A Test Drive, and the Design Story Behind Range Rover's Most Unusual Vehicle

SoHo is one of New York City’s most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods–and paradoxically, the best place in Manhattan to see every car design on Earth. On Lafayette, bland rideshare Toyotas share lanes with Teslas. On West Broadway’s restaurant row, delivery trucks are wedged in with Lamborghinis, Ferraris, the odd Bugatti. The streets in between are the parking lot of the upper middle class, awash with everything else–primarily crossover SUVs of German and Japanese heritage, so numerous and similar that they are rendered bland.

Unless you’re on West Broadway, it takes a lot for a car to catch your eye there. But on my daily dog walks through SoHo, sometime around 2011 or 2012 I started seeing an unusual dark grey vehicle regularly parked on Greene, sometimes Mercer. It looked like a small Range Rover that had had its roof squashed by some prankster giant.

First generation Evoque, By Vauxford – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

A longer look revealed that the designers had not only slanted the roof very intentionally, but even leaned into it by adding a steadily ascending beltline to magnify the effect, suggesting a vanishing point. It could not be mistaken for any other vehicle.

I hated it. The car always caught my eye, and its lines were clean enough but the roofline didn’t make any sense to me, from a functionality standpoint; it turned the rear window into little more than a slit. It did, however, remind me of an early design gig I had doing sneaker concepts for a major manufacturer. The brief the Design Director gave was: “Draw me something that the kids will notice from across the street.” This car certainly fulfilled that.

I learned the car was in fact a Range Rover, a new model called the Evoque. I regarded it as a curiosity, a novelty that wouldn’t sell well.

I was wrong, as it turns out. And because I did not know the context of the car at the time, I completely missed the design lessons contained within it: Why it looks the way it does, and what it would go on to accomplish for its parent company. To date the car has sold–largely on the strength of its design–roughly 800,000 units, from a company that could not have dreamed of those numbers when the design was first conceived.

The Context

The proper Range Rover is a full-size SUV that has evolved over the decades from a utilitarian vehicle to a luxury one. It’s been a steady performer for parent company Jaguar Land Rover; in 2011 it had annual worldwide sales of 29,626–not GM or Ford figures, but certainly respectable for a challenger brand that’s a fraction of the size. After a 2012 redesign, sales began to climb, and by 2015 had more than doubled the 2011 figure, coming to 60,226. These are fairly staggering sales numbers for a car with a price that can stretch into six figures.

2019 Range Rover

As good as both those sales and growth figures are, that price tag will confer a ceiling at some point. It’s true that each year sees more people becoming millionaires–last year another 238,000 people reached that category in the U.S. alone, according to Investopedia–but the far larger market is obviously those of us in the middle class. In order for the company to grow, JLR needed an entry-level vehicle in the Range Rover line, something an average Joe could actually afford. And with more people moving to cities, a vehicle that could easily be maneuvered through traffic and parked in tight spaces would be a plus.

To fulfill this mandate, in 2008 Land Rover (the company at the time had yet to be stabled with Jaguar) unveiled the LRX concept, designed by Gerry McGovern, at the North American International Auto Show:

LRX Concept, 2008

The response was positive from not only show attendees, but more critically, both dealerships and the all-important press. “Gerry McGovern’s first effort since becoming design director of Land Rover is this LRX concept and it’s a stylistic home run,” wrote Car & Driver at the time. “the LRX is an SUV coupe concept in a size that is both both sensible and practical.”

“Don’t let its macho-sport exterior fool you—McGovern refers to the LRX as Land Rover’s Mini Cooper or Audi TT. As fans of the Range Rover Sport that came from now-retired designer Geoff Upex, we embrace this mini-ute as well.”

Motor Trend was similarly effusive, referring to it as “The beautifully detailed and artfully proportioned LRX” and confirming JLR’s confidence in the concept and subsequent production plans. “It will be a bold step for the company, and a bold step for the brand,” said Chris Marchand (then Land Rover’s North America Sales and Marketing head, now Executive Vice President of Operations).

The UK’s Car Magazine explained the point of the design: “Here is Land Rover’s riposte to the anti-SUV brigade: the long-awaited baby Landy – a hybrid 4×4 so small it shares a footprint with a Ford Focus,” they wrote. “This is a car for people who deride the unnecessary heft of large SUVs, but want to retain the visual presence of 4x4s. It’s Land Rover lite.”

