► New Range Rover Evoque Convertible tested
► Soft-top 4x4 seems nonsensical on paper
► Can an 800-mile test help us make sense of it?
Frank Geary’s Guggenheim museum glistens in the sunlight on the opposite bank of the Ria del Nervión like giant curls of swarf fallen from some unseen engine shop in the sky. As worthy of a chin-stroke as any of the works contained within its walls, it has helped bring millions of visitors to a rejuvenated Bilbao every year since it opened in 1999.
But for all its plaudits it’s also been the subject of controversy, coming under attack for symbolising gentrification and cultural imperialism from people who know about these things. That seemed to make it an apt enough place to start a journey in the latest Evoque, a vehicle that firmly prioritises the aesthetic over the off-road athletic, that started life as a concept wearing a Land Rover badge, morphed into a Range Rover and has now had its roof removed, not for practical purposes, but for purely hedonistic ones. The result is a machine as far away from the spirit of the 1948 Series 1 Landie as any factory-built machine has come.
To discover more about this £50,000 Evoque and what exactly you get (and give up) for the £4800 it’ll cost you over the coupe, we’re heading from Bilbao in the far north of Spain to the country’s southern coast, but not in some Cannonball battle against the clock. After pondering exactly what the Evoque was, we wondered if it wasn’t a brilliantly modern GT. Stylish, expensive, refined and with the guts to tackle anything a continental trip might throw at it. So we’ll be tackling motorway miles, twisting mountain roads, even looking for a little culture of the not-too-demanding, middle-class kind that buyers might enjoy. But first, we need to find out if this is a proper Range Rover. We need to find some mud.
Burgos and the surrounding hills are a couple of hours southwest of Bilbao. We load the destination into the excellent new widescreen sat-nav system, load our luggage into the pizza oven-style boot, and head onto the motorway. We’ve got the roof up, but not because having it folded impacts on luggage space – at a VW Up-sized 251 litres, it’s the same in either configuration: small. Driving a new convertible it’s all too easy to get hung up on the top-down success when, in the UK at least, the roof-up ability is arguably even more important.
Visually, the convertible’s roof-up silhouette closely echoes the tin-top’s. There’s no flat rear deck area visible, the hood stretching from the unusually deep windscreen header rail until its home above the R-A-N-G-E letters on the boot lid. It’s canvas, of course. There’s no way a coupe-cabrio hardtop roof would fold away without completely eliminating the genuinely adult-sized rear seats. And even with a simple cloth roof the convertible weighs a colossal 280kg more than the coupe. Now the Evoque needn’t worry about not being seen as a true Range Rover. It’s got the two-tonne beer gut to prove its provenance.
Besides the electric mechanism that rolls back the top in 18 seconds at speeds of up to 31mph, the added weight comes from the extra metal required to strengthen a car that was never intended to sire a convertible version. Judging from the solidity of the structure – and the massively thick header rail – as we head down the AP-68, it’s weight well targeted. There’s the tiniest of occasional tremors in the rear-view mirror, but the Evoque feels impressively tight. And quiet. There are plenty of coupes that make more din than this at 80mph, and more than once I forget that I’m in a convertible at all.
The roads are also eerily quiet. Like the motorways over the border in France, Spain’s asphalt arteries are stunningly smooth and traffic free. Even when we stop for food the entire service station facility is deserted but for one solitary member of staff. It’s like something from 28 Days Later. At times it feels like there’s no one home under the bonnet, either.
Our Telepass device for the toll booth’s automatic lanes doesn’t seem to be working so we’re forced to stop each time. When it’s time to get moving again it’s clear that the Evoque’s step-off, its off-the-line urgency, is useless. I’d say the gulf between flattening the right pedal at a standstill and anything detectable happening is like the turbo lag on an early ’80s F1 car, but since this is a Range Rover I’m erring towards ringing the doorbell at a stately home and waiting eons for a decrepit butler to shuffle down from the south wing.
You can buy a basic front-drive, three-door, manual Evoque coupe for £30,600 if you really want people to see you (and with only 148bhp they’ll get plenty of time to do it), but the convertible requires considerably deeper pockets. Available exclusively with four-wheel drive, an auto transmission and in HSE Dynamic trim (with the option of a Lux pack for an extra £4200), prices start at £47,000.
