Driven: 2012 Range Rover Evoque

For all the exploding popularity of the compact crossover vehicle segment, very few of its members stir any excitement. That's true even among premium-brand entries. With its first-ever compact offering, the Evoque, Range Rover has managed to defy the category norm and create a vehicle that is markedly different from the brand's traditional offerings, and yet every bit as special.

Much of the credit goes to the design. The Evoque's show-car styling stands in dramatic contrast to much of the competitive field. Its designers (led by Jerry McGovern) skillfully managed to take the characteristic Range Rover look and evolve it into a sleeker shape on a much smaller vehicle.

And this vehicle is a whole lot smaller. Compared to the next biggest Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport, the Evoque is some 16 inches shorter. Versus others in its segment, the Evoque is also very compact -- about half a foot shorter than a Mercedes-Benz GLK and nearly a foot shorter than a BMW X3.

For such a small SUV, the Evoque is still reasonably roomy. The rear seat is adequate for six-footers and even the middle spot is acceptable, although rear-seat passengers need to thread themselves through a fairly narrow door opening. The reward once they get back there -- at least in my fully kitted out test example -- is a dual-screen entertainment system; it comes with an oversize remote that can also control the audio system (cleverly, its battery recharges when you snap it into its storage spot in the console).

As the uplevel Dynamic model, my Evoque's interior was embellished with contrast stitching, special aluminum trim, and perforated seat leather. The decor isn't as traditional as the big-boy Range Rovers, but materials quality is quite good nonetheless. All Evoques come with what has to be the world's largest glass roof. It makes a huge impression -- particularly on rear-seat passengers. It also opens up what would otherwise be an awfully dark space, given the slit-like side windows and high beltline (both of which are a stark contrast to the Range Rover norm). And don't worry, sunbelt dwellers, all that overhead glass can be shut out with a power sunshade that is fully opaque.

The standard touch-screen isn't the best in the business, but it's far better than what corporate sibling Jaguar offers. (One wonders why Jaguar doesn't just adopt this one.) The Evoque does, however, use Jaguar's contrived, turn-dial gear selector, which rises up out of the console. With gear selection done by knob, the Terrain Response System for the standard four-wheel drive here jettisons its knob for a strip of buttons.

The Evoque's single engine offering is a turbocharged, direct-injected four -- which is absolutely the engine configuration of the moment. At 2.0 liters, it is less than half the size of the brand's other powerplants. And yet, its modest 240 horsepower proves to be plenty of muscle to move the small Rover. (That's partially because the Evoque is quite svelte, weighing in at less than 4000 pounds, a figure that is not only light for a Range Rover but also for the compact-SUV category.) The factory 0-60 figure of 7.1 seconds is fractionally better than that of the Range Rover Sport with its 5.0-liter V-8. The Evoque feels very quick, as the engine's 250 pound-feet of torque arrives at a low 1750 rpm, and pushes the car down the road with a shove. The price you pay for that turbocharged power delivery is throttle response that's not very linear. Achieving a smooth, progressive takeoff requires concentration; more often you just let the engine blast you ahead, and then back out of the throttle.

The price one pays at the pump, however, is not bad at all, and that stands in stark and welcome contrast to the Land Rover norm. The Evoque is rated at an impressive 18 mpg city and 28 on the highway, which not only puts its hard-drinking siblings to shame but is among the most economical of its ilk.

Given the Evoque's on-road bias and sporting pretentions, it's no surprise that its body motions are tightly controlled and that it gets around corners without feeling heavy or clumsy. Given the firm suspension and (on my test version) the high-style, 20-inch wheels, it's also no surprise that the Evoque rides fairly stiffly. Even so, it's able to take the edge off of most bumps; only more serious ridges and potholes can make for sharp impacts. An adaptive suspension is a stand-alone option, but my Rover was not so equipped.

The Evoque impresses because, more so than its competitors, this is one highbrow compact SUV that successfully distills the brand's premium look and feel into much smaller, more economical package. Granted, it's not cheap; the base price is more than $40,000 (most competitors at least start in the $30s) and can reach $60,000 maxed out. But Range Rovers aren't cheap and never have been. The good news is that, one of them at least, is now a lot more nimbly sized and a lot more economical, yet it's still very much a Range Rover.

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Looking at the EPA web site, the only non-hybrid, 4WD SUVs I see that do better than 28 mpg on the highway are the Chevy Equinox/GMC Terrain (29 mpg), the Subaru Outback (29 mpg), the Honda CR-V (30 mpg), and the tiny Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (29 mpg) and Nissan Juke (30 mpg).So, yes, you can spend less and get better mileage, but The Evoque's 28-mpg highway figure is unbeaten by any premium-brand SUV.
"The Evoque is rated at an impressive 18 mpg city and 28 on the highway, which not only puts its hard-drinking siblings to shame but is among the most economical of its ilk"I know you like this vehicle, but cmon. The most fuel efficient compact SUVs get 32 MPG on the highway, and the new Ford and Mazdas are likely to push the bar higher. Also, marvelling over how they kept the weight under 4k when new compact SUVs are below 3500 also makes little sense. It's a nicely executed vehicle that is probably miles better dynamically, but one is certainly not getting a weight or mileage marvel for the premium.

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