Lessons In Design: 2012 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque
By Tom Martin
July 26, 2012
—Los Angeles, California
If you talk at length with industrial designers, you quickly realize that modern product design isn’t simply about aesthetics. In fact, after a recent weekend walking the aisles chatting with designers of automated cappuccino-makers, and furniture, and faucets, and pre-fab modern homes at the Dwell On Design show in Los Angeles, it struck us that high-end design takes style almost as a given and concentrates on human factors as the really challenging part of the job. This makes sense, because although figuring out what people want has always been a challenge, that challenge is compounded by both the microprocessor-aided complexity of the typical modern product, and by the hyper-segmentation now required in global markets. The stylist of yesteryear has transitioned to the industrial designer of today, and that transition isn’t some fiddling at the edges, it is fundamental.
We visited Dwell On Design because we wanted to compare the way architects and residential product designers think about their products with some of the better design thinking in the automotive world. Frankly, cars are among the most highly designed products on Earth, at least if you look at product development budgets. Of course, some of that cost goes into the extensive engineering needed to create the huge functionality and high reliability that we come to insist upon in the automotive realm. Nonetheless, cars are extensively designed, and because they are multi-purpose, they offer up some big design challenges.
We wanted to see how residential designers would look at a good example of automotive design. We were also curious to compare that reaction to our car journalist’s view and the view of consumers on the street. We chose the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque as our subject car because it is relatively new and we wanted a fresh evaluation. We also chose the Evoque because it is an attempt to create something of a new segment: the stylish, high-end, urban active lifestyle vehicle. Any time designers work in a new or nearly new segment, the design problem gets more complex because trial and error hasn’t vetted many ideas, some of which inevitably prove unsatisfactory. We drove the Evoque extensively around LA, through Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Venice and, of course, on the 405, the 105, the 5, the 10, the 101 and the PCH.
So, what did we learn?
To start conventionally, with the exterior styling of the car, we were impressed that both designers and consumers saw the Evoque as something different. The Evoque makes a statement, and as many have observed, that takes some doing in a place like LA where we were repeatedly on the road next to Lamborghini Gallardos and Ferrari 430s and 458s, and where Porsches seem to be fleet cars for a delivery service. What we heard time and again is that the Evoque looks interesting, it looks good, and it is clearly done with care. That said, for some people it falls into the realm of conspicuous design, and therefore is too extroverted for their tastes. You can’t have it both ways, we suppose.
Once inside, designers were more universally positive about the interior. The shapes are good, and while conservative, the overall design has just enough flair to feel like a special place. But time after time, commentary drifted to the color palette and the materials used, both of which are superb. We, and other automotive journalists, have spilled a lot of pixels talking about Audi’s interior design, but frankly Audi has plenty to learn from the Land Rover folks. That’s because continental European design, while clean, tends to trip over drab colors, occasional cheap materials, and hard, angular edges. The best English design, epitomized by Land Rover, avoids all three of those problems.
We’re not as convinced that Land Rover’s genius lies in user interface design. That isn’t to say that the Evoque is bad, but it doesn’t make a great leap forward either.
A few examples will suffice. As is the case in many cars, the Evoque uses a touchscreen for many radio, setup, and navigation controls. But some of the controls are also implemented in hardware. The Evoque design team made reasonable choices about which controls went where, but it is still the case that splitting these controls between two physically separated pods is not ideal. Similarly, by putting so many controls on a single small LCD, the Evoque forces the driver to switch display modes to do different things like changing channels and altering nav commands. This, again, is commonplace, but perhaps not ideal.
Another example, away from the difficult challenge of the electronics command center, is the Range Rover shift knob. In common with Jaguar, Range Rover does gear selection via a rotary knob. This is a compact design, which is a good thing, but the operation of the knob never quite feels natural. We suspect a second-generation design could clean this up, but as of now, we and the designers who drove the Evoque found ourselves wanting a different arrangement. We want to repeat that none of this is actually bad, and in fact after days in the Evoque, we found the controls mostly above average.
One area, related to interior controls, where the Evoque is far above average is in audio system quality. Our test car had the optional Meridian Surround Sound system, which for those of you who are not audiophiles, means that the audio comes from a firm justly famous among thecogniscenti for its audio engineering. We normally parody the specs for these things (e.g., 825 watts and 17 speakers), but in this case, if you like natural, clear sound you’ll be amazed by the difference between what you find in the Evoque and the turgid thumping of some “premium” OEM audio offerings.
Moving on to passenger accommodations, we were genuinely impressed with the interior space. The Evoque isn’t a big car at 172 inches long on a 104-inch wheelbase. For context, a BMW 3-Series is about 10 inches longer than the Evoque. But the rear seat in the Evoque is perfectly usable for six-footers, both in headroom and legroom. Of course, if you plan to carry people in the rear compartment very often, we’d suggest the Evoque five-door, rather than the three-door Coupe that we drove. And frankly, we don’t think the five-door gives up much style to the Coupe, but of course you’ll have to be the judge on that issue.