We’re in a 2.0-litre TD4 diesel example, one of only two engines available, the other being a £700-pricier 2.0 turbocharged petrol that starts at £48k. But while the 237bhp petrol car trots to 62mph in a hardly hot, but at least useful, 8sec, the diesel takes over 10, and has little in reserve when you call for more at motorway speeds. Fifty grand and the power-to-weight ratio of a Kia Picanto? I’m struggling to think of another car this expensive so lacking in brio. I’m also struggling not to think of the Boxster S I could have for the same money…
That’s forgotten when we sidestep historic Burgos, unfurl the roof and hit the twisty tarmac that runs southeast from Arlanzón, along the Embalse de Úzquiza and down to Pineda de la Sierra. With a finger on the console button the top stores flush with the rear deck, the lines not spoiled by the protective roll hoops that will helpfully always remain hidden, but can shoot upwards to the rescue in 90 milliseconds. The only disappointments are the two uncovered areas, one on either flank, that hint of grubby mechanical bits beneath and undermine the car’s premium feel.
The disappointment is fleeting. In a normal convertible you’re content to admire the view of snow covered hills above and icy-looking waters below. In a Range Rover convertible you can step right into either. Okay, so the Evoque’s 500mm wading depth isn’t going to challenge a Defender’s, but it’s likely far more than any buyer is ever going to need. Same goes for climbing ability, the Evoque having been designed to claw its way up 45° slopes and tilt to 35°.
It’s the back end of February and many of the off-road trails spearing into the hills are chained off due to snow. But not this one. We switch the Evoque’s Terrain Response system from normal mode to mud and ruts and scramble slowly into the scenery. At normal road speeds the four-wheel-drive system can decouple the rear wheels to reduce driveline drag and fuel consumption, but here they’re all mucking in. You can feel individual wheels scrabbling for grip as a combination of the electronically controlled rear differential and brake-based ESP system serves up the engine’s 317lb ft of torque as appropriate.
Recent heavy rain has soaked the hillside and is asking big questions of the decidedly road-biased 245/45 20 Continental Cross Contact tyres. So far they’re firing the answers right back, but when we get cocky and wade into snow nine inches deep, it’s all over. And it’s at this point, with the spinning wheels cranked over to give us the best chance of escape and a cascade of mud and snow pelting me and the leather trim, that one crucial drawback of a convertible of roader becomes apparent. Moral of the story: if you’re heading off road with the roof down make sure both you and the wheels are wearing suitable attire.
Having wriggled free with the help of a samaritan SUV on proper winter tyres we overnight at Burgos in a hotel that looks so medieval I half expect Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone to burst across the lobby, sabres a-blazing.
We’ve also got some slashing to do – to our mileage. That means a few solid hours of motorway driving for me and a bit of a nap for snapper Justin. South of Madrid, I look across and notice he’s sparked out asleep, shades on, seat reclined. Maybe ten years from now I’ll be kicking back too, but despite offering adaptive cruise and a basic lane departure system, JLR remains behind the big German brands (and small, techy ones like Tesla) when it comes to driving assistance kit, so today I’ll have to settle for resting my right leg and letting the cruise control take the strain.
Cruise control is a bit of a godsend here. The toll roads in the south of Spain are as incredible as those in the north: marble smooth, emptier than the Porsche 911 design team’s ideas folder and blighted by a feeble 120km/h (75mph) limit that fails to do them justice. Justice being the one thing I’m keen to avoid, I set the system at 90mph and watch the trip computer settle at 29mpg.
In mitigation the weather’s noticeably warmer already so we’ve decided to leave the roof down. We’re not masochists though. We’ve got all four windows up and the rear wind deflector in place. It’s as fiddly to unfurl and clip in as most of these things, making you look like you’re performing some slapstick routine in a silent movie short, one end unclipping itself just as you get the other in place, and it downgrades the Evoque to a two-seater, but it does drastically reduce tiresome buffeting.
The weather isn’t the only thing improving. So is the scenery, from the wide expanses of flat fields at Spain’s centre to rolling hills full of olive groves as we creep towards the mighty white-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. At the foothills of those mountains lies Granada, where ancient Islamic and European cultures collide. The best example of this is the, or Red Castle, the incredible palace built by the region’s Moorish rulers in the 13th century, and later augmented by Christian conquerors.