LRX Concept, 2008

LRX Concept, 2008

As Marchand told Motor Trend, “This vehicle will be a segment changer…. It will set us up for the future.”

Marchand turned out to be right. The production version of the LRX–which remained incredibly faithful to the concept, due to care on McGovern’s part during the design process–was dubbed the Evoque, and it debuted in 2011 with annual worldwide sales of 22,710. Close to the Range Rover’s 29,626, in other words.

However, the Evoque had debuted mid-year in 2011. In 2012, the Evoque’s first full year of production, annual sales jumped to a whopping 108,598 units. The following year it was 124,292. In 2014 it hit 125,364, before calming down to roughly 110,000 a year for the next three years.

2014 Evoque HSE

Then came 2018. A bad year for Land Rover, with a looming Brexit and global trade tensions impacting consumer confidence, a shift away from using diesel fuel in Europe (84% of Euro-market JLR vehicles are sold with diesel powertrains, according to Automotive News) and a rapid cooling of the highly-profitable Chinese market. On top of that, with the announcement of a new Evoque, would-be buyers were waiting for it rather than helping dealerships clear current inventory. “Sales of Land Rover models [in 2018] fell by 6.9% as market conditions in China and Europe and the run-out of the current Evoque held back performance,” the company wrote.

Even still, by the end of 2018 JLR had sold a staggering 777,182 Evoques since launch; by press time, the number has undoubtedly topped 800,000. “Evoque has been the superstar sales success over the past eight years for Range Rover,” says Richard Agnew, Land Rover’s Director of Global Brand Communications. And incredibly, the Evoque had accomplished these sales figures without receiving a redesign in its first eight years of production.

So Why Redesign the Evoque Now?

As evinced by the launch of their highly-capable, all-electric I-Pace last year, JLR is making a massive shift towards electric. Having a more sustainable power source is not only environmentally responsible, but makes good business sense as both Europe and China’s CO2 targets are being toughened up. It would also make the company less vulnerable to shifts in diesel demand. Thus they’ve set the ambitious goal to offer, by 2020, all new Jaguar Land Rover vehicles with the option for electric powertrains.

From an engineering standpoint, the Evoque required new architecture to accommodate an electric powerplant. Some car brands would take this opportunity to completely overhaul the design, but that isn’t JLR and McGovern’s way. “There’s this preoccupation in the automotive industry that ever time you do a new car, it has to be completely different. Why?” McGovern says. “When it comes to a new vehicle that we haven’t produced before, that’s our opportunity to be radical. But if you’ve got something that’s established, that people love, [I’d rather] refine it. Look at the evolution of the 911, it’s a very good example. Or the evolution of the Range Rover. That is our approach.

“The Evoque is incredibly successful for us, [with nearly] 800,000 vehicles sold,” McGovern continues. “A vehicle that truly did resonate with consumers, and it is the first Land Rover ever that did sell predominantly on its design.” The challenge, then, was to maintain the design elements that made the Evoque a hit while still producing something new.

McGovern and his team’s redesign is thus a meticulous refinement of the first generation. The goal, in McGovern’s words, was for folks to see it and say “‘That is unmistakably an Evoque,’ and in the second sentence, ‘but it’s the new one.'”

“You can tell it’s the new one because of how clean it is,” McGovern says. “The reductive nature, the levels of precision. In the details of the car there’s a sense of order and discipline, every line is doing a job even if it is just to create a beautiful aesthetic.

“The car overall, give or take a few mil, is virtually the same size [as its predecessor] but it is subtly different: We’ve made the proportion even better than on the original by increasing the wheelbase slightly. We’ve given it bigger wheels to optimize that proportion, and the increase in the wheel base helps in terms of the rear package, you get slightly better ingress/egress and it gives you a better stance.”

Because the vehicle (at first glance) looks so similar to the previous generation, one might suspect that the development team’s workload was light. But in actuality, as JLR Chief Engineer Peter Bingham points out, “Within the body structure, the metalwork of the vehicle, the only pieces that carry over from the old car are the door hinges.” Everything else is all-new. Most importantly, it’s now capable of housing an electric powertrain, but “we didn’t want to do that at the expense of the customer,” Bingham explains, “so the batteries are underneath the floor of the car,” creating space.

