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Range Rover's Evoque surprisingly superb

AP

The 2012 Range Rover Evoque.

By Dan Carney, msnbc.com contributor

Hey, Land Rover isn’t following the rules!

You know, the rules for concept cars: a car maker rolls out a rakish design concept that sets hearts aflutter, then just as customers are prepared to rush into showrooms, checkbooks in hand, they pull a bait-and-switch by introducing a production model that is disappointingly prosaic by comparison.

Heads hanging, dejected customers trudge home without the cool concept car they had imagined themselves driving.

Well, Land Rover didn’t do this when it forged the Range Rover Evoque Coupe from the LRX concept vehicle that wowed auto show-goers who never anticipated they’d be in position to buy something just like it in short order.

Land Rover’s daring has earned the Evoque an avalanche of accolades, such as North American Truck of the Year, Motor Trend SUV of the Year, an Automobile magazine All-Star award, AutoWeek’s “Best of the Best,” Car Design of the Year, Scottish Truck of the Year, and so on.

Why? It isn’t every day that you can go to a dealer and buy a new car that swivels heads like you were driving with Scarlett Johansson standing through the sunroof with a wardrobe malfunction.

Sure, there are garish overreaches out there, like the Kia Soul and Nissan Cube. But they draw attention because of their unusual styling.

Of course, Range Rovers are already fashionable, so having a stylishly sporty compact head-turner will only accrue still more prestige to the brand, even though this new model has a lower price tag than the Range Rover Sport or the “real” Range Rover.

Land Rover’s heritage, of course, is of boxy off-roaders used to document endangered species in Africa for American television viewers, and of the later Range Rover, which is the unofficial vehicle of the horsey set. A line plotted from those two points does not arrive at the smoke-machine-and-strobe-lights fantasy that is the Evoque.

That’s fine. The Evoque isn’t meant for Land Rover devotees. It’s meant to bring in buyers who may want a little more elbow room or capability than they get in their current Mini Cooper or Audi TT. And a four-door variant might attract people currently driving a 3-series sedan or wagon. Maybe even the odd compact SUV owner who wants to upgrade in style but not in size.

The wheels are “only” 20 inches, but they look even bigger with the Evoque’s size and proportions. The squinty headlights are really high-intensity-discharge xenon lamps like on most premium cars, but bystanders would happily believe they are lasers.

The car I tested had the optional $650 white contrast roof. It’s probably striking on Evoques finished in bold primary colors, but it doesn’t contrast with the Stornoway Grey paint of our car. My wife thought it looked like the dealer had left the protective vinyl shrink wrap on the roof. I’d keep the cap and change the paint color to red.

Avoid scratching that paint by seeing everything around the Evoque with the five-camera surround view on the infotainment screen.

The dramatic styling is backed by a 240-hp turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine known elsewhere as a Ford Ecoboost.

As a sporty urban runabout, the Evoque excels, with taut, responsive handling unlike that of any previous Land Rover product. The Evoque uses magnetically adjustable shocks like those seen on Ferraris, Corvettes and Cadillacs to adjust between comfort and control on the fly.

Off road, well, it is still a Land Rover product, so break out your bush attire and head to the savanna to track endangered big cats. Or, with the Evoque’s adaptability, put on your best attire and head to Savannah, Ga., to sip sweet tea on the veranda.

Here’s one aggravation though: The door hinges and seals seem unusually stiff, making it difficult to close the doors without slamming them. Maybe it’s the sealing needed for river fording that causes the problem, but if so I didn’t notice the issue with the full-fledged, $100,000 Range Rover I also tested recently.

With the coupe’s two doors at least the driver has control over closing half the car’s doors, leaving only one person to be reminded to slam the door. Even with large doors, the coupe still doesn’t have a wide enough opening to ease the difficult access to the unexpectedly spacious back seat.

The headroom in the rear of the Evoque is amazing, and other measures are also good, though legroom benefits from the low, unsupportive seat bottom that can leave back seaters feeling like they are perched on kids’ desks on back-to-school night.

The coupe packs style at the cost of some practicality, though the four-door version preserves a decent chunk of that style with a much bigger serving of utility. The Evoque seems positioned, with its turbo four-cylinder engine, to tout fuel efficiency as an advantage over competitors, but in a week of mixed driving I saw 18.5 mpg, a half-tick above the EPA city rating of 18 mpg and not in the same area code as the highway rating of 28 mpg.

Such may be the cost of the Evoque’s max-capability all-wheel-drive system, which is unmatched in the segment in off-road, bad-weather capability.

Ultimately, however, while extreme traction is Land Rover’s hallmark, the Evoque will win hearts with its dramatic styling and will probably keep them with its comfortable ride. The Evoque’s ability to wade into the valet line at the Ritz probably trumps its ability to wade into rivers.

There is no doubt that the Evoque is the most exciting entry in the premium compact crossover segment and may be the production model truest to its design concept since the Pontiac Solstice.

Vital statistics: 2012 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque Coupe

Base price: $44,995 (including shipping)

Price as tested: $58,370

EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 28 mpg highway.

Pros: Incredible traffic-stopping styling, honest-to-goodness Land Rover off-road capability, surprising cabin space.

Cons: $58,000 sticker price, 18 mpg is not impressive for a four-cylinder compact crossover.

Verdict: Exclusive fun.

Standard equipment: 240-hp. 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive with adjustable Terrain Response System, panoramic sunroof.

Major options: 20-inch sparkle finish wheels, surround camera system, navigation with voice control, xenon headlights, 825-watt audio system.

Safety equipment: front and side air bags, air curtain, driver’s knee air bag, electronic stability control, roll stability control, hill descent control, traction control, anti-lock brakes.

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