Range Rover's stylish Evoque has finally hit Australian shores. But you can't have one because the first 250 examples of the high-riding hatch have already sold out until about May, 2012. There's even strong global demand with more than 32,000 pre-sale orders, far exceeding the company's initial expectations.
The Evoque is the smallest, lightest, most fuel-efficient car to wear the Range Rover badge. It's also the cheapest, with prices ranging between $49,995 and $75,895 (plus on-road and dealer costs).
Land Rover's design director Gerry McGovern says the Evoque is "not meant as an entry-level vehicle but a true Range Rover in a compact form," which is a point that's sharply accentuated once a few options are added. It's not hard to push the Evoque close to $100,000, which is well into Range Rover Sport territory.
Not only will it compete with regular compact luxury SUVs such as Audi's Q5 and BMW's baby X1 and larger X3 (the Evoque is approximately sized between the later two), but it will also take on everything from conventional luxury sedans, the iconic Mini Cooper and sports cars such as Audi's TT.
Up to 70 per cent of customers will be new to Land Rover, according to Land Rover Australia's brand manager Tim Krieger, who expects the company's 80:20 male-dominated skew see a greater gender balance.
The Evoque will even be available in two-wheel-drive entry-level guise from July next year, which is an admission that many owners are unlikely to venture too far from the bitumen - a point once sneered at by the British off-road specialist brand.
Drive came away impressed when we sampled the Evoque on its native soil for its on- and off-road prowess and suitably upmarket looks, both inside and out. Now it's a question of how it copes with Australia's poor road surfaces, fashionable high streets and unforgiving bush tracks.
A major reason for the Evoque's buyer frenzy can be attributed to its outlandish exterior styling, which remains remarkably faithful to its concept, the LRX from 2008.
It is one of the very few production cars in recent memory that isn't a dilution of the original. It looks like a concept car that's literally been dropped onto public roads as we discovered at the Evoque's local launch around the Hunter Valley region in New South Wales this week.
Stepping inside the five-door "hatch" or longer-doored "coupe" reveals an upmarket cabin comprising leather trim with contrasting stitching, aluminium inserts and soft-touch materials throughout, with combinations depending on the specification level called Pure, Prestige and Dynamic.
The driver is greeted by a Jaguar-style rotary gear selector that rises from the dash and cool, crystal-like markings on the dials, which glow a fiery red when the optional Dynamic mode is selected for a more-spirited drive.
Given the Evoque's dramatically sloping roofline, headroom is surprisingly good front and rear for both body styles thanks to a $1035 panoramic glass roof fitted to our test cars, which Land Rover expects a high adoption rate. The seating position is more upright than a sedan, but more reclined than a regular Land Rover such as its closely related Freelander sibling.
Visibility through the letterbox-slot rear window is not so good, however. But at least all variants come standard with a reversing camera and parking sensors. Some features, however, such as keyless entry and start ($1495) cost extra, which come standard on much cheaper cars.
Land Rover anticipates a 70:30 split in favour of the more-practical five-door Evoque over the $1500-dearer coupe. Claustrophobics won't appreciate the latter model's rear seats that are inevitably tricky to access, tight on legroom and provide reasonable visibility thanks to the car's sharply rising waistline, which leads to narrower rear window openings. Rear-seat ventilation is a rude $190 option, which Land Rover concedes and will offer it as standard from next year.
As we discovered, the Evoque lives up to its Range Rover badge as an extremely competent bush basher, although our test car did creak slightly as the body occasionally flexed.
Mud, slippery slopes, deep ruts, sharp breakover angles and river crossings are effortless tasks thanks to the Land Rover's excellent terrain response system. You simply select the mode to match the terrain in front of you and let the vehicle individually adjust power to each wheel, traction and stability control thresholds, as well as throttle and steering sensitivity.
But for a brand with such enviable off-road credentials, the fact that four-wheel-drive Evoques only come with a space-saver spare wheel is disappointing. The adequate-size boot simply cannot fit a full-size spare, according to Land Rover.
We can't complain about the Evoque's engaging road manners, however, which is where most will spend the majority of time. The BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne and even Ford's Territory are regarded as some of the best-handling SUVs for their car-like abilities through corners. The Evoque joins this exclusive club.
It marries a sharp, well-weighted and communicative electric steering system with a compliant ride and nicely planted road-holding between fast directional changes. Even the optional 19-inch alloy wheels and modest-size tyres fitted to our test cars did little to upset the Evoque's sporty yet comfortable suspension tune.
Buyers seeking even more driving thrills can go further with optional 20-inch alloys and variable damper control, which further sharpen the ride and offer a more-direct steering and throttle response.
A choice of turbocharged four-cylinder engines power the Evoque range, comprising a 2.0-litre petrol unit and the 2.2-litre turbo diesel found in the Freelander 2, available in two states of tune. Both are smooth and well insulated from the ambient cabin.
Customers can choose from a 110kW/400Nm (called TD4) or a 140kW/420Nm (SD4) diesel, which is flexible and willing throughout the brief rev range, and collaborative with the $2480 six-speed automatic transmission (six-speed manual comes standard). We averaged 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres involving mixed conditions against an official 6.5L/100km.
The 177kW/340Nm 2.0-litre petrol engine feels lighter and more agile through corners by comparison, although it misses out on the diesel's mid-range surge for effortless overtaking ability. It is the same "EcoBoost" engine found throughout the Volvo range and Ford's forthcoming four-cylinder Falcon and is solely mated to the auto gearbox. We managed a respectable 10.5L/100km through twisty, hilly terrain compared with its 8.7L/100km claim.
Will the Evoque's lack of full-size spare wheel put buyers off? Clearly not, going by the unprecedented waiting lists of up to six months.
The Evoque is unmistakably a Range Rover, yet it looks like nothing else on the road. It's believed that the baby Rangie has proven so successful that the next generation of the larger Range Rover Sport will adopt many of the Evoque's unique styling cues. If Land Rover can address the car's overwhelming demand, then expect to see plenty touring our streets.