It may ooze designer style, but the Range Rover Evoque has substance – on the road, and off it

It is possible that there has never before been a car as obviously sired by lifestyle "need" as the Range Rover Evoque.

The name would be at home on a perfume bottle. The look is almost exactly that of the Land Rover LRX concept car, which blended haute couture, the promise of an entertaining drive, strong signs of prowess off-road, and general Range Roverness with extraordinary flair. If ever there was a graven image for our times, in the car world at least, this is surely it.

It was, I fear, without irony that a life-size image of the Evoque, a three-dimensional representation in illuminated magenta lines, was set on a high platform at the end of the nave in Liverpool's Anglican cathedral as we consumed a fine dinner therein. It was as though placed on an altar, and above it was the pink neon script – not quite magenta – produced by Tracey Emin for the cathedral which read: "I felt you and I knew you loved me."

I am not religious, and I know the cathedral needs the money for maintenance, but the juxtapositions were discomfiting. Better, I think, to concentrate on the real thing, and to assess it as, well, just a car. Its design and detail are extraordinarily bold, a fantasy distortion of existing Range Rover motifs. Its big wheels and bloated wheel arches give the Evoque the proportions of a smaller car and emphasise the promise of agility, while the high sides and impossibly shallow side windows look gloriously impractical. It must be claustrophic in there.

Actually, the claustrophobia doesn't surface. There's a good view out, even from the back seat, more so in the five-door version which has a slightly higher rear roofline, which allows deeper windows. The five-door, incidentally, is £1,000 cheaper than the three-door (the whole range is priced from £27,995 to £44,320) because the latter is marketed as a "coupé". Pay more, get less.

The high flanks do make the Evoque a little tricky to manoeuvre in a tight spot, and the high, bulky door mirrors further obstruct the view forward and to the side. Their primary function of offering a view aft is very welcome, however, because the rear window is barely more than a slot.

It would have been easy for Land Rover to make the Evoque a style statement, good only for on-road use, recognising that Evoque buyers are unlikely to go mountain-climbing in their cars and make them properly dirty. To that end you can indeed buy a front-wheel-drive-only Evoque, but the rest of the range has proper Land Rover-flavoured off-road ability. There's the full gamut of Hill Descent Control and Terrain Response, and not much can stop a 4x4 Evoque in its tracks. It's an authentic off-roader, incongruous as that glamorous clothing looks when splattered with mud.

Which makes all the more impressive the fact that the Evoque is uncommonly capable on the road. Three engines are offered: two 2.2-litre turbodiesels with 150bhp (eD4 with just 129g/km CO2) or 190bhp (SD4), and a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine (Si4) with a rousing 240bhp. The first of these is manual-only (and can have front- or four-wheel drive), the last is automatic-only, the middle one can have either transmission.

All feel terrific, but the most enjoyment comes from the Si4 whose crisp, eager power delivery makes the Evoque feel like a supersized hot hatchback. The steering is crisp and accurate, the Evoque stays level and true to its line in fast corners and its ride is impressively absorbent.

The diesels are less racy but smooth and capable, with the lower-powered one feeling little different from the faster one on real roads and its manual gearchange proving smooth and easy. Trim levels are Pure, Prestige and Dynamic, the last of these including huge 20in wheels and Magneride adaptive suspension dampers. These work well, but so does the standard "passive" damping.

The Evoque will sell in zillions, probably on looks and image alone. What a relief, then, that those thus seduced will find it a great drive as well.

The Rivals

BMW X3 xDrive 2.0d SE: £31,140, 184bhp, 149g/km

New X3 is well made and particularly pleasing to drive. It's no beauty, and Evoque shades it overall.

Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDi KX-3: £24,625, 136bhp, 156g/km

Striking looks and quality aura qualify Sportage for inclusion here. Good value, good to drive but lacks Evoque's off-road prowess.

Mini Countryman 2.0 SD ALL4: £23,190, 143bhp, 130g/km

A Mini rival? This is one big Mini, however, and like the Evoque it's big on automotive iconography. Capable but ludicrous.

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