When a company hires Victoria Beckham as a design consultant for their new SUV it's pretty obvious that they take style very seriously. So much so that Land Rover recently unveiled the official Victoria Beckham edition of the Range Rover Evoque in Beijing. But you don't need a spice girl to tell you that this is one gorgeous car. The 104 awards that the Evoque won last year, most of which were for design and style should drive the point home. As far as stylish SUV's go this is the last word.
But what else can you lay your hands on if you're in the market for an SUV that has an insatiable penchant for attention, even if at the loss of some actual capability? Brush price brackets aside for a moment and the Audi Q3 and Mini Cooper S Countryman are two newly launched hot looking SUVs that head right up the Evoque's alley, looking to get ugly.
Audi Q3 - Let's start off with the Audi. It's the most conventional of the three. With the Q3, Audi is targeting young buyers from the ages of 20 to 31 and to tap that market you need to have something that looks the part. Needless to say this is one of the smartest looking SUVs in the German manufacturers line up. The Q3 takes the imposing lines of its big brothers and adds a sense of occasion to things. Look at that raked rear roofline for instance. It's far swoopier than the other Q cars but you'd still never mistake the Q3 for anything but an Audi SUV. The big grille upfront with the chamfered edges helps further stamp the Audi identity.
The Q3 is not a large car per se. At 4385mm in length it's shorter than a Honda City. But you don't perceive it as a small car thanks to some clever design features like the taut shoulder line that runs from the headlamp all the way to the tail light and the flared wheel arches that encase 17-inch wheels wrapped in wide 235 section Pirelli rubber. Then there's the stance. The Q3 sits broad at 1831mm wide and coupled with the short wheel base it really does look fast standing still. However the undoubted design highlight on this car has to be the LED lighting, both front and rear. I recall driving the Mini at one point on the expressway while Halley was in the Q3 behind me. The rain was falling hard and the traffic had slowed and grouped up.
By the time we hit the tunnel I'd lost the Q3 so I slowed to let him work his way through the traffic. And that's when I saw it. Those piercing LEDS lamps slashing their way through the sea of yellow lights and smog dominating my rear view mirror. A beautiful, memorable sight. Audi LEDS have always been attention magnets but the units in the Q3 practically define the entire front end. It's a similar story at the rear with the slash cut LED tail lamps that look like they've been designed by Wolverine after someone's well and truly ticked him off. Edgy and stunning!
Audi know how to design a good interior and its shows even in their most affordable quattro car. It follows their typical design ethos of subtle sophistication. No gimmicky details or flashiness here, it's a simple and ergonomic layout in a smart mix of beige and grey. That's not to say it's a boring design, there are plenty of new elements, like the microwave knob style aircon controls that let you adjust the temperature by clicking the knob in either direction. It's a new concept that took a while to get used to but I found myself liking it in time. The MMI screen is manually operated and you have to push it to stow it away in its dashboard recess. While Audi may have saved on the cost of hydraulic motors they haven't skimped on the screen itself. You get a high res seven-inch screen that handles all the MMI functions in addition to providing vehicle info and a visual representation for the parking sensors.
Considering the size, interior space is fairly generous. Never does it get cramped and I found my knees still had a little breathing room after adjusting the front seat to a comfortable setting. The sloping roofline does cut into headroom, but Audi have set the rear bench lower to counter the problem. The Q3 is based on the VW group's PQ35 platform and the benefit is that it lets engineers install the engine horizontally, freeing up more cabin space. The optional double panorama sunroof teams up with the large glass house to make for an airy cabin that adds to the sense of space and comfort.
Mini Cooper S Countryman - The Countryman is the largest Mini ever made and at 4.1 meters in length it's gargantuan by Mini standards. In reality however it's only 10cm longer than a Fabia. Perhaps the best way to describe the Countryman is a regular Mini that got on a carb intensive diet and hit the gym. It's a grown up, buffed up version of the Mini hatch albeit with some new found aggression. The front end for example features a slightly protruding nose while the grille sloped inwards to the engine almost like a modern Mustang. The headlamps are no longer the classic oval shape but are squared off and stretched back slightly. The bottom grille gets two chrome surrounded intakes that add further drama. It's an aggressive visage, not entirely pretty and definitely not cute (a word far too commonly associated with the Cooper).
The sides follow the similar growth spurt and while the shape is about the same it's grown in every direction. The Countryman is taller, has swollen wheel arches, considerably more ground clearance and gets subtle yet rugged looking plastic cladding. Move over to the rear and you'll see things have evolved here as well. The tail lights are larger, stretched versions of the pert units you get on the hatch and even the Mini badge has grown considerably, all in an attempt to convey the message that this is not a little hatchback. Twin tail pipes and Cooper S badging are the only tell tale signs for what lurks under the hood, but we'll get back to that later.
