That the German “big three” premium brands have become hugely successful, profitable businesses in recent years in their own right is beyond question. Wind the clock back a generation or so, and they were much much smaller, taking only a tiny percent of any market in which their products were offered. Whilst they have benefitted somewhat from generally rising living standards, the way they first started to grow was to expand their product ranges, chasing volume with smaller and cheaper products. Success with cars like the Audi A3, BMW 1 and low end 3 Series and Mercedes’ 190 and later A Class generated the funds that then allowed for more niche products, that could sold more profitably to be added to their now rapidly expanding ranges. It can hardly be a surprise that other low volume manufacturers have concluded that to survive, they need to follow suit. And that includes Land Rover. Thirty years ago, there were only two models, the utilitarian Defender and the costly Range Rover. The Discovery of 1989 marked the first expansionist move, but it was only really with the 1997 Freelander that Land Rover had an offering that was likely to deliver significant sales volume. To the surprise of no-one, it was an instant hit, a good product backed by the reputation of the Land Rover brand for tough off-roader style vehicles launched just at the time that the market started to favour SUVs and Crossovers from top to bottom of the size spectrum. But one product selling in decent quantity was never going to be enough, so with SUVs finding ever greater favour among the buying public, Land Rover started to conceive what might be more thought of as more niche products, trading some practicality for style. The Range Rover Sport was the first of these, and then realising that “Range Rover” had real brand cachet, a smaller, Freelander-sized product was conceived. Called Evoque, the production version of what had first been seen as the LRX Concept at shows in 2008 and 2009 appeared in September 2010, with sales starting almost a year later in September 2011 and it captured the public’s imagination right way. Now they could have a Range Rover that they could afford and which was not dauntingly big for those urban roads and parking spaces. For a while, demand exceeded supply of what was launched as a style-oriented three door model, and 90,000 were sold in the first year of production, with the model accounting for more than a third of Land Rover’s sales in 2012 and 2013. Continuing the theme of expanding the range, a five door version was a predictable addition to the family and gradually more variants to top and tail the range arrived in the following months and years. Clever product positioning meant that Evoque and the Freelander and later Discovery Sport, although similarly sized vehicles, sharing much under the skin, were not seen by the market as direct rivals and so one did not really poach potential sales of the other. Although the Evoque has changed visually very little since launch, there was a mild facelift in 2014 and the Ingenium engines started to appear under the bonnet, as well as the inevitable trim and equipment updates as buyer demands continue to increase.
Whilst the Range Rover featured as a prestige vehicle in some rental car fleets, such as Hertz in both the UK and Germany, the smaller models generally did not, so for quite a while I did wonder how I was going to get the chance to sample an Evoque. But then in early 2017, it became apparent that Hertz US had signed a significant agreement with Jaguar Land Rover, meaning that almost the complete US range would appear on fleet during the year, as part of the ever-expanding Prestige Collection. Evoque and Discovery Sport models arrived on fleet as an alternative to the Mercedes and Infiniti models which had previously been what was on offer. The cars were gradually phased in, with a handful on fleet during my March 2017 visit and rather more by September. However, as is often the case with new offerings in the rental fleet, they proved popular, so I failed to secure one over a couple of weeks and two locations, scoring instead a Jaguar XF. Back in Los Angeles in November, for my annual trip to the Auto Show, it is pretty low season, but the fleet tends still to be well-stocked, even if a lot of the cars have amassed most of their year’s mileage, and that is when the chance came. Faced with the choice of either an Evoque or a Discovery Sport parked up in the Presidents Circle area, I picked the Evoque, which I then took to some of my favourite roads in the area, to see what I thought.
