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LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 01: Victoria Beckham attends party to celebrates the 40th anniversary of Range Rover hosted by Vogue in London, England, in 2010. at The Orangery on July 1, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage) *** Local Caption *** Victoria Beckham

Mike Marsland/WireImage

Style is an elusive target, defined and guarded by the anorexic battalions that line the catwalks of Paris and Milan. Here you enter the domain of Vogue's Anna Wintour and designer Karl Lagerfeld, the commanders of fashion's oxygen-deprived summit: hemlines rise and fall at their command.

This comes to mind as I cruise through the city in the Range Rover Evoque Autobiography edition. It's an elegant little machine, with titanium grey paint, contrasting black roof and an interior crafted like a Vuitton handbag.

Glancing at a specification sheet, you might be tempted to compare the Evoque with a Honda CRV or Toyota RAV4: It's a compact SUV with all-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine.

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But that's where the similarity ends. This Evoque retails for $72,070 – enough to buy both the Honda and the Toyota, with change left over for a Nissan Micra.

The workaday world of bargain hunting and skinflint value has been left far behind. I am riding through Style Country, a place where you pay for the Lageresque cut of a fender and the just-so sheen of a perfectly chosen trim panel. The Evoque isn't so much a car as a couturier outfit that has been accessorized with aluminum wheels and a turbocharger. For that, you pay.

It brings to mind the time when I walked into a Chanel boutique after spotting an outfit I thought would look perfect on my wife. Together, the skirt and top were $19,000.

Such is the price of style. The Evoque came to the market four years ago, and was aimed at a demographic that put a premium on design. Fashionista and former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice) was commissioned to create a special edition, and in 2012, the Evoque was voted Women's Top World Luxury Car of the Year.

Although some automotive wags have decried the Evoque as a "rolling handbag," it has an excellent set of mechanical components: a nine-speed automatic transmission and Haldex differentials, excellent for deep snow and off-roading.

But like Beckham herself, the Evoque is defined not by substance, but style. On that level, it's fantastic: the Evoque is a supermodel, with oversized wheels and gun-slit windows. Its style is on the mark, and probably destined for future classic status. If it were a woman, it would be a 1960s British It Girl such as Pattie Boyd (the inspiration for Layla) or Jean Shrimpton, the spare beauty who launched the miniskirt fad.

Although many people like to say that form matters less than function, design can make or break a car, or the company that built it. Kia, once a bit-player, saw sales go through the roof after it hired designer Peter Schreyer to restyle its lineup. Schreyer was poached from Audi, where he helped establish a design aesthetic that has made Audi a leading brand.

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Dennis DesRosiers, who runs a company that tracks automotive sales, says style has become more critical because technology has largely eliminated the substantive differences between car makers.

"The business has changed," he says. "In the old days, there were major differences in quality and manufacturing. Today, almost everyone produces a well-built car. Style has become a huge point of differentiation. Customers buy based on what they can see, touch and feel."

Style did not always determine the fate of a car. Henry Ford turned the automobile into a mass-market device by offering a single, utilitarian machine that came in only one colour, the Model T, in black. But as demand for cars grew after the First World War, Ford's competitors began stealing market share by offering cars that catered to changing consumer tastes. GM founder William Durant instituted the annual model year change, which heightened demand and forced Ford to follow suit.

By the 1930s, GM style was under the control of Harley Earl, a designer who would disrupt the car world in the same way that Steve Jobs would later shift the world of digital technology: Earl was the man who brought us the tail fin, the concept car and lineups that catered to social aspiration.

During the postwar consumer boom, style became a matter of corporate life and death. Stodgy Studebaker drifted into oblivion. Ford, meanwhile, created the greatest hit in automotive history with a cheap-but-brilliant makeover: by adding a stylishly long hood and truncated tail, the plodding Falcon sedan metamorphosed into the sensational Mustang.

In today's market, style is crucial for top brands such as BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. "The way cars look is an integral part of a company's branding," DesRosiers says. "It may just be the outer skin, but it signifies what's underneath. That's why people will pay more just because a car has that twin-kidney grill."

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We've come a long way since Henry Ford. Although he created the modern car industry, Ford soon found himself out of the step: others wanted new, more stylish designs, but Ford wanted to stick with the homely but well-proven Model T. Although falling sales finally forced him to relent and make the Model A, Ford's hard-pew disdain for cosmetics and vanity meant that its styling would be left to others, including his son, Edsel Ford.

The quest for automotive beauty has been paralleled by endless improvements in engineering and manufacturing. We live in an age when you can buy a 1,000-horsepower supercar crafted from carbon fibre, or a $13,000 grocery-getter with an overhead cam engine and disc brakes.

You can also buy timeless style, and roll like Posh Spice. It will just cost extra.

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