The designers have followed the Mini design philosophy religiously when it comes to the insides. The entire cabin is filled with throwbacks to the original car like the cool looking toggle switches that control everything from the power windows to the door locks. Then there's the circular theme. Right from the OVRMS to the airvents to the door handles and even the seat bolstering, it's all circles. Of course the most eye catching detail in the cabin is the ridiculously large retro circular speedometer that dominates the centre console. It also doubles up as a digital readout for the BMW iDrive style command system. Ironically enough I never once looked at the centre speedo while driving as the analogue tachometer and digital readout above the steering provided more than enough information. I also loved the aircraft throttle style handbrake that looks good and feels great to use when you're up to no good.
The Mini is rather like the Skoda Yeti when it comes to interior space. Look at it from the outside and it looks quite cramped but when you actually get in you discover it's surprisingly spacious. The Mini seats its occupants quite low so you have plenty of head room in the back. Leg room isn't generous but adequate and I found my knees just short of hitting the front seat. It's about on par with the Q3 on leg room but the Q3 is more comfortable when seating three abreast. The Countryman was designed as a four seater and the small fifth seat was only added as an afterthought. One of our favourite features in the Countryman had to be the interior mood lighting that gives you a choice of six-colour light effects on the door pads, centre rail between the seats and the ceiling lights.
You can change colours by flicking one of the toggles on roof mounted stack of controls behind the centre console. However the Countryman cabin isn't perfect. The quality of materials isn't as good as those in the cheaper Q3. Also, while the interiors maybe very funky and great to look at they aren't the most intuitive and user friendly of the lot. Some of the controls like the toggle controls for the power windows and door locks are fiddly to use as well.
Range Rover Evoque - Ah the Evoque. Just take a look at it would you. Land Rover first stunned the world with the unbelievably cool LRX concept in 2008. Back then we all acknowledged the company's design capability but never really believed the car would make it to production, at least not anything close to the radical concept. But Land Rover proved the world wrong in 2010 when they took the wraps off the Evoque which was nearly identical to the concept. Describing the Evoque is a hard task in that there's so much happening with the design without it looking fussy or busy. The front is essentially dominated by the thin, tapering headlamps that merge into the line that neatly continues into the wheel arch and into the side air vent shroud. The buff looking front bumper adds an air of off-road aggression to a visage that otherwise looks more soft roader than hard core mud plugger.
The Evoque's dominating characteristic when viewed from the side is its tall body work, tiny glass house and dramatically sloping roof. This white car with a black roof makes that all the more apparent. The roof slopes so sharply that you get precious little usable rear visibility, a small sacrifice for a beautiful rear end. Ironically enough the wrap around tail lamps that despite being tiny are the detail that most defines the rear. That and the large integrated spoiler towering over the tiny rear windscreen which only magnifies the near concept car look. All in all, nothing else on the road can command the kind of attention this baby Range Rover does save perhaps for a loud low slung supercar.
The interiors on the Evoque drip with class and sophistication. It gives you that all important feel of costing a lot of money and rightly so - the Evoque doesn't come cheap. This cabin is all about the little details, like the beautiful stitching on the leather wrapped centre console and the faux aluminium finish. The clean layout begins with the large high res screen followed by a floating centre console similar to what we've seen on the new Volvos. The Evoque borrows the sexy rising rotary shifter from the Jaguars that looks brilliant and is great to use, especially after the Mini's clunky feel. The commanding driving position feels comfortable with well bolstered seats that hold you in place around the corners. The chunky steering feels great to hold and gives you control over almost every aspect of the car at your fingertips. The twin pod console is split by a digital readout that tells you all you need to know about what's happening with the vehicle.
Unlike the other two the Evoque's double panorama sun roof can't be opened. While the front of the Evoque is a wonderful place to be the rear isn't so much. That roof line expectedly robs a lot of headroom but what I didn't like in particular was the claustrophobic feel thanks to the tiny windows. Knee room again is just about manageable. While it's far from being inhospitable the back seat of the Evoque isn't the ideal place for a chauffeur driven customer. This is one vehicle you're meant to be seen driving, not hiding in the rear.
Audi Q3 - When we first drove the Q3 we complained that it felt too stiff. However in this company it feels the softest with the most cosseting ride quality. Come across a well laid stretch of tarmac and the Q3 quite literally glides along the road with the least road noise transmitted to the cabin. However the light electromechanical steering that you'll fall in love with in the city doesn't quite give you the feel and feedback you'd appreciate on the highway. It feels rather artificial and lifeless and just can't match the chassis' capability. The Q3 is considerably light-footed thanks to heavy use of aluminium in the structure. Match this with quattro all-wheel drive and you get a very dynamic SUV that can hustle through the corners alarmingly quickly. The stiff suspension helps cut body roll down to a minimum and keeps the fun factor high on the twisties. Speed does not faze this SUV and that's something because it's plenty quick.