Whilst European Evoque drivers get a choice of petrol and diesel models, with varying power outputs, in America there is only engine offered in all versions of the car, the 2.0 litre 4 cylinder Turbo, generating 237 bhp. It is coupled to a 9 speed ZF automatic gearbox and standard All Wheel Drive. This is a good choice, as the Evoque had lively performance, feeling very urgent no matter what speed you were starting from, in quest of that burst of acceleration. Not only that but the noise generated by the engine was pleasing, too. Not that you would call the Evoque a noisy car, as it is not. Wind and road noise are well suppressed and at a steady speed, the engine is quiet, as well. Following the lead set by the Jaguar XF, the gear selector is of the cylindrical type which rises out of the centre column when the ignition is switched on. You rotate the cylinder left or right for forward or reverse gears. There are paddles on the wheel if you wish to select ratios yourself. I generally did not bother, and found that the gearbox did a pretty good job of swapping gears at the right time, though I have seen a number of reviews which are quite critical of this transmission. Clearly with 9 ratios they are quite close together. The top four of them are overdrive gears and they cut the revs still further than had been the case with the 6 speeder which was fitted to pre-2014 Evoque models. Want to drop just one ratio and ease up to speed? Half throttle will do you. Go to two thirds and the transmission will drop two cogs at once, for a typical overtake. Go to full power without kickdown and it’ll drop three; four in kickdown. Most of the time you really can’t keep track of which gear the car is in, but it really does not matter. I took the Evoque well east of Los Angeles to the Palm Springs area, which meant a lengthy distance at a steady speed on the 60 and I10 freeways before some lower speed and stop/start motoring for photographs and other distractions. All told, I covered 252 miles during the day and the Evoque needed 10.55 gallons to refill it, which computes at 23.88 mpg US or 28.53 mpg Imperial, a not terribly impressive result considering the way I drove it.
Like all JLR products, the Evoque has been set-up so it is genuinely good to drive. There is a nice chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel which was particularly pleasant to hold. The steering has plenty of feel to it, with excellent weighting, and there is a precision about the Evoque that is by no means a given in many of its rivals. Despite the higher centre of gravity that you get with an SUV, this is a vehicle that actually almost relishes the twisty roads as much as the straight ones. There is some body roll, but not much, it being kept well in check, and the Evoque handles tidily, with understeer only apparent when you are going faster than perhaps was wise, and there certainly seemed to be plenty of grip from the 235/50 R18 tyres. There is no penalty from a ride point of view, either. For sure the suspension is quite firm, but the Evoque seemed untroubled by some of the terrible road surfaces that feature on the freeways where I drove it, absorbing the cracks, ridges, potholes, lumps and bumps pretty well. I had no concerns about the brakes, which did exactly what they are supposed to do. There is an electronic handbrake, operated with a button in the centre console. Unlike many of its rivals which only look like you could take them off the road, the Evoque is designed to true Land Rover principles and has genuine off-road capability. This is not something I could test within the terms of the rental agreement, but I’ve seen enough reports and videos to suggest that it genuinely is capable in the mud and rough stuff. All Wheel Drive is standard on all US-market Evoques and they all come equipped with two handy off-roading features. Land Rover’s Terrain Response system allows the driver to adjust the traction control for different off-road surfaces like gravel, grass, snow, mud, and sand. All-Terrain Progress Control functions like a low-speed cruise control for off-road driving. These selected from a control in the centre console. Both systems apparently work well, and they make the SUV surprisingly capable on rough terrain. A feature you probably will use, but may not realise is the “on-demand”’ system that automatically decouples drive to the rear axle when cruising above 22mph, but can reconnect it in three tenths of a second as necessary. The drive system also includes an electronically controlled ‘e-Diff’ on the rear axle. The Evoque is pleasingly manoeuverable, with a tight turning circle, and as it is perhaps shorter than you think, at 14 foot 3 inches, ought to be easy to park, though there is a challenge. That is that visibility is not the Evoque’s forte, an almost inevitable consequence of the coupe-like styling. The rear window appears like a narrow slot in your mirror and you need to be careful with what is alongside, too, thanks to the thick B pillars. Help is at hand with the parking sensors and the rear view camera, though.
There is a strong family resemblance inside the Evoque to its bigger and costlier stablemates, though of course the actual details are different and specific to the Evoque, even if it does use a number of key components from the family parts bin. Good quality materials are used, with plenty of leather-wrapped surfaces and a pleasant brushed aluminium-effect inlay being used to provide some colour contrast. Tanks to the standard massive panoramic roof, the cabin is light and airy if you have the roof blind open. The dashboard succeeds in presenting everything without looking fussy or over-endowed. A padded cowl covers the instruments, the two large dials being set in deeply recessed dishes of their own. Between the is a digital display area which as well as containing the trip computer functions also has small digital displays for fuel level and water temperature. There are two column stalks, with lights operated by twisting the end of the indicator stalk. There are auto-sensing lights and wipers. The steering wheel boss has cruise control and audio repeater functions set within it. To the right of the instruments is a large Start Engine button, easy to see and reach. Right again and there are the central air vents, mounted up high. Beneath these is the 8″ infotainment screen, a wide but not that tall unit, with touch screen operation, which you will need to use for audio functions, as with the exception of an on/off button they are all on screen. A Meridian sounds system features and there is still that increasingly rare feature of a CD slot. Navigation is included and this proved easy to use and the system was quite responsive. Below the unit are three rotaries and a number of buttons for the dual zone automated climate control.