It’s a must-see, but how to get there? Actually, getting to the Alhambra, which is located on one of three hills overlooking the modern city, is easy enough, but finding a vantage point to photograph car and palace together is a different matter. We slither through cobbled streets, squeeze through narrow gaps between cars that a full-sized Range Rover (only 83mm wider) would never manage, pause briefly to say hello to the random tourist from Solihull (‘My mum used to work at Land Rover!’) and eventually stumble upon the mother lode. At the Mirador de San Nicolas in the late afternoon sun, jaw-slackeningly nubile late teens soak up the sound of a multitude of Spanish guitars and the incredible sight of the Alhambra with the snow-topped mountains behind. For the first time in two days, and entirely forgivably, no one is looking at the car.
Though it might not look it on the map, the quickest way from Granada the following morning, to Malaga, and our final destination, Puerto Banus further west, is to carry on the A-44 due south-east towards Motril before picking up the westbound A-7. But we’ve done enough motorway miles to test the Evoque’s GT mettle. We need some proper roads to find out how losing the roof and gaining the mother of muffin tops has affected the Evoque’s handling.
We find one. The A-4050 is an incredible bit of road, like a tour of Europe’s best compressed into 30 concentrated miles of joy. Alpine switchbacks, Col de Turini stone walls and a spectacular view down to the Mediterranean; it’s got it all. Except the right car for the job. The Evoque simply isn’t that great to drive. Oh, it’s competent enough, and moderately fun if you never push beyond five-tenths. The steering’s not particularly quick, but there’s a pleasing keenness to turn into corners and the excellent ride quality hasn’t come entirely at the expense of body control.
But make the mistake of driving harder and it unravels. There’s body roll, tyre scrub, and any attempt to dive into a bend aggressively on the brakes has the car lurching into messy oversteer that’s only kept in check by the less than delicate stability control. Never mind the new 718 Boxster S you could have for £50k; an Audi A3 cabriolet at almost half the price would eat this thing alive.
But we know that down on the coast among the yachts in poseur’s paradise of Puerto Banus, the A3 wouldn’t get a look in. Neither could we actually, because we’d forgotten about the barriers stopping unauthorised cars cruising the marina area. Our names aren’t down so we’re not coming in, says the voice on the intercom. We need several hundred euros of Port Pass to rub shoulders with the Ferraris. Seems showing off is an expensive business, even after you’ve emptied your pockets to pay for the car required for the purpose.
The marina at the slightly more humble town of Estepona 25 minutes down the coast past Marbella is also gated, but we blag our way through the first of two barriers and sneak down to the beach. We’re driving a Range Rover and there’s a bespoke sand mode on the Terrain Response system, but I can’t stop thinking about the road tyres that threw in the white towel in the white fluff back at Burgos. Gingerly I roll out onto the sand like I’m expecting the ground to swallow us whole.
Eight hundred miles from Bilbao our journey is over. We didn’t need to come so far to discover whether the Evoque will be a success. That’s assured. We came to see whether it deserved to be, because we could, because it seemed like a cool thing to do. That’s the Evoque all over. No one needs a car like this and no one could deny that it’s compromised by the need to fulfil too many roles. It’s heavy, slow, only moderately interesting to drive and…
And yet it’s also an excellent convertible: stiff, stylish and quiet enough to pass for a coupe with the roof up. It might not have thrilled on the A-4050 but it’s proved itself a proper GT and it does exactly what it needs to, drawing looks at every turn, seating four in proper comfort and offering enough genuine four-wheel-drive ability to offset any perceived lack of true Land Roverness.
Would we buy one? We’re not so sure. We’d like to try the petrol version because the TD4 doesn’t feel anything like as special as the engine in a £50k car should. In fact the whole car seems massively overpriced on first inspection, though actually an Audi A5 cabrio isn’t that much cheaper and much of that difference will be wiped out by the Evoque’s superior residuals. If you were thinking of buying a high-spec tin-top Evoque for north of forty grand, you absolutely owe it to yourself to buy one of these instead. Mock the absurdity, the insincerity even, of the Evoque convertible all you like, but the car of the moment is almost, almost, worth the hype.
The specs: Range Rover Evoque Convertible
Engine: 1999cc 16v turbodiesel 4-cyl, 178bhp @ 4000rpm, 317lb ft @ 1750rpm
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Suspension: MacPherson struts front and rear
Performance: 10.3sec 0-62mph, 121mph, 49.6mpg, 149g/km CO2
Weight/made from: 1967kg/steel
On sale: Now
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Read more from the April 2016 issue of CAR magazine