Dawn of the Convertible Luxury SUV
Few things are more disappointing for an innovator than being ahead of one’s time. Your idea’s time finally coming only makes it more frustrating that you had the idea too early. No one likes seeing a competitor succeed where they failed, especially with a pioneering idea. With the Range Rover Evoque Convertible, Land Rover has stepped firmly into the nether region between being ahead of the times and being in the right place at the right time. Is the world finally ready for a convertible luxury SUV? Land Rover is going to find out.
The convertible SUV, as Jeep will attest, isn’t a new idea. It’s also one that’s never completely caught on. There have been times when multiple drop-top SUVs were on the market simultaneously, but mostly, it’s just been the Wrangler. A newer idea is that of the convertible luxury SUV, which makes sense because the idea of a luxury SUV alone only went mainstream in the past 20 or so years. Unfortunately, the first attempt was the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, which was a colossal failure in the marketplace. Its primary faults were A) being a Nissan and not an Infiniti, B) starting at more than $40,000 USD while still being a Nissan Murano, and C) being heinously ugly. Although it was a flop, it was also ahead of its time. Since the CrossCabriolet exited stage right two years ago, SUVs have only gotten more popular across the board, especially in the luxury ranks. Luxury convertibles are likewise proliferating, though at a much slower pace. With both categories on the rise, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to crossbreed them again.
Land Rover, of course, is starting from a much better position. Land Rover vehicles are already on the more expensive end of the market, and the Range Rover brand commands a premium above that. Its customers are already used to paying more than $40,000 USD for a new SUV and are much less likely to be concerned about the price. They’re also the types to own more than one car, which makes any convertible compromises easier to rationalize. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Evoque is already wildly popular and actually looks good.
Lucky for Land Rover, the Evoque’s boxy yet sleek body lent itself pretty nicely to convertible conversion. The beltline already rises in a straight line, so removing the roof didn’t require redrawing the side of the car. Rather than a big compromise, the Evoque Convertible simply looks like an Evoque without a roof. Land Rover was even able to maintain the hardtop’s sloping roofline with the convertible’s soft top, and the two look almost the same roof up. I still can’t shake the feeling, however, that the convertible looks like a bathtub on wheels with the roof down. Something about the flat beltline and that said beltline is so high you can only see the occupants’ heads from outside the vehicle. Maybe don’t order it in white. The orange looks excellent, for what it’s worth.
That’s all well and good, but you want to know whether the vehicle itself is any good. We went in prepared to be underwhelmed, but it’s actually both an excellent convertible and an excellent Evoque.
As its primary function is to be a convertible, we’ll start there. The roof is a five-layer soft top that folds almost silently, save the automatic locking mechanism on the top of the windshield. It’ll go down in 18 seconds and up in 21, and it operates at up to 30 mph (48 km/h). More impressive is just how quiet the cabin is with the roof up. There’s a little bit of wind noise where the frameless front and rear windows meet, but otherwise it’s as quiet as your average entry-level luxury sedan inside. Front-seat passengers can easily carry on a muted conversation at 80 mph (129 km/h) with the roof up. We’re pleased to report there’s no flapping or buffeting from the roof at freeway speeds, either. Exterior visibility with the roof up is actually better than the hardtop thanks to the frameless side windows, though the rear window is just as small or smaller than the hardtop’s.
It’s equally good with the roof down. With the fold-out wind deflector installed over the rear seats, there’s barely any wind in the front seats. You’ll feel a bit in your hair, particularly on the sides, but that’s it. There’s no buffeting or big gusts. What’s more, it’s surprisingly quiet. Front-seat passengers are still able to carry on a normal conversation at 80 mph (129 km/h). Should you need to carry more passengers, you’ll have to stow the wind deflector in the trunk, and doing so increases the amount of wind in your hair (it’s definitely getting messed up) but still doesn’t introduce buffeting, strong gusts, or even much noise. Rear seat passengers get blown around, though not uncomfortably so. Speaking to them while on the freeway requires talking loudly but not shouting.
Getting folks in and out of the rear seats is another matter. The front seats fold and roll forward but not as far as they could or as you’d like them to. The gap to get your feet and legs through is rather narrow, and the SUV’s higher ride height makes climbing in and out more difficult. With the top up, it’s a difficult maneuver. Top down is considerably easier, as you’re at least able to stand up straight and hold the side of the vehicle for stability.
