The votes are in. And the most awarded and acclaimed SUV of 2011 is the Range Rover Evoque.
Not only did AOL Autos name the Evoque "SUV of the Year," but it got the same laurels from Motor Trend, Autoweek and the North American Truck of the Year jury.
Those awards and kudos should help the storied British SUV builder reach a somewhat audacious goal of drawing 90% of its customers from motorists who are new to the brand.
Execs from the auto-maker hope the tighter, more sculpted design of the Evoque, a design it hails as being a new study in "urban mobility," will score with younger customers and those residing in cities. In fact, if you're a fashion-conscious, young female in Manhattan, you might be in the sweet spot demographic.
The emotional factor
The strategy here is about making a personal connection. First off, the name, different from the Land Rover LR2 or simple Range Rover, is a bold statement about the versatile capabilities of this vehicle. A simple number or letter could not convey that nuance, so say the designers and marketers at the company.
"The reason we chose Evoque quite simply is because the vehicle evokes a certain emotional connection," said Gerry McGovern, design director at Range Rover. "The name will become credible once the car is out there and established itself in the market place."
The model is far less boxy than other Range Rovers, a specific marketing and creative choice.
"If you look at Land Rovers and Range Rovers, overtime they've evolved from a very functional base," said McGovern. "A lot of Land Rovers look the way they do because of what they do, cause of their off-road capability, approach angles, departure angles--quite utilitarian."
But if Land Rover wants to grow, it can't rely on mere pragmatism. To be relevant to more drivers who otherwise wouldn't be tempted by all-terrain capabilities with a luxury bent, Land Rover has to stretch its brand outreach. And that comes through in design.
McGovern actually sits on the board of directors at Land Rover, unusual for a design director in the automotive world where design typically gets absorbed within product development. At Land Rover, design is considered a linchpin of its business.
"It is a differentiator," McGovern said. "It's what makes the emotional connection."
The curves on the vehicle are dramatic. The concept vehicle started as a three-door coupe with a falling roof and distinctive rising belt line with overall robustness. The five-door model follows that shapely instinct. It also spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel to cut down on the milquetoast squareness of past Range Rovers.
The gender equalizer
That stylization hit home with women.
Market research indicates that this vehicle, on account of its design, is scoring with more female customers and evening the gender split in the Evoque to a balanced 50-50 male/female spread. The security and flexibility of an SUV in an urban environment appealed to women with children to tote around, and the maneuverability and style augmented the appeal.
"We're living in a world where image is everything," McGovern said. "It will appeal to people who are image-aware. They want a vehicle that speaks about their own personality. I can see the well-heeled women of Bond Street, Rodeo Drive, Madison Avenue seeing this vehicle as an extension of the things that they buy. It enhances their lives." That's a long way from Land Rover's and Range Rover's historic proving grounds of the Australian Outback and African desert.
Though Land Rover hopes to take customers from premium brands like BMW, Mercedes and Audi, it also is looking to attract new customers who didn't feel the need to have a car before.
That brand imaging, McGovern thinks, and the size, scale and general luxury will be most effective in cities.
The massive panoramic roof, for instance, reflects the integration of car into the metropolitan environment. "This is all about, when you're driving in the city somewhere like New York, you feel the outside is coming in," McGovern said.
A sight to see
On a recent drive in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY AOL Autos enjoyed the vehicle's expansive view of the Manhattan skyline and derelict factories while tottering down cobblestone streets. The Evoque feels less imposing than many sedans and slid easily through streets lined with parked cars.
On an off-road course fabricated in a vacant lot, the Evoque proved versatile in hugging the sandy slope, providing stability with the Land Rover Terrain Response and allowing smooth downhill motion through the incredible Hill Descent Control.
The dimunitive crossover is something of a tucked torpedo or a Range Rover gone Sonic-the-Hedgehog in its compactness. It also feels better on your wallet, as the entry-level price of $43,995 for the 5-door is almost half the price other Range Rover models. Though, with three design themes--pure, prestige and dynamic--consumers can up the price point pretty fast.
Range Rover has been promoting sustainability by making engines smaller and amping up the torque and efficiency. The turbocharged direct injected 2.0L our-cylinder engine delivers 240 hp. But it's not just about propulsion. The vehicles are trimmed in a more aerodynamic fashion and use ligher weight materials like Boron steel and polymer compounds.
These performance and design initiatives may be the result of the new Tata ownership, which has cut down on some of the bureaucratic loops experienced within Ford Motor Company, McGovern said.