Fans of Evo Middle East may remember that, after a trip to England last year to drive the Range Rover Evoque, the boys were raving about it. “It’s as good to drive as a hot hatch”, they enthused. I smiled, simultaneously thinking that while it was probably a good drive, the guys had succumbed to hyperbole.
But then the Evoque arrived in the Middle East, and I had a chance to drive it. And it was very good. With its four-wheel drive and 240bhp 2.5-litre engine, it drew comparisons from other parts of the office to, or all things, a Volkswagen Golf R. And yet others that hadn’t driven it sneered at the very suggestion. “It’s an SUV,” they scoffed. “It might be good, but it’s not a hot hatch.”
Time, then, to find out once and for all just how well the critically and publicly acclaimed Range Rover drives when things get enthusiastic. We know it can cruise and go off-road, but can it really hold a candle to a proper hot hatchback? So we set the Evoque a proper challenge.
Two challengers were lined up to set some benchmarks. Firstly, the crankandpiston Management Fleet Volkswagen Scirocco R, with its front wheel drive, electronic differential and 261bhp. We were big fans of the handling of our old regular Scirocco, so this replacement has great expectations on its shoulders. It’ll be my first time in the car today, so there’ll be the added bonus of discovering whether the anticipation was worth it.
Our third car is something a little different. It’s a BMW 118i – not a hot hatch in its standard form, but this one has been breathed on by BMW dealer Abu Dhabi Motors. The car’s software has been tweaked to up the power from 170bhp to around 210, giving it similar grunt to a Golf GTI. With rear wheel drive, it’ll make for an interesting foil.
The Evoque has the grunt and four-wheel drive for traction, but is heavy. The ‘Rocco has the power and is a purpose-built performance car, but will front-wheel drive hurt it? The BMW has rear-wheel drive and a decent amount of poke, but it’s not a dedicated performance car.
The battleground for this showdown needed to be somewhere worthy, so we chose the best place available to us. The mountain of Jebel Hafeet is home to one of, if not the, best stretch of driving road in the Middle East. Situated just outside the town of Al Ain, the road rises up 1249 metres for 11km, with 21 corners of every conceivable shape and speed. It’s a challenge for any machine.
Together with my colleague James, we drive the Evoque and Scirocco to Al Ain from Dubai and I reacquaint myself with the Range Rover. I’m already sold on which car of our trio I prefer in terms of looks – even though the roads of Dubai are becoming increasingly saturated with them. I think the Evoque looks fantastic. Our car is a brilliant white with a black roof, and in this three-door Dynamic form is the visual bees knees, set off by gloss black wing mirrors and vents on the bonnet and front wings.
The interior is finished in black and a bright red, which gives it a performance feel, emphasised by the sports seats. Range Rover has really upped the quality of its interiors for the Evoque, and it’s even more solid than its full-size sibling, but with a fresher design. A rising centre console gives more of a cockpit feel, although the commanding seating position reminds me that I’m in an SUV. On the long slog across the UAE I’m as comfortable as anything – the ride is supple and, although the E66 motorway has been newly relaid, the few glitches in the tarmac are passed over with little more than a murmur from the tyres. The seats are cosy, and the stereo excellent.
As we stop for fuel and water, James remarks that he’s forgotten how impressive the Scirocco is. The standard car, which we had in the office for several months, was a favourite among the team, and the new addition has a similar feel. Visually it’s very similar, but has a more aggressive stance to it thanks to wider air intakes in the front bumper, side skirts and big five-spoke alloys covering black-painted callipers. I’m actually not convinced – I was a big fan of the standard Scirocco’s lines and on the R they seem a little too beefed up.
Once we reach Al Ain we head to Abu Dhabi Motors and pick up the 118i. Visually the car is little changed from standard, save for some tasty alloys and some vinyl stripes for visual flare. It still looks fairly respectable – although the new 1 Series doesn’t have the eye-catching flame surfacing of the previous generation, it’s pleasant enough on the eye. Inside, the M Sport-spec car is fitted with very tight sports seats –the most hugging I’ve been in for a while and surprisingly supportive for what is essentially a mid-spec machine. Being a modern BMW the quality of the interior is on a par with the Volkswagen and not far off the Range Rover, although for obvious price reasons it doesn’t have the same levels of equipment.
With the convoy complete, we head through Al Ain and out towards the mountain. Time for action.