Evoque still jewel of the pile

For: Still as stylish as ever, great to drive, retains most brand core values.

Against: Price seriously erodes desirability, poor rear visibility only partially reconciled by parking radar.

Score: 3.7/5

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Knowing that the Evoque provides the cheapest route to Range Rover ownership doesn’t diminish the impact of another truth: That as a buy-in it’s expensive – almost to the point of absurdity.

Given this, you might well imagine that anyone with the wherewithal to buy into this wee bauble mightn’t care less that it also happens to be the company's most affordable model to run, or that – with the 2014 edition – that thrift improves all the more.

Yet event if adopters with eyes only for its admittedly sensational styling, sports car-like dynamics and the obvious snob status associated with this badge don’t see the economy merits, the brand does.

Their need to meet ever-tightening economy and emissions legislation outside of New Zealand has triggered a decision to make the smallest Range Rover here the family member with the most gears - nine in all is three more than before. What’s the diff? Time with the Evoque Black Design Edition, a derivation of the flagship Dynamic model, provided opportunity to find out.

Design

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Land Rover’s desire to appeal to a more youthful audience was a strong impetus for creating its smallest SUV. Look at how it price positions now and you’ll ask if that’s still the case.

Still, clearly there enough kids out there with inheritances to blow on smart small SUVS: Premium baby baubles are selling up a storm internationally; where the Evoque first went, so many more - the Porsche Macan that launches here in a couple of weeks, the Audi RSQ3, Mercedes Benz GLA and future crossovers from Jaguar and Bentley – are set to follow.

When launched three years ago, the Range Rover seemed an automotive artwork, so buffed to perfection was the shape it seemed impossible to improve. The 2014 facelift reinforces that thought: Some trim materials have altered, but the sloping roofline, thin headlights, small glass area and chunky front bumper remain intact. To keep the pot boiling the brand has instead created specials such as this Black Design edition, so-named because of its black gloss alloy wheels, darkened front lights, a rear spoiler and new blacked-up Range Rover badges on the front and back.

Does the Evoque need to update more comprehensively to say in vogue? One or two elements look a bit dated –the touchscreen infotainment system most obviously – but it’s still fashion forward overall. The cabin environment remains especially classy, not least because Land Rover doesn’t scrimp on leather quality, but the car itself still makes powerful poser impact in any streetscape.

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The ‘design’ aspect of the car remains a big hook. Okay, the pop-up rotary gearlever dial also seems less of a ‘delight’ item than it once was (though I still reckon it has brilliantly intuitive operation) but the ambient lighting plus the "puddle light" that illuminates the ground outside the door, throwing down a laser-etched shape of the Evoque in the beam, like the Batman signal, is still cool.

The kit content of the test car reminded that high-end style is gilt-edged. The Dynamic is a $94,000 model but the Black Design pack adds another $6000, and on top of this the test car came with a black roof, stainless highlights, a rear view camera, front park aid and front seat heating that altogether added a further $4000. That the last three should even be extras at this money might surprise, so stand by for a further reality jolt: Even at $104k, the model still lacks sat nav. That’s another couple of grand again. All a bit too rich, I’d have to say.

It’s a small package though more spacious than it looks. The constraints of the low-roof shape, allows it to be excused offering the fully upright ‘command’ driving position required of other Land Rover product but also frees up enough room in the rear to make it possible, just, for two adults to squeeze in. The boot offers 575 litres of space, while the split-folding rear seats increase space to a reasonable 1445 litres, but it’s not as Labrador-friendly as the bigger models.


Driving

It’s true that the Evoque was built to be just as good on the road as it is off it. It’s just as true that hardly any owners will test this. Realistically, it only has decent dirt capability because Land Rover is a brand whose credibility depends so much on that side of things. The acknowledged primary role is patently to win over a crowd less interested in that side of things than in the four-wheel-drive aura and the sharp on-road demeanour.

It’s good on road. Not as racy as a sporty hatchback, true, but pretty decent all the same. Having a body that isn’t anything like as tall as the company's other models means lean in the corners is greatly reduced. Adaptive magnetic MagneRide dampers also aid composure. Also, the steering is nice and sharp and there’s plenty of grip. When it does let go, there’s the same transition to understeer that you’d experience from a regular front-drive car.

But, yes, that’s as before... the more pressing question is: What difference does the gearbox make?

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That’s an interesting one. In regard to operability, you’d have to suggest that the initial answer would have to be something along the lines “not a lot.” It’s a very smooth and suave box, so much so that the changes are near as dammit imperceptible. But, then, the six-speed was like that as well.

Actually, the difference is less to do with what you sense than what you see by watching the tachometer and the instant and average fuel consumption returns on the in-car computer. Frugality and flexibility are the bywords.

Instead of the box having two overdriven gears, as the six-speeder does, four gears are now overdriven towards the top end, and the upper ratios stretch much further than sixth did. At the bottom end, first is even lower than before, too.

The main benefits, therefore, are improved drivability at the bottom and at the top it gives a lazier, quieter and more economical cruise. It’s kinda like a CVT, insofar that there seems to be a gear for every occasion, though also unlike one in that... well, in that it has gears.

In case you are wondering, the general consensus is that a nine-speed is about the zenith for a conventional automatic gearbox; it basically might already seem two cogs too many. For the most part, you’ll be at a loss to know what gear it is in, and the car doesn’t help out here. Assuming it is in ninth at 100kmh, from a standing start you’re getting a gearchange roughly every 10kmh gained.

That’s busy but, as I say, it’s so silky you won’t notice. It certainly seems to be a good accomplice for the 2.2-litre 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine on test, presumably because this engine makes up for its modest for power (just 110kw) by presenting a decent dollop of torque, some 400Nm from just 1750rpm. The drivetrain feels very relaxed and grown up; there’s heaps of heft to allow for even foot-to-the-floor kickdown to be undertaken with considerable calmness. Though it is affected by occasional lag, this is a great engine for this model.

The diesel will always be the most fuel-efficient anyway, and basically, the added effect of the gearing, the eco mode that stops the engine when you stop and restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake and an active four-wheel drive system that decouples the rear wheels when you reach approximately 30kmh, suggests it could even beat the claimed 4.9 litres per 100km economy officially claimed.

Verdict

The Evoque today is largely as it was previously; hugely cool, beautifully styled, nice to drive on road and far handier than it looks in the rough stuff... and just too expensive for its own good.

To be fair, most of its rivals are having a laugh, too. Yet the indefensibility of the Evoque’s pricetag is surely such that owners might well chose to do as I did and simply avoid discussing it.

It’s fair enough for premium products to cost extra, but I’m sure the Evoque would be a more common sight here were the range to top out at the price at which it starts: $73k.

As is, it seems daft that the next size-up Range Rover, the Sport, can be accessed for a third as much again as is asked for the Evoque here, while the recently tested Land Rover Discovery Black is way closer still. Yes, they’re also expensive, but look at how much more you get.

The price devalues the good effect rendered by the nine-speed, though, perhaps punters happy to pay this much anyway are potentially also prepared to run it on vintage champagne if need be.

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