2020 Range Rover Evoque First Drive Review: The Incredible Shrinking Luxury SUV Stays In Shape

A sophisticated new structure, posh interior, and clever off-road technology make Rover's smallest SUV worth a look.

2020 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque First Drive
Land Rover

As a test bed for the sprightly 2020 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, you could do worse than Greece: Two-laners inscribe wild loops through craggy seaside terrain, an enthusiast’s scribbled fantasy of driving adventure. Goat trails and former pro rally stages provide a showcase for its off-road skills whether or not owners choose to explore them. And in the home of the civilization that perfected classical sculpture, we’re reminded that more than any other automaker, it's Land Rover creating the idealized SUV for modern times.

If the flagship Range Rover is the brand’s monumental style— its sturdy Doric column— the Evoque has been more personal and intimate, but no less successful. Back in 2010, a luxury SUV this small seemed more than a bit risky. But the Evoque, an international design sensation in concept LRX form, seduced buyers as well: Jaguar Land Rover has moved more than 800,000 units around the world over eight years, making it the fastest-selling Rover in history. Now, as this second-generation Evoque emerges from its factory at Halewood, U.K., we donned our Grecian driving sandals for a two-day test from Athens to the Peleponnese, where Hercules once roamed and the Argonauts set sail. 

Nick Dimbleby

New Evoque feels more worthy of the Range Rover name

Smooth sailing is the Evoque’s calling card: 30 minutes into our opening run from Athens, I’m already struck by how much calmer and tighter this Rover feels; more of-a-piece with bigger, pricier British vaults like the Velar and Range Rover Sport. The brand’s mixed-metal Premium Transverse Architecture enlists mostly high-strength steel with dollops of magnesium or aluminum in selected areas and aluminum for the shock towers and hood. The new, stiffer platform supports electrification with no loss of interior space, including the 48-volt mild-hybrid system that’s standard on uplevel Evoques bound for America. With its belt-driven starter/generator, that system can shut down the gasoline engine at speeds below 11 mph, harvest energy for the tiny 0.2 kWh lithium-battery below the floor, and apply that electric torque to boost start-off acceleration. As with other 48-volt models, the Evoque stops and restarts the gasoline engine almost imperceptibly. 

Range Rover Evoque Style: Familiar Yet Fresh

NIck Dimbleby

Evoque shows off iimproved performance on Greece's Peloponnese

The subtly reworked body includes dramatic, ultra-slim LED lighting signatures that lift the Evoque’s visual weight even higher, amplyfing its slab-like shoulders and flanks. If you require a trained eye to spot those changes, Land Rover Chief Design Officer Gerry McGovern—now moonlighting as a professor of automotive design at the Royal College of Art London— is happy to supply it along with an exposition on the brand’s commitment to “reductivist” design that rejects any detail without a visual or functional purpose. Here in Greece, the ever-voluble McGovern expresses some frustration over journalists who’ve taken one glance at the new Evoque, perhaps after a few helpings of single-malt, and told him that it looks exactly the same. 

Land Rover

Evoque highlights Rover's philosophy of reductive design

“Well. Actually, no, it doesn’t,” he says, hitting the words like a peevish Ricky Gervais. McGovern himself calls this an evolutionary design. Radical reworkings, he argues, are only necessary for luxury brands that can’t otherwise attract attention, or models that are showroom failures. For a stylistic knockout like the Evoque, McGovern argues, it would be ridiculous to fix what isn’t broken—including the Evoque’s signature tumbling roofline and upswept belt line, ideally accentuated by an optional, contrast-color roof.   

