Test Driving the Range Rover Evoque in Greece

ATHENS, GREECE—We are driving through the dark streets of Athens in a cab piloted by a cackling Albanian. The car is a Skoda with 683,000 kilometers on it, and he’s pinning the speedometer at around 80 mph. Through Google Translate, we learn that if the car was his wife, he would have traded her in long ago.

Carmakers can debut their new models anywhere in the world. It’s curious that often that means somewhere other than the country of origin. Volvo launches are seldom in Sweden, for instance, and Range Rover events not often in the UK. Why Greece? Well, why not? It’s sunny and warm a lot of the time (unlike England), the people are friendly and the roads uncrowded. Plus, there are a lot of “off-road” roads.

This was the global launch of the Range Rover Evoque, a very popular crossover SUV with more than 800,000 sold in the first iteration (that even included a convertible!). The second generation doesn’t mess with a good thing. The corporate folks could (and did) drone on for an hour about all the changes—only the door hinges are carried over!—but it’s still a very similar look.

The car has very tall slab sides and a roof that slants back, giving it a rear visibility challenge that’s met in this edition with a panorama-view camera and screen where the mirror used to be. (You can also switch it back to being a mirror.)\

The car is actually cheaper than I thought it would be, starting at $42,680. But you can pay almost $100,000 if you order every option. Evoques are arriving at dealers now, and I bet they sell well. This crossover segment is very crowded, but the Range Rover name is golden, especially in upper middle-class suburbia.

There are two models with the two-liter four-cylinder gas engine, the P250 base model (246 horsepower) and the mild hybrid P300 (296 horsepower). The latter adds 48-volt architecture and an electric motor. Fuel economy is off six percent in the mild hybrid compared to last year’s non-hybrid model, and that’s because owners wanted sportier shifting from the nine-speed ZF automatic.

We took it off road, and dutifully bumped over rocks and forded (shallow) streams. Two teams had tire punctures. The Evoque is fine off the beaten path, but only 15 percent of owners are likely to take it there. As a boulevardier, though, it finds its true métier. This is a very comfortable car to cruise cross-country in, and there is a very wide variety of interior fabrics to choose from (including two eco-cloths).

Zero to 60 comes up in seven seconds, and the car excelled at passing on the Greek motorways. The interior is quite simple, with a wide but not very tall touchscreen and analog instruments (though a digital dash is available).

No slight on the car, but I came away intoxicated by Greece. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid in 1967 and woke up with our hotel surrounded by tanks. A military coup was in progress. We were informed by the Armed Forces Radio that the bowling alley would be closed indefinitely—and anyone venturing out in the streets would be shot. It was the one and only time I was ever evacuated, luckily after seeing the Parthenon.

Well, I saw it again on this trip, albeit covered in scaffolding. The poor thing was an Ottoman ammo dump in 1687, and was quite heavily damaged in the resulting explosion. They’re finally getting around to fixing it properly, restoring it back to merely beat up. Holes were visible on the sides where decorations had been removed.

Lord Elgin looted the site when the Ottomans were in charge, and the Greeks are still trying to get the precious artifacts back. “So far those negotiations have not been successful,” our guide said. When I was a kid I thought the “Elgin marbles” were, in fact, marbles. I wondered if the lot included steelies and cats-eyes.

Speaking of cats, they were plentiful at the Acropolis, and appeared friendly and well fed. Three dogs occupy the site, too, and one had just returned from rehab. They occupy a plaza near the hill where Paul preached the gospel—unsuccessfully. By the way, shops in the nearby pedestrian market advertise “Greek yogurt.” Why don’t they just call it “yogurt”?

I intend to come back to Greece, and will rent a car to travel south to places I’d like to see more of, including the gorgeous coastal town of Nafplios, where we stopped for lunch. It had a perfect little harbor and bustling center square, full of people who knew they were lucky to live there. A Miata cruised by, and I wanted to be the driver—with a Nafplios address and a sports car.

We stayed in a hotel so posh my room had his-and-hers bathrooms, but I’m told perfectly reasonable accommodations can be had in the Greek countryside for $70 a night, and there are the islands to explore, too. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and Joni Mitchell’s “Carrie” are both about the island of Hydra.

Attention carmakers: Hold all your press events in Greece. The Greek yogurt is great, and so is everything else. But know that the car you’re debuting will likely be upstaged by pictures of coffee, countryside, and cats!

(By the way, an alternative to driving an Evoque off-road in the land of Homer and Socrates is driving it at the Land Rover Experience centers, which are in California, North Carolina and Vermont, as well as elsewhere in the world. It’s a perk that comes with purchase, though you can also just try one out on the obstacle courses.)

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