Seating quality is quite good as well. The Evoque hews to the Germanic “firm is comfortable over long periods” model, and after hours in the seat we’d say that works pretty well. As we’ve argued many times, a little more surface compliance doesn’t prevent overall firmness (see Volvo or some BMWs), so we think these seats could be slightly improved for lighter, slimmer passengers, but this is a tweak, not a major change.
From the driver’s seat, an important design variable, particularly for an urban-oriented vehicle, is visibility. In the forward direction, the Evoque is quite good in this regard. The A pillars don’t intrude and the ride height is high enough that you don’t feel walled off by crossovers and light trucks. The three-quarters rear view is not nearly so good, though, because the special exterior design makes the rear side windows rather small, with a high beltline. If stylists were in charge, things would have been left in this unfortunate state, with an insipid comment like, “Good design requires some user sacrifice.”
Fortunately, Land Rover has real designers on staff, and they realized that this visibility limitation had to be addressed. Their answer is as simple as it is rare: put some giant mirrors on that baby! The Evoque mirrors are wonderfully huge, with a very usable rectangular shape. Frankly, after time in the Evoque, we’d probably take great mirrors and compromised side windows over the inverse. The Evoque is fluidly usable in tight traffic, though we admit that our weekend racer experience probably makes us more comfortable with mirrors than might be the case for some drivers (as evidenced by our designer panel).
We don’t normally think of design as extending into the powertrain and chassis arenas, but in this case the designers might have gotten a word in. We say that because the execution of the Evoque’s driving dynamics seems just about ideal for the purpose of an urban vehicle in a place like LA, which is basically a suburban setting with pockets of heavy traffic, which makes it a lot like other areas where you can easily imagine an Evoque being driven.
The key to the Evoque’s driving dynamics is the execution of the turbo four-cylinder engine, coupled with some good transmission engineering. The engine makes 240 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque, which, with 3900-pounds of curb weight to pull, doesn’t sound bad, but doesn’t seem special either. Still, with turbo power, a lot of practical driving feel comes from exactly where the torque comes on and how much lag there is. In the Evoque, the torque comes on quickly and amply with excellent throttle programming, so the car feels quite responsive in normal urban driving.
We thought this sense of low- and mid-range quickness was aided by the transmission. Shifts are smooth and quick, but even more, the Evoque comes with truly usable paddles. Their placement is good, shifts are more or less immediate, and a benefit of the four-cylinder engine is that there is just enough engine sound to shift by ear.
As we’ve said before, there is a difference between quick and fast, and with the Evoque the limits of the power-to-weight ratio are evidenced if you bury the throttle. The Evoque isn’t slow, but it isn’t a 911 either, or even a 335i. For most drivers, this won’t be a problem; it’s just that the Evoque isn’t a substitute for a sports car.
The chassis mates well with the drivetrain to create a fun car. Roll control is quite good at a moderate pace, and the short wheelbase, firm damping, and relatively low weight make the Evoque a willing partner. The car is happy to rotate, yet it doesn’t feel jittery or twitchy.
On LA streets and highways, which aren’t exactly glassy, the suspension tuning manages to serve up a reasonable ride. The feeling is firm, not floaty, and unlike many a heavier SUV, the Evoque doesn’t pitch and bound uncomfortably as the dampers cope with the mass of the car moving vertically. Despite this control, and pretty big wheels, the Evoque has a solid structure and does a good job of smoothing over minor pavement edges and bumps. On worse roads, we think it would be livable too, but Chicago and Connecticut never cease to amaze, so we can’t be sure.
We were pleased that the straight-line tracking of the Evoque is quite good. Cars that feel responsive at lower urban speeds often feel a little scattered at 75 or 80 miles per hour, but the Evoque feels quite planted. It isn’t quite in the same territory as some reference cars at much higher prices, but the Evoque is a car in which you could go long distances enjoyably. That idea is supported by the mid- to upper-20s mpg that the Evoque delivers on the open road and the relatively quiet cabin.
Good design is often about two things, say those who practice the art. First, you have to understand the target market and make inevitable tradeoffs with the market’s primary needs in mind. Second, before you make tradeoffs, you have to ask yourself if a tradeoff is really required at all, or, rather, is there simply a better way that addresses the market’s primary needs and secondary wants.
We were smitten with the Range Rover Evoque because it manages to make so few tradeoffs and deliver on such a long list of needs and wants. The Evoque is stylish and functional. The Evoque is responsive and comfortable. The Evoque is quick and efficient. Maybe that’s just good design, but in a product as complex as an automobile, it is also rare design.