x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Evoque makes you feel at home on the range

Just when it seemed there were no surprises left out there, the Range Rover Evoque comes along and changes everything.

Range Rover Evoque Ride & Drive event.

Courtesy of Range Rover
Range Rover Evoque Ride & Drive event. Courtesy of Range Rover

I'm feeling a bit weird. Having trotted the globe for the past few years, testing cars in the most glamorous, far-flung countries, I'm piloting what is possibly the most important new vehicle of the decade along a muddy farm track barely four kilometres from the house I used to live in, in north Wales. As homecomings go, it's not particularly exciting - where's the fanfare?

If my own presence in this beautiful part of the world is nothing to get worked up about, I can't say the same for the car I'm driving. Because wherever it goes, it turns heads like a supermodel. And it isn't a low-slung piece of Italian exotica; it's a sensible, capable SUV pieced together in Liverpool, of all places.

But this was never going to be an ordinary car. The Range Rover Evoque, even before it turned a wheel, was destined to be talked about, scrutinised and lionised from the very beginning - and not just by ardent fans of the Land Rover marque. How songwriters, musicians and filmmakers continue to produce fresh and unique material baffles me, when you could be forgiven for assuming that every possible combination of words, notes and plot had already been conjured up many moons ago. What Land Rover has done with the Range Rover Evoque is no different. Just when you thought there were no surprises left out there, along comes a car that doesn't just move on the game, but actually changes everything. The shift is positively seismic.

Yet the stretch of farmland that I'm tackling with this, a three-door, 2.0L Evoque, I could probably get through driving a Morris Minor. And this is frustrating because, well, it's a Land Rover. Land Rover (or should I say Jaguar Land Rover, or JLR in the common parlance) makes Range Rovers, which have always been, how can I put this, posh Land Rovers. Taking the hardcore off-road abilities of the Landie and adding a huge dollop of gravitas and luxury, the Rangie has been king on and off road since its inception in 1970, and I feel the need - because it says Range Rover on the bonnet - to do some proper mud-plugging or rock-crawling in it. This is too easy - and I'm beginning to think the boys at JLR have something to hide.

But then my co-driver suggests that, since we're actually the first group of hacks to drive the Evoque on this month-long launch programme, Land Rover probably wants the cars to be returned in one immaculate piece rather than a mass of twisted steel and aluminium. He has a point. And Land Rover's hierarchy knows that the Evoque needs to be able to deal with the rough stuff with the same aplomb as any other vehicle bearing the famous green oval badge. So I am assuming, with faith in my knowledge of this amazing company, that the Evoque will be as adept at traversing Kenyan plains, UAE deserts and Antarctic tundra as it is plodding along this uninspiring Anglesey field.

There's a good reason we're here, actually. This is Land Rover's spiritual home; the Wilks brothers, who conceived the idea of a go-anywhere vehicle based on the Willys Jeep, had holiday homes here and first sketched the iconic outline of the car on the sands of Red Wharf Bay, just a few kilometres from this field. This, then, is the Evoque's homecoming. But despite my enthusiastic gushing, so far it hasn't really had a chance to prove itself. So, once the last of the ruts and puddles have been dispatched, I stop the Evoque so we can disembark and take a proper, long and hard stare at it. If nothing else, it's a bit of a looker, isn't it?

In fact, if I'm honest, I have, since the day I saw it as the concept Land Rover LRX in January 2008, viewed this car as nothing more than a fashion accessory - a handbag, a trinket, a bejewelled wristwatch that looks startling but really, at the end of the day, is good for only one thing. I wrote it off as a "look at me" irrelevance. Yet even now, before I give the Evoque a decent chance to shine, I know I've been unfairly critical. I viewed this new baby Range Rover as a huge case of style over substance.

It's like nothing else out there - a genuine concept car made real, unlike so many others that are wheeled out long after the final production version has been signed off. The LRX was simply a study in how a Land Rover could possibly look in the future, and now it's here, barely changed from that original idea, which was a huge challenge for Land Rover's engineering teams. For once, function had to follow form and it's a remarkable result.

The roof slopes off to the rear at a fairly dramatic angle, the waistline is unusually high and the rear window is tiny. Passengers in the back might feel a bit claustrophobic but there's an answer for that: a full-length glass roof, that allows sunlight to flood the cabin. And, I suspect, to counter the restricted rear vision, the two door mirrors are absolutely enormous. But peripheral vision is also restricted because of the thick A-pillars, so it's not totally perfect. But enough of these deliberations; it's time to see how it behaves on the public highways of this great nation.

In an hour's time, on a stretch of mountain road I have driven hundreds of times over the years, the Evoque delivers a hammer blow to my preconceptions and smashes them into oblivion. This funky motor, once clear of the mildly moist terrain and onto a decent country road, really shows its mettle and, in an instant, demolishes not only my worries that it's a bit of a wimp, but also the competition from Germany and Japan. The Evoque drives like a sports car, which, for an SUV, is a good thing. A very good thing.

The turbocharged 2.0L engine powers the Evoque with a fantastic, effortless punch and is quietly refined on the move. But the most surprising thing about this car is the way you can hurl it down a twisting country road. With the company's new magnetic "MagneRide" suspension fitted, the Evoque is gifted with a split personality. I've driven plenty of cars that aren't sure what they're supposed to be, but this one turns out to provide the best of both worlds.

It's simply revelatory in the way it grips the surface and corners with supreme confidence and flatness. There was a time when the UK police force had to stop using Range Rovers for high-speed pursuits because, when they negotiated tight corners and roundabouts, the cars had a tendency to flip over because of their long suspension travel and high centre of gravity. There's no danger of this Range Rover following suit - in fact, it practically begs to be driven hard. I love this car.

I'm not alone in my findings. Normally we hacks are a cynical bunch, very difficult to please. But we find ourselves grouping together, raving about the Evoque's sheer breadth of capabilities. We're in agreement - this is a brilliant car and deserves to sell extremely well, which it no doubt will. It would sell in huge numbers even if it was rubbish to drive, simply by virtue of its futuristic good looks, but the fact that it's a hoot both on and off road means it will appeal on a much deeper, less superficial level, too.

Having crossed north Wales's finest mountain roads, we end up in Liverpool for an overnight stop and the following morning we swap for a five-door. It looks virtually identical to its Coupé sibling and adds a degree of extra practicality for family use without losing any of its styling prowess. And, what do you know, there's an urban playground for us to tackle, just in case we thought the Evoque wasn't up to the rough stuff.

First, a disused railway tunnel that is so long you can't see the light at the other end. Two-thirds of the way through, we reach an enormous body of stagnant water and we're warned to be careful because it's deep. They weren't kidding; the Evoque wades through with the stinking water almost reaching the windows and emerges with steam billowing from its hot engine. Easy.

And, when we're least expecting it, there's a detour through Liverpool's famed Albert Docks. Literally through. Down a steep ramp using the hill descent function to ease proceedings before driving along a submerged temporary roadway, wading through more water, less deep than the tunnel's but thankfully less smelly. Crowds have gathered to see the spectacle; the Evoque is a star.

And it really is a star. Against established competition such as BMW's X1 and Nissan's Qashqai, not to mention Audi's upcoming Q3, it stands out like a beacon of good taste both inside and out. It has a premium feel, it goes like stink and it has proved its mettle on the racetrack as well as the desert dunes of Dubai when it was in the development stage. It's a consummate all-rounder and I want one. If you see one, you'll want one, too. Form an orderly queue right now; it goes on sale in the UAE in November.