Range Rover Evoque Cabin Gets First-Class Upgrade

McGovern and his team instead sought to work the details, including flush-mounted door handles and Velar-like body surfacing that’s smoother than a royal baby’s bottom. Panel gaps are 42-percent tighter on average, including a precise 1-mm gap around those minimal matrix headlamps that make them appear a one-piece manufacture. Roof joints are laser-welded for an unblemished appearance. In keeping with Rover’s philosophy of subtracting details instead of slapping more on, the original Evoque’s dark wheel-arch cladding is gone. The “little back window that no one can see out of,” is still there, McGovern quips, but an optional, camera-based rear-view mirror—a technology first seen on Cadillac’s CT6 sedan—helps expand the view. Flip a mirror switch, and a high-def camera feed brings a wide-angle, 50-degree field of vision, including in low-light situations.

Land Rover

Evoque cabin adopts dual display screens, latest Rover tech

The Evoque’s exterior footprint is virtually unchanged, stretching just over 172 inches in overall length. Because of the Rover’s tall height and stance, including 8.3 inches of ground clearance (nearly matching a Jeep Cherokee), you might not realize that it’s actually shorter from bumper to bumper than a subcompact Audi Q3 or Mercedes GLA-Class, and up to 14 inches shorter than “compact” SUV’s like the Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC or BMW X3. The Evoque’s wheelbase does grow by 0.8 inches, which affords a skosh more rear kneeroom, and more foot space thanks to higher mounting points for front seats. As ever, there’s just enough room for two good-sized adults, with the panoramic sunroof impinging a bit on headspace. Cargo space behind rear seats grows by 6 percent, to 21.5 cubic feet. Total cargo space jumps to 50.5 cubic feet with the 40/20/40 split rear seats folded—not far off the mark of the much-larger Audi Q5, though about 20 percent less than the spacious BMW X3. Front door pockets now hold 1.5-liter bottles, and the center console, with its twin sliding armrests, is notably enlarged. 

The interior gets the more-dramatic redesign, so ruthlessly minimal that it makes an Audi look baroque in comparison. The brand’s stacked duo of 10-inch touchscreens centers a sharply banked instrument panel that looks especially strong in its optional, stitched navy-blue wrap. McGovern cites sustainable and recycled materials as a luxury trend that’s about to explode, so the Evoque offers a choice of technical fabrics in place of optional leather, including a blend of Eucalyptus bark and polyester. The 53 bottles worth of recycled plastic in the snazzy wool-and-faux suede blend from Denmark’s Kvadrat would make a Volvo fan swoon with shelter-magazine delight.

Land Rover

Mall-crawler, my butt

The new platform, which shares only door hinges with the departing model, gets a MacPherson strut front suspension, with fluid-filled bushings to sooth steering-column vibrations. A new, independent Integral Link design suspends the rear. These Evoques will be powered exclusively by Jaguar Land Rover’s turbocharged, 2.0-liter four, in a choice of two strengths: 246 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque in starter models; or pricier, mild-hybrid R-Dynamic versions with 296 horses and 295 pound-feet. For either transverse-mounted engine, a new driveline disconnect system can power front wheels exclusively to save fuel, or divert torque for four-wheel grip. Reengineered mounts let the engine nestle much lower, in line with the vehicle’s roll axis; Rover engineers say the old four-banger actually swung in the engine bay under acceleration, forcing them to counter it with compromised gearbox tuning that dampened engine response. This new design supposedly lets the engine react more swiftly to right-pedal commands. JLR’s Ingenium is a solid four-banger, with a refined voice and ready torque throughout its powerband. It’s well-served by the new platform and its additional sound deadening. The complaining engine and bothersome road noise of older Evoques is banished, decisively.

In standard 246-hp trim, the Evoque knocks off 60 mph in a reasonable 7.0 seconds. A bit frustratingly, Land Rover couldn’t provide the more-turbo-happy, 296-hp version in time for this media drive, nor its tech tricks that include standard electronic torque vectoring on both axles, and an optional magnetic adaptive suspension that monitors the roadway every tenth of a second.

