-market TV tuner. I apologized to Micah for screwing up the dearly needed navi system, and he replied, "What? I'm looking at the navi system." Call me Unfrozen Caveman Writer, but what dark magic is this, that my side is TV, his displays a map, and yet there is but one screen? Burn it! Burn the demon in-car entertainment system!
The luxe pretentions extend to the powertrain as well -- to a point. Given that the Land Rover LR2 packs a six-cylinder under the hood, I'm sure there was some debate over installing a four-banger in a Range Rover. But the direct-injected turbo four was the right call. Objectively, you can't argue with its performance. The all-wheel-drive Evoque does 0 to 60 mph in a credible 7.1 seconds, can tow 4400 pounds, and manages a CAFE-friendly 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway EPA rating.
Subjectively, turbo engines are well suited to upscale vehicles because most of the time you don't have to work them very hard. With the six-speed automatic transmission in its standard drive mode, upshifts come early and the 2.0-liter relies on low-rpm boost to serve up easy torque. Drop the transmission into sport mode, though, or attempt a full-throttle merge, and the sound at higher revs immediately reminds you that there are but four angry pistons spurring you down the highway. That's fine for a Focus ST (another future home for this engine), but for a Range Rover, it's better to leave it in higher gear and drive it like a diesel.
After blitzing the backroads of Wales -- where the Evoque felt nimble and tidy but still sometimes required a wordless treaty with oncoming traffic to decide who would back up, so narrow were the roads -- and sightseeing underground, the Land Rover people has one more surprise in Liverpool. Down near the Mersey River, there's a canal where they've sunk a bridge -- not across the canal, but right down the middle of it, a couple feet deep. We're to drive down into the water and keep right on going, possibly while singing "That's Amore" like the world's laziest gondolier.
At the top of the ramp, a Land Rover person peeks in the window to make sure I engage Hill Descent Control, just as they've done every time we've confronted a grade bigger than the backside of a speed bump. I've had enough. "How about I just use my foot on the brake pedal?" I ask. Land Rover Guy does not like this idea. I contend that maybe you don't always want to go the same speed all the way down a hill, or maybe you want to be ready to completely stop, and in any case you've got antilock brakes and stability control, so what exactly is Hill Descent bringing to the party, other than another off-roady-looking button on the console? He tries to explain how Hill Descent is somehow superior to the brake pedal, but in the meantime traffic is backing up behind us, so I activate it to appease him. Then I roll up the window and turn it right back off again, and somehow don't slide to my death immediately thereafter. In conclusion, and in case you've missed my point, Hill Descent Control is silly.
But the Evoque isn't. This was a fraught exercise, building this car, because luxury brands reach downmarket at their peril. Ask Mercedes how the C230 Coupe fared. But the Evoque pulls off the trick of being less expensive than other Range Rovers without seeming like it. The Evoque is its own thing, a car you might buy instead of a standard Range Rover, but not just because of the price.
And yes, I imagine the Evoque will cannibalize a few Range Rover Sport sales. But it will also seduce sedan owners who dig the styling, the 28-mpg fuel economy, and the badge. In fact, in the Evoque press kit, the section touting the Meridian audio systems includes a photo of the dashboard screen in audio mode. A Snow Patrol song is playing. The song: "Chasing Cars." Get it? Because the Evoque is actually a car. Personally, I would've gone with something from the Spice Girls.