Seat adjustment was all electric, with the buttons to do so set on the side of the seat. I was pleased to see that a lumbar support was also part of the capabilities. Couple that with an electrically-operated adjustable steering column and it was easy to get a comfortable driving position. 252 miles in a day is quite a lot, so I was on the driver’s seat for some quite long stretches and can report that I felt very comfortable installed there. The airiness that comes with the sunroof is welcome, and it did not seem to limit the available headroom, so it was not as if I felt at all hemmed in, something you can experience with coupe-like styling.
Space in the rear of Evoque is OK. If it is insufficient, then maybe the Discovery Sport would be a better choice, but I could see that you could certainly put adults in here and they would not feel hard done by. The Evoque is just about wide enough for three to sit here comfortably. With the front seat set well forward there is ample legroom, but even with it well back, there should be enough for most people. I did not experience a problem with headroom, despite the coupe like styling, and of course as this is the 5 door version, getting in and out was easy. There is a central pull-down armrest, and occupants here benefit from rear air vents. There are map pockets on the back of the front seats as well as bins on the doors for odds and ends.
The boot is not that large, though it is slightly bigger in this 5 door version than in the 3 door model. It is a nice regular shape with the sides straightened off over the wheel arches, but this means that it is not that wide. It is quite deep, though, and there is a flat floor. Under that floor you will find a space saver which sits in a well so tight that there is not space to tuck in any bits and pieces. You can get a much larger load area, of course, by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests on to the cushions. The resulting area is far from flat, though, with the space sloping upwards to the front seats. The tailgate is heavy but is electrically assisted. Inside the cabin there is a good-sized glove box, some deep bins on the doors, a well under the central armrest and there is also a stowage under the front part of the centre console, though this is not that easy to access. A pair of cup holders are found under a sliding lid in the console.
Whilst US buyers do not get a choice of engines, they do get to choose between three bodystyles. The original 3 door model is called the Coupe on US soil, and whilst it is the 5 door like the one I tested which garners most of the sales, an open-topped Convertible model joined the range for 2017 as well. After deciding on the body, you need to select the trim. Entry point is the SE, and then sitting above that are the HSE and the top spec Autobiography. It is not quite as simple as that as there are further sub-divisions with the SE and HSE available in Dynamic and Premier versions as well, and this is before you get to the extensive options lists. Even SE models are well equipped with a touch-screen navigation system, a rearview camera, parking sensors, Bluetooth, a USB port, automatic climate control, leather seats, remote keyless entry, push-button start, cruise control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and alloy wheels all in the standard spec. The SE Premium adds a hands-free power liftgate. The Evoque HSE has a 10-speaker Meridian audio system, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, a Wi-Fi hot spot, and a 10-inch touch screen. The HSE Dynamic is the first trim available with the 286-horsepower engine. It also features enhanced exterior and interior styling. The top-of-the-line Range Rover Evoque Autobiography comes with ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, 14-way power-adjustable front seats with a massage function, lane keep assist, automatic emergency braking, driver drowsiness monitoring, traffic sign recognition, a 16-speaker Meridian surround-sound system, HD Radio, and satellite radio. It’s also available with the more powerful 286 bhp engine.
Based on my day with the Evoque, it is not hard to see why it has proved popular. This is a good looking car, which is nicely finished inside. It was among the more enjoyable vehicles of its type to drive, with that lusty engine proving far nicer compared to many similarly-sized cars I have driven. It is spacious enough inside to meet the needs of many. For sure the fuel consumption was not that impressive, but that was the only significant blot on its proverbial copybook during the day. and a minor one at that. What would worry me far more, though, is that in the years that the Evoque has been in production, it has not gained a reputation for reliability that is any better than the rest of the Land Rover range. And sadly, that means, all too often, too many costly failures, especially from the electronics. That’s a shame, as the base product is good and deserves even more success than it has already enjoyed, but if the car is not dependable enough, I can understand why owners won’t be back for a second chance.