When Land Rover's new Evoque rolled into our El Toro hangar during day one of our 2012 Sport/Utility of the Year contest, the entire staff couldn't stop staring. Its crisp lines and beefy, compressed stance suggested it had just emerged from the prop department of a sci-fi movie set.

We were instantly intrigued.

But perhaps the hardest thing to wrap our heads around was that this tiny crossover wore a Range Rover badge. And, with this, we knew that Land Rover had begun trekking its luxury Range Rover brand down uncharted trails.

A few days later, the staff members cast their votes, resulting in the Evoque winning our annual sport/utility contest.

A few months thereafter, I ordered up a Firenze Red five-door Evoque, and we welcomed it into our 12-month test fleet. The base price of this small, high-lux 'ute is $43,995. Not too bad, right? Well, not so fast. I also added the $9500 dynamic premium package, which, among other things, bolts in navigation, 19-inch wheels, a 17-speaker Meridian sound system, a five-lens-surround camera system, and uniquely styled, squared-off exhaust tips.

On top of that menu, I ordered a satellite/HD radio at $750, a contrasting black roof for $650, heated windscreen/washer fluid/front seats for $1000, a red paint job for $950, and a black headliner for $275.

The Evoque is "the" head-turning SUV of the moment. I keep getting asked who makes it, and most are in disbelief that it's a ...

Last came the a la carte Adaptive Dynamics MagneRide at $1250, which should assist the compact SUV in balancing off-road rolling with a nice mixture of comfy ride and handling. Also, on-road, the option can tighten the suspension, further enabling the Evoque to lay down aggressive turns on mountain roads.

So here we have it -- the smallest Range Rover ever made, and perhaps the most stylized. Yet, all that aside, I'm most interested in whether this dog can hunt. Is it more capable off-piste than its slick crossover shell would imply? I've got to know. Therefore, as a bona fide camper and outdoor explorer, my plan over the course of the next year is to take our long-term Evoque well off the beaten path to see if this new rig from the iconic off-road brand is truly worthy of the name. Can it rock crawl the slot canyons of Death Valley? Subdue the Whitney Portal during the season's first winter storm? Descend into the depths of the Reward Mine of Owens Valley?

It's time to find out.

Our Vehicle
Base price $43,995
Price as tested $56,370
Vehicle layout Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.0L/240-hp/250-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (f/r dist) 3968 lb (58/42%)
0-60 mph 6.8 sec
Quarter mile 15.2 sec @ 90.1 mph
Braking distance 60-0 mph 113 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.83 g (avg)
MT figure eight 27.4sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
EPA City/Hwy/Comb Fuel Econ 18/28/22 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.90 lb/mi
Energy cons, city/hwy 187/120 kW-hrs/100 mi
Total mileage 2022 mi
Average fuel econ 16.2 mpg