COURCHEVEL, SAINT-BON-TARENTAISE, France — The snow is five-feet deep outside the 53 rooms of L’Apogée Courchevel, one of the newest and most beautiful hotels in this alluring ski village. The temperature outside is hovering around freezing, but that isn’t stopping us from blithely dropping the four windows of the 2017 Range Rover Evoque Convertible and retracting its five-layer, fabric top. The operation, conducted in 21 silent seconds, has been tested at temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit, so the present conditions are nothing.
We commence our refreshing drive, twisting and turning uphill until the road surpasses 6,500 feet in elevation. It ends at Courchevel Altiport, one of the world’s trickiest airstrips, where an Alpine Airlines Vulcanair P68TC Observer has just completed the harrowing, upslope landing.
Range Rover, which has taken pains to bill its new creation as the world’s first four-seat, four-wheel-drive, four-passenger luxury convertible, has set up across the road on a snowmobile course. Instead of being met by a St. Bernard with a brandy cask, we find driving instructors in a hut with coffee and a crackling fire. Still with the top down, we welcome Coach Will to the shotgun seat for a couple of laps around the circuit. “Pick a fresh track,” Will says. “Carry lots of speed up this hill!”
With the default electronic settings active, the Evoque Convertible’s response in the turns is like ordering a Popsicle and getting a Slurpee instead. But then we switch off the DSC and drive more by our BVDs; the livelier throttle lets us induce easily controlled oversteer. Tipping the scales at 4,268 pounds, this Empire-waisted vehicle moves as deliberately as the Empress Joséphine after one of Foreign Minister Talleyrand’s feasts. We continue around the course, snow slewing from the 20-inch Pirelli Scorpions, and finally get back to the hut. “Well driven,” Will says.
The previous day we had gone the other direction: down the mountainside. Fluttering before chalets and farmhouses we passed along the way was the flag of Savoie: a white cross extending to the edges of a rectangular red field. This banner, representing the former duchy that has been part of France since 1860, dates to the 14th century. Initially, the four red sections cryptically carried the letters FERT, an allusion to the Latin words extolling the Duke of Savoie’s defense of the Isle of Rhodes against the Saracens.
After we descended the couloir—no small undertaking—and finally reached the valley of the L’Isère River, the season changed to early spring, and the Evoque Convertible relished being in its element. It lolloped along the motorway, affording us natural conversation. Thanks to its excellent aerodynamic design and the wind-blocker screen (a two-person job to set in place) there was no buffeting, not even when we dared the speed cameras with an extralegal pace. Range Rover says 0 to 60 mph comes in 7.8 seconds, with a top speed of 112 mph. The powertrain consists of a turbocharged 240-hp, direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine matched to an unobtrusive nine-speed automatic transmission. The powertrain took a facelessly bureaucratic approach to its task of motivating the vehicle.
The Evoque Convertible made its debut as a concept vehicle not far from here at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show. In the four intervening years, the development team figured out how to strengthen the A-pillars, brace the underbody, and fortify the sills. The result is said to produce “comparable” stiffness to the hardtop model, although we never did hear exactly how closely they compared. The team also added a pair of rollover protectors, aluminum columns that shoot out from behind the rear-seat headrests in the blink of even a jaundiced eye. And they arranged four electric motors to operate what’s touted as the longest and widest convertible roof ever fitted to a production vehicle. Pulling up the center-console switch raises the roof in 18 seconds, even as the vehicle travels as fast as 30 mph.
Our tester was painted dark gray, wore a discreet rear spoiler, and belabored an already tedious trend with its black wheels and trim. We weren’t aware of people staring at us from their Renault Meganes or the faded old Renault 4 that nipped through a roundabout ahead of us. Nevertheless we felt conspicuous, as though we were tootling along in the bathtub from that Cialis commercial. As we proceeded, the steering column occasionally shuddered on rough pavement; otherwise, the Evoque Convertible performed with great composure.
Before our departure for France, more than one person asked, “Are you going to mention the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet?” Mais oui! But when considering the Evoque Convertible, the mind most naturally went to another “halo” vehicle: the 1948 Willys-Overland Jeepster. Based on a station wagon’s body, the Jeepster, a pokey four-seater, was the first postwar car to answer an unasked question. Yet it hung around in the used-car market, was revived for production after a 17-year interval, and even lent its name to a T. Rex song, setting a high bar for would-be successors.
Our lunchtime destination of Bourdeau, a village on the western shore of Lake Bourget, lay just beyond Chambéry, the capital of Savoie. We were expected at Restaurant Lamartine, which perches with its Michelin star where “cavorting sloping sides” meet the long and deep body of water. Indeed, Lake Bourget provided inspiration for the Romantic Period poet Alphonse de Lamartine, author of “The Lake.” A passionate meditation on lost love and fleeting time, it retains its music even in English translation. What might be overlooked is that Lamartine was also statesman who strove for French liberty and egalitarianism before his career faded and he ended up — quelle horreur! — editing a monthly.
Our postprandial activity brought a taste of the Evoque Convertible’s offroad prowess. By following navigation prompts on the 10.2-inch screen, we arrived at a back at the L’Isére to traversing a slopeside trail with the help of more spotters and coaches. It was an exercise that highlighted our ambivalence about the Evoque Convertible. While the all-terrain technology got us down a steep, rocky section, the brake pedal had to be used extensively because the vehicle wouldn’t exactly creep. Meantime, we felt a bit conspicuous undertaking this on low-profile tires and dandy rims. It was the type of endeavor that probably wouldn’t earn us ridicule in the Hamptons or Malibu, but it sure would from the people of Moab or the Rubicon. Meanwhile, the frameless doors meant that when left up, the front window glass rattled like perturbed squirrels.
As the afternoon waned, we left the Isére lowlands, climbing again about 4,500 feet to Courchevel for one more night of winter. And there was time to reflect on the Evoque Convertible’s merits and demerits. Yes, it’s exclusive, attractive, has a well laid out and luxurious interior, and delivers a pleasant and refined driving experience. The convertible top comes up (and down) aces.
Just be warned: This expensive compact SUV sacrifices utility in the name of sport. With the top up, entry to the backseat could result in a visit to the orthopedist. And those rear seats need to stay in place to help provide structural rigidity. That leaves just 8.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity; the pass-through will accept only one pair of skis—and not a snowboard.
What the trunk will unquestionably hold are a couple of beach bags and a picnic hamper. How far from here to Spain and the Costa Brava?
2017 Range Rover Evoque Convertible Specifications
|Engine:||2.0L turbo DOHC I-4/240 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 250 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD convertible|
|EPA Mileage:||20/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||172.0 x 77.9 x 63.3 in|
|0-60 MPH:||7.8 sec|
|Top Speed:||112 mph|