As one bonus of the rejiggered structure, more trunk space was gained. And on the ride quality front, the new cast-aluminum front subframe and shock towers increase stiffness, to better absorb impacts. The new engineering improvements also serve the design directly: “By increasing strength in those areas, that’s allowed us to fit 21″ wheels for the first time to Evoque,” Bingham says. “That gives the car a great stance and the proportions that it has.”

Fine, So 800,000 Customers Disagreed With Your Correspondent About the Roof

During the press event, I was of course waiting for McGovern to address the divisive design element that first irked me, the plunging roofline and rising beltline. McGovern reveals that he did indeed encounter resistance, but doubled down on his commitment to it during the design process: “I can remember having heated battles on the first Evoque, where people tried to get me to lift the roof–‘We need to see’–Nope, because that’s it’s character, and sometimes to get character you have to compromise. Some people actually look better with a scar on their face, it gives them more character.”

For their part, JLR’s engineering team came up with a technological solution that removed the key UX criticism for the roofline. And what they developed became “my favorite feature,” McGovern says. “When you look at it, falling roof, rising beltline, visual robustness and that little window in the back that you can’t bloody see anything out of, we kept it. But these geniuses [the engineering group] found a way of being able to see much better out of the back. We call it ClearSight.” Bingham and his group’s ClearSight Rear View Mirror doubles as a camera-fed monitor, eliminating blind spots to provide a wide and completely unobstructed view, even if you’ve got passengers or cargo in the back. (Note: GM has a similar feature, which I recently demonstrated in the GMC Sierra review; GM and JLR’s systems were developed independently).

Normal mirror view

ClearSight view

Animal-Free Alternatives to Leather

JLR’s sustainability drive manifests not only in their electric initiative, but also in the materials science they’re availing themselves of for the interior. While leather seats go hand-in-hand with luxury vehicles, one issue is that you have to kill some cows for the material. And while traditionalists can still order leather in the Evoque, the company is also offering animal-free alternatives using high-tech fabrics from natural and sustainable sources. One is a blend of wool and suedecloth that actually incorporates recycled plastic bottles; the other comes from natural fibers. Both are tested for stain- and abrasion-resistance, with the intention of rivaling or surpassing leather.

“I think in time, this will become the norm,” McGovern says. “We’re now seeing more and more people want [material alternatives with] non-animal by-products, and I think there’s some beautiful materials that have the quality and the durability that leathers do. I’m not saying it’s going to replace leather, but I think we’re going to see more of that.”

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

So what do all of these improvements mean for the all-important user experience of the car? To find out, Core77 joined a team of automotive journalists on a series of spirited test drives from Athens to the Peloponnesian peninsula and back. Over the course of the drives we covered every type of terrain, from paved highway to rocky off-road, from logging-style, gravel pathways freshly cut into mountainsides–terrifyingly, often without guardrails at perilous hairpins–to dirt-track farm roads best suited to the sure-footed goats that inhabited them.

Interior

The interior of the Evoque is almost shockingly modernist. The luxury feel comes not from a bunch of gaudy, glossy surfaces, but rather from the minimalism. If it didn’t actually turn on when you pressed the Start button, you’d think it was the interior of a concept car, a buck for a sci-fi movie. There are wide, unbroken stretches of material, a marked lack of clutter, and a series of well-crafted surfaces that appear to have been slaved over. When you look closely at any of the transitions in the dash, the controls or the seating, you see what reads as high-tech craftsmanship.

My personal automotive experience is primarily with Japanese, German and American cars. The Evoque’s interior does not read as either of those things; and having next to no experience with British cars I can’t say if the interior is English, JLR, or McGovernish. But it is something I hadn’t seen before.

Driving Performance

The engine performance is obviously going to vary depending on whether you choose the base turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder, or the variant of that engine with the 48-volt torque infill system (electric launch, essentially), or a hybrid- or all-electric version. Our test cars were fitted with the second variant on that list and the car was sufficiently peppy for spirited driving. (If the electric powerplants JLR eventually provides are anything like the ones in the I-Pace we previously tested, it will likely be “sufficiently Holy Shit for spirited driving.”)

