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New baby Land Rover targets female buyers Add to ...

In some parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, buyers of the 2012 Range Rover Evoque will enjoy a massive range of choices: two body styles (three- and five-door), 12 exterior colours, three contrasting roofs, seven alloy wheel styles, 16 contrasting interiors and the option of a full-length panoramic glass roof. This is in addition to the three engines, two body styles, three trim lines and choice of 2WD or 4WD.

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The price range in Britain: £27,955 to £44,320 ($43,750 to $69,370).

In Canada, we won't have that degree of choice. The least-expensive Evoque should be around $50,000, says Jaguar Land Rover Canada president Lindsay Duffield. Nonetheless, he expects the Evoque to be an instant hit when it lands in showrooms this September. Around the world, dealers have already taken thousands of preorders for the new baby Range Rover.

Canadians, by the way, will not be able to buy the two-wheel-drive version of the Evoque. Yes, in a break from a 63-year-old tradition, Land Rover will offer a front-drive Evoque in markets where it makes sense, which isn't Canada. However, front-drive models comprise 22 per cent of all SUVs sold in Europe and a significant portion of sales in warm-weather U.S. states, too. Land Rover also wants to offer a fuel-efficient version, thus the front-driver.

The Evoque is the smallest Range Rover and is targeted at the BMW X1 and forthcoming Audi Q3. It is also the lightest, with some front-drive versions weighing less than 1,600 kilograms, and the most aerodynamic (0.35 coefficient of drag).

Land Rover derived the Evoque from the LR2 (known as the Freelander in most of the world), though the engineers made some serious modifications. All of its major suspension parts were redesigned for lightness and better geometry and it is the first SUV anywhere to use Magneride adaptive dampers.

John Edwards, Land Rover brand director, says he expects 90 per cent of Evoque customers will be new to the marque. With this model, Land Rover can chase younger and more urban customers, not to mention more female buyers.

"We don't talk about off-road capability any more," said Edwards. "Instead we talk about capability in all conditions." That might come as a surprise to the 18,000 people who bought a go-anywhere Defender last year.

In any case, Canadians will get only the all-wheel-drive Evoque with the 2.0-litre, direct injection, turbocharged engine (about 240 hp) with six-speed automatic transmission. The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel with 148 hp or 187 hp being offered at launch will not come to Canada.

We drove only a diesel model, but expect the 2.0-litre gas engine to be powerful and responsive and refined. This is because Land Rover buys it from Ford, where it's sold as the EcoBoost four-cylinder and is used in the new Explorer. We have driven EcoBoost models and like them a lot.

We had a chance to drive a prototype version of the Evoque on the test track at JLR headquarters in the British Midlands. First driving impression: the Evoque feels light and very much like a car.

Indeed, the car-based Evoque is a study in how engineers take weight out of a car using lightweight materials such as aluminum for the bonnet, roof and suspension components, and composite plastics for the one-piece tailgate. These moves have helped the engineers reduce weight by about 100 kg versus the Land Rover LR2.

Meanwhile, the design has managed to capture many of the lines and even the chunky feel of the LRX concept shown at the Detroit auto show in 2008. The dimensions are very similar, too.

The cabin is comfortable and looks smart, with excellent seats. Throughout, the designers have concentrated on soft-touch plastics, flush-fitting switches and rich leather for the plush-looking double stitching. The designers have gone with sporty aluminum trim and sensible instruments and controls.

The cabin layout seems inspired by the Range Rover Sport: a high console separating driver from passenger. There is a start button on the dash beside the twin-dial instrument layout (with a small info screen between them). A bigger screen for navigation, phone, audio and all the rest sits above the console. There is a surprising amount of cabin and cargo space for a car less than 4.4 metres long and styled like a coupe, though rear-seat legroom is tight.

Land Rover engineering types wax on about the Evoque's packaging and they might have a point. The car offers class-beating ground clearance, a commanding driving position and good head room while riding 100 mm lower than Freelander. Access is simple and car-like, despite the ground clearance.

Land Rover engineers are particularly excited about the Evoque's Magneride adaptive damping system. The Delphi-developed system uses metallic particles in the damper fluid to react when a magnetic field is applied, stiffening the damper to tie down body pitch and roll. The computer-controlled system can change the damping force up to 50 times a second.

Land Rover claims third-generation Magneride outperforms a standard damping system in a long list of ways. Most important, though, Magneride provides comfort and control in a wide range of driving conditions. While it is dangerous to get into much of a discussion about ride and handling based on an hour behind the wheel of a prototype, my first impression is of an agile yet tall vehicle that has no trouble handling corners.

In short, the Evoque is light years from a wobbly SUV. Which is exactly what it needs to be.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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