As of now the Q3 comes with just one engine, the 2-litre TDI diesel. The engine makes 177PS and is mated to the excellent seven speed S Tronic dual clutch gearbox. It hauls the SUV to the ton in a quick 8.7 seconds and keeps pulling all the way to a top speed of 211.5kmph. But it's not just brute force, the engine is quiet, refined, efficient and startlingly quick revving. It starts up instantly on the first twist of the key (the Q3 is the only car without keyless start). Blip the throttle and the revs leap upwards amazingly quickly for a diesel engine. To put it in perspective, this engine revs quicker from idle than the turbo petrol in the Mini. That's just how advanced these modern Audi diesel engines have become.
Mini Cooper S Countryman - Mini's are supposed to handle like go-karts says the company and after driving the Cooper we have to say we agree whole heartedly. But what of the bigger, heavier Countryman? In reality this car is only 170kg heaver than the hatch but the added height means a higher centre of gravity and a bit more body roll. Nevertheless this is still the best handling of these three. There is an immediacy to the steering that the other two just can't match. It turns in sharper and corners harder. The trade off is the very stiff suspension that crashes quite harshly through potholes at low speeds.
At high speeds the car feels planted but the direct steering picks up far too many imperfections in the road. Once you get over the initial apprehension of the steering twitching every time the car encounters a surface imperfection at high speed you start to appreciate the delicious feedback this unit offers.
While the Countryman may look like a Cooper hatch on anabolic steroids, its voice is far from squeaky. It comes with the identical 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine you get in the Cooper S. That means there's 184PS and 240Nm at your right foots beck and call. The Mini is the quickest to the ton, taking just 8.25 seconds before maxing out at 208kmph. All that turbocharged madness results in an overall mileage of 9.32kmpl. It is however the only car here without all wheel drive and 184PS at the front wheels translates to considerable torque steer when you floor it in the first two gears.
Where the Mini lacks is its 6-speed automatic gearbox. It's not quite as quick as the Audi and has those infuriating BMW (even BMW have ditched the format now) style paddle shifters where you pull for an upshift and push for a downshift. As a result you end up braking into a corner, pull on the left paddle for a downshift and get an upshift instead. Maddening.
Range Rover Evoque - Two minutes in the Evoque at town speeds and you notice the stiff set up. It's not quite as harsh as the Mini but not as supple (if you can call it that) as the Q3 either. But the car's character changes once you hit the highway. The stiff nature suddenly translates to a solid planted feel at high speeds. This is an effortless and accomplished high speed tourer. The electronic power steering system is direct and weighs up nicely. It doesn't offer Countryman levels of feedback but it feels confident at high speeds. The suspension set up also keeps body roll to a minimum when pushing through high speed corners. It may not be an involving driver's car but the Evoque is a composed and stable handler
The Evoque's 2.2-litre turbo diesel makes the most power here at 190PS but it also weighs the most at 1675kg. Power is sent to all four wheels via a 6-speed torque converter. While the engine feels potent the gearbox is a bit of a downer. It feels reluctant to give you a downshift in Drive mode unless you floor the throttle which results n you going faster than desired when the gearbox drops a cog. You can work around this by keeping her in sport mode and using the paddle shifters. The sprint to 100kmph takes 9.78 seconds and the Evoque also posts the lowest top speed of 196kmph. The Evoque returns an overall efficiency of 10.1kmpl, about two kmpl lower than the Q3's 12.2.
A picture speaks a thousand words they say and from what you see in these it's obvious that money no object you'd be driving home in a white Evoque with a black roof. The Evoque is revolutionary in terms of design both on the inside and out. If you're looking for attention the Evoque is the automotive equivalent of a rock star, you'll get noticed alright. But money is almost never no object and Rs 59 lakh ex-Mumbai( Rs 76 lakh on road!) for the Dynamic model we drove is a lot of money.
The Cooper S High variant on the other hand is priced at Rs 35.9 lakhs ex Mumbai and while that may seem high for what is a rather compact SUV you do get a combination of very appealing retro modern styling and great performance. The Countryman isn't perfect though; the quality of materials on the interiors could have been better and the ride is far from plush. If you can live with that the Countryman is a cheerful car with plenty of character that will leave you smiling every time you see/drive it.
The Q3 bowled us over when we first drove it with its combination of style, performance and value and it holds up surprisingly well against these far more expensive vehicles. It's the most practical and at the end of the day was also the most comfortable to drive back home. The one possible downside is that it's the most 'normal' looking of the three. It's very reminiscent of the now rather common Q5 and Q7. And with prices starting at Rs 26.21 lakhs it's also going to be a very familiar sight on the roads. If you can live with that the Q3 makes for a great buy. What this Audi proves is that affordability doesn't mean compromise anymore.