Once you’re in the rear seats, you’ll find they’re not a bad place to be. They’re fixed in a rather upright position but not uncomfortably so. The padding is generous, and shoulder- and headroom are more than adequate. Hiproom is narrow but not too much. A man of average height can sit comfortably in the rear seat behind another comfortably seated in the front, though neither will have much room to move. With adults in both front and rear, there’s only an inch or so of legroom for each, which makes anything but sitting up straight untenable. Best save the long road trips for just two passengers or kids. The rear seats are set fairly far back, so with the roof up, your face is right at the back edge of the small rear windows, which can feel a bit like riding in an old horse-drawn carriage. That and the chin-level beltline can make the rear seats feel a little claustrophobic with the top in place. Still, you could say the same about most convertible cars on the road, too.
As much as it’s a surprisingly good convertible, the Evoque Convertible is also a surprisingly good Evoque. The roof structure of any vehicle adds a lot of stiffness to the frame, and cutting it off can lead to all sorts of issues, but Land Rover’s taken care of them. We detected no cowl shake or chassis twisting, on-road or off. To drive the point home, Land Rover set up the same obstacle course it would use for a hardtop Evoque and insisted we drive it with the roof down. Perched with its tail in the air and only three wheels touching the ground, the Evoque convertible had no trouble opening and closing the doors, trunk, or roof, nor did it make any concerning noises while doing it.
Effectively the same below the belt, the Evoque Convertible is as effective off-road and in winter weather as its hardtop sibling. Let’s be honest, though. It had to be. Land Rover has staked its reputation on off-road capability even though we all know Evoque owners will never venture off a dirt road. If they did, though, the convertible would handle it as well as the hardtop. But really, the off-road ability and all-wheel-drive system serves to entice buyers in wintry states who don’t want to park it for six months out of the year.
The good news is that it’s an honest pitch. On-road and off, the Evoque Convertible drives no differently than the hardtop. We drove both back-to-back to be sure and felt almost no difference in how the heavier convertible handled, accelerated, or stopped. That’s especially good considering the hardtop Evoque has always been surprisingly good in a corner. The new Active Driveline feature, which disconnects the rear axle when it’s not needed to improve fuel economy, is imperceptible in its operation and has no effect on handling or off-road ability. European tests suggest it’ll get slightly better fuel economy than current models, but North American numbers aren’t available yet. The Evoque’s also always felt quicker than its spec sheet implies, and that holds true for the Convertible, as well. Even at 6,000 feet elevation, the turbo-four under the hood had plenty of pluck and never felt overworked.
Some of the Evoque Convertible’s pluck can be credited to its nine-speed automatic. We’ve long loathed this transmission, and not just in Land Rover products. Automakers have finally civilized it after years on the market, though, and we’re happy to report every Evoque we drove, hardtop and convertible, exhibited much smoother and smarter shifts than any previous model with this transmission. It’s a welcome improvement across the board.
The new InTouch information and entertainment system is also substantially improved. Now a 10.2-inch widescreen, it finally behaves like it was designed this decade. Now using a lightning-quick solid-state hard drive like your tablet and smartphone, the screen reacts immediately to your inputs. The user interface is still a bit layered and can be unintuitive at times, but it’s still a big improvement over systems in previous Land Rover products (which will all be getting this one soon).
The Convertible also gets a few more goodies ahead of the hardtop, including a head-up display and 360-degree parking cameras, both of which are handy. Our favorite feature, though, was a button behind the window switches on the driver door; it allows the driver to put all four windows up or down simultaneously.
Perhaps our least favorite feature is the trunk. The Evoque has never had a particularly large cargo area, and sticking a folded soft top on top of it has only made things worse. Land Rover says there’s 8.9 cubic feet of space in there, which in the real world translates to two roll-aboard suitcases and a large laptop bag. Or one full-size suitcase. Anything else is going in the back seat. Getting stuff in and out is a little awkward; although there’s no lip to lift it over, you’ve got to slide it in flat rather than lifting over and coming down at a comfortable angle like most trunks. The open tailgate impeding you from getting right up on the bumper doesn’t help, either. It must be said, though, that many car-based convertibles also have tiny trunks that are hard to get stuff in and out of. At least this one has a pass-through for longer items such as skis or designer floor lamps.
Intended as a halo product for the Evoque range, Land Rover doesn’t expect to sell a ton of Convertibles. Considering it’s 10 grand more than the base Evoque and something of an oddball, that’s a safe bet. Still, Land Rover suspects it’ll sell roughly as many Convertibles as it does two-door Evoques, which tells you something about both models.
Regardless of whether the market loves or hates the Evoque Convertible, it’ll be a bit of repeated history. If it flops, everyone will ask why Land Rover didn’t learn from Nissan. If it’s a surprise hit, it’ll follow right in the footsteps of the original Evoque, which critics initially thought was a bridge too far and not a true Range Rover. Given how good the Evoque Convertible is at being both an Evoque and a convertible, we think it might just be the latter. If it is a success, it’ll be both because it’s good and because the whole notion of a convertible luxury SUV is an idea whose time has finally come.