On-Road

Maneuvering the car at slow speeds on crowded streets, and fitting it through tight spots, was easy; this would be a fantastic city car. At highway speeds the car handles well and feels like a larger car, meaning there is none of the unpleasant, jittery characteristics you may have experienced in, say, a budget compact rental car. It feels stable, well-planted and easy to control. The cabin is also surprisingly quiet. Overall, it feels and handles like a sporty luxury car.

One thing I didn’t care for, is the lack of a feature that admittedly no luxury buyer desires these days, which is a manual transmission. I am biased; I hate automatics. In spirited driving through corners, the nine-speed automatic transmission often downshifted when I didn’t want it to, and I don’t like being surprised by gear changes. It’s possible that if I owned the car long-term I’d master the automatic transmission’s shift points with better throttle control on my part, but this was a short-term test.

Your correspondent is terrified of heights but yes, the route called for us to drive over this thing. It was a long way down.

Off-Road

During the first leg of our drive, when we were on paved roads, I saw this as the perfect city car; the suspension handles well on the highway, but is also well suited to swallow the bumpy cobblestones of SoHo, where I’d first seen one, and I figured that would be as far as it went.

As for the wilder portions of the routes, let me say: The Evoque was so ridiculously competent off-road, that it was almost confusing. The car’s sure-footedness and overall offroad prowess was completely unexpected in what visually reads as a car designed for urban environments.

When we were navigating the decidedly un-urban, steep, unpaved, gravel-surfaced, twisty mountain roads with sheer drop-offs and no guardrails, the car’s stability, predictability and 4WD inspired confidence. I saw more than a few of the other automotive journalists tackling these roads significantly faster than I’d be comfortable doing, so I’m gathering they found the same.

But it was after taking the car truly off-road that most impressed me. The route called for us to traverse a rocky riverbed, the type of obstacle that in a lesser car would have you reaching for your cell phone rather than the gear selector. But the Evoque crawled smoothly up and down the rocky terrain, confidently and relentlessly. At the low speeds required, the engine had more than enough torque to get us up and over improbably large rocks. And while we journalists were allowed to ford shallow bits of water, Bingham reveals that “the car can run through 600 millimeters or nearly two feet of water, which is deeper even than we used to advise for the old Defender.”

The Evoque’s ground clearance is 8.3 inches, comparable to a Subaru Outback. While that’s not quite enough to tackle Defender-level rock climbs, the Evoque’s 4WD system, along with well-considered angles of approach (25 degrees) and departure (30.6 degrees), mean you can put the car into situations I’d never dream of with most cars this size.

What most surprised me was the versatility; this car is undoubtedly aimed at the luxury market, so I wasn’t expecting the off-road chops. “Under all of this it’s still a Land Rover,” Bingham said to us after the drive, “and as you found today, that means it’s best-in-class off road.”

I did wonder: Would any urbanite purchase the Evoque with the intent of truly letting it do its thing off-road, out in the wild? With a car this well-engineered it would be a crying shame not to. If I was stuck out in the rugged wilderness and with the keys to nothing but a nearby Evoque, I’d be glad I had one; I just can’t imagine the situation that would put me there. I suppose that’s a question for JLR’s marketers to answer.

Conclusion

At a starting price of $42,500, the Evoque provides a strong-performing and relatively affordable entrée into the world of Range Rover. If the previous version performed half as well as the one we journalists drove, the car’s high sales figures are no surprise. It’s got the attention to design, it’s got the attention to engineering, it’s got the luxury.

The vehicle’s versatility is astonishing. The car is well-suited and sized for the city, comfortable and zippy on two-lanes or the highway, and almost absurdly capable off-road; it’s designed as if targeted towards a city dweller who doesn’t want to get stuck after they flee into the wilderness to dodge an upcoming zombie apocalypse.

On top of that, the clean, minimalist design, along with the fit-and-finish, make it feel like a much more expensive car.

The Design Takeaway

McGovern took a bold risk with the design of the Evoque, doubling down in the face of resistance to see his vision through. Land Rover wisely backed him and as you’ve learned above, it paid off with numbers on the verge of shocking. What we didn’t get to discuss much here are McGovern’s design philosophies and disciplined approach to creating the Land Rover lineup. On this front, we’ll have some excerpts from a chat with him coming up next.


Source: core77

Rating A Test Drive, and the Design Story Behind Range Rover's Most Unusual Vehicle is 5.0 / 5 Votes: 5
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