Nick Dimbleby

Evoque offers a turbo four with 246 or 296 horsepower

That R-Dynamic version should sprint to 60 mph in a swift 6.2 seconds, though its mild-hybrid system can only match the combined 23-mpg fuel economy of the less-powerful version: The EPA cites 20/27 mpg in city and highway for the standard Evoque, and 21/26 mpg for the R-Dynamic. A plug-in hybrid version is in the works, though not for the U.S. market. I have driven that more-powerful Ingenium in Jaguar models, and for some Evoque owners the extra oomph (plus the 48-volt hybrid tech) will be worth the nearly $4,000 upcharge. Taking the tank-half-full view, R-Dynamic buyers will enjoy 50 extra horses with roughly identical fuel economy, and perhaps a mileage bump in urban use. 

Yet these 246-hp Evoques never felt underpowered, whether I was hustling them up switchbacks overlooking the Aegean Sea, or passing dawdlers in the gaps between cliffside curves. One demerit: The relatively large-circumference steering wheel is perfect for larger Rovers, but seems too bus-like for the sportier Evoque. And that cream-filled steering doesn’t transmit much feedback. Yet the new Evoque—always an entertaining little SUV—felt notably more nimble and balanced, squirting from corner-to-corner with fluid ease. A reworked nine-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission is a fine wingman, and a traditional lever replaces the former rotary-knob shifter. Grip is enhanced by 20-inch, all-season rubber on alloy wheels, with 18’s standard and huge 21-inchers as an over-the-top option. 

Evoque Drives Better, On-Road and Off

Rover cooked up surprises for us on our drive route; beginning with government permission to convoy our Evoques across a rusting, disused railway bridge that spans the mighty Corinth Canal, the sheer-walled, 3.9-mile shipping lane that separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland. Bizarrely, I remembered the place only too well: Being 18 years old in the Eighties, living in Athens with my Detroit-based rock band (a long story), when our reliably wasted, death-wish drummer decided it would be fun to climb over the bridge’s lower walkway and tightrope along its girders, roughly 250 feet above the water below—beer in hand, as a useful counterbalance. This Evoque crossing was less dramatic, though it didn’t tell us anything aside from the wisdom of keeping the Rovers nicely centered on the derelict tracks. 

More telling was the Evoque’s game performance on Greece’s rugged, sheep-friendly trails and two-tracks. Yes, we know, most Evoques (and their owners) will stick to pavement. But that’s their loss: This Rover will go anywhere that a Jeep Cherokee can go, and maybe more; where the Jeep’s maximum water-fording depth is 19 inches, the Evoque's rises 3.9-inches to a thigh-deep 23.6 inches, matching the Land Rover Discovery Sport.  We crossed a few fast-flowing streams near a centuries-old Greek Orthodox monastery and never had to say a prayer, as ultrasonic sensors in exterior mirrors measure the water’s depth and display it onboard for a St. Christopher-style bonus. Progress on steep, rocky climbs was aided by speed-adjustable Hill Descent Control and All-Terrain Progress Control. A new hydraulic “gradient release” system held the Rover steady at perilous angles while I stepped off the foot brake, then resumed a smooth ascent with no nervous backsliding. 

Land Rover

Clever off-road camera system reveals obstacles and wheel path below vehicle

Five years ago, Land Rover created big buzz by introducing its “transparent bonnet” technology at an auto show, and a production version is finally here: A trio of cameras in the side mirrors and bumper cobble together a virtual 180-degree screen view of the ground and the front wheels beneath the Evoque.  Sure, it’s a gimmick, but a clever one. In the urban jungle, the system can display views of tall curbs and tight spots to avoid a painful case of wheel rash. In the wild, the system can reveal obstacles and proper wheel placement that might otherwise require a human spotter outside the vehicle. 

Like its petite rivals, the Evoque can get pricey if you don’t keep options in check. A well-equipped Evoque SE starts from $48,195, rising to $52,145 for an R-Dynamic SE, and $56,795 for an R-Dynamic HSE. In its defense, no other SUV in the class combines this level of high design and luxury with the off-road skills of a Range Rover. An owner might rarely call upon those off-road cameras, or the water-depth sensors, but look on the bright side: Find a puddle in a Beverly Hills valet line, and you can still show them off for friends. 

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com