A dirt-track date with the Range Rover Evoque: British speed, Carolina mud

From its inception, the Range Rover Evoque prioritized style above all else. It’s easily the sexiest compact crossover, but that’s kind of like being the studliest guy at Comic-Con — it helps to have a little something else on your resume. So for 2014 Land Rover worked on improving the Evoque’s driving experience, adding a new ZF nine-speed transmission and brake-based torque vectoring across the rear axle. Theoretically, these two upgrades should make the Evoque quicker and more agile. To find out whether that’s really the case, I did the natural thing and entered it in a race.

The Tarheel Sports Car Club runs a series of rallycross events where newbies and experienced racers alike can get a taste of timed competition without a huge investment. So I take the Evoque to an event at the Fayetteville Motorsports Complex in North Carolina, a venerable old 2/5th-mile dirt track where Dale Earnhardt once honed his skills. Entry price: $35. Unlike the dirt track racers, we’ll be turning both left and right, navigating a slalom course that weaves its way around the banking. While many rallycross courses are set up in unpaved parking lots where there’s nothing to hit, Fayetteville is a real track and thus bordered by real Jersey barriers and walls. This will be in the back of my mind as I head out in what is likely the most expensive vehicle in an entry field dominated by battered Subarus and Volkswagens.

The first surprise, as I head out on a recon lap, is the amount of grip. I’d expected loose gravel, but the dirt-track racers already blasted that toward the far outside of the corners, leaving a polished racing line on the North Carolina clay. It’s not quite like pavement, but nearly so — as I gradually up the pace, the tires start to squeal. That’s some sticky dirt.

 

The second surprise is the Evoque’s composure. Granted, I’ve never driven an Evoque in anger (though I have driven one though the sewers of Liverpool), but I didn’t expect a four-cylinder crossover to stand much chance against, say, a 400-hp WRX covered with sponsor stickers. But with the ZF in sport mode and Terrain Response set for sand (thus allowing more wheelspin and slip angle), the Evoque snakes through the cones with a ferocity entirely at odds with its upscale suburban persona. All-wheel-drive and torque vectoring are a wonderful combination, because you cure understeer with more throttle. In other words, if you think you’re going too fast, the solution might be to go even faster.

I’m running in the class for cars 2.0-liters and under, with all-wheel-drive and street tires. Granted, that’s pretty specific, leaving the Evoque pitted against a couple of old Subarus—which isn’t really fair since the Evoque’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder is turbocharged and puts out 240 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. It takes a moment to spin up the turbo off the line, but once it’s going the Evoque has strong midrange punch. I don’t even bother with the paddle shifters because the ZF is aggressive enough on its own. I concentrate on just steering through the cones as quickly as possible, the torque-vectoring rear end helping point the nose toward the next target.

My entire dirt track career consists of my morning here in Fayetteville, so my frame of reference is admittedly limited, but damn: this thing feels pretty fast. The Evoque is living up to the number 3 I taped on its door and I am the Intimidator of compact luxury crossover dirt-track rallycross. (Not) rubbin’ (cones) is racin’.

I have to leave at lunchtime, so the Evoque gets a DNF for the afternoon and finishes out of the rankings. But the morning was impressive indeed. Out of 26 competitors, the Evoque posts the quickest individual lap. I’d like to take credit for my driving prowess, but the pavement-like surface meant that rally techniques like left-foot braking and the Scandinavian Flick were totally irrelevant. My job was to steer and not make mistakes. The little Range Rover sorted out the rest, earning some serious respect in the process. I’m not sure dirt-track glory is what Rover had in mind when they rolled out the upgrades for 2014, but in that unlikely context the Evoque proved that it’s more than a pretty face.

 

 

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