A crucial newcomer – and for several reasons | by Andrew Frankel
What is the problem with Jaguar? Why last year did it sell just over 80,000 cars, while BMW managed 1.8 million, not including Mini? And if you think that’s just because BMW has cars in almost every market niche, consider this: Porsche shifts as many Cayennes as Jaguar does cars in total. That’s the whole XF, XJ, F-type and recently defunct XK ranges combined. Are Jaguars rubbish, or is there something else goingon?
There are several issues here, happily none of them an inability to build decent cars, at least these days. But not that long ago, Jaguars really weren’t up to the mark. Remember the X-type? It seems staggering now that anyone at Jaguar thought a car that ugly and based on a Ford Mondeo platform could be good enough to be called a Jaguar (likewise the S-type). While the XJ of the same era was a radical and advanced car with its all-aluminium construction, it looked like something that would only be truly at home outside the golf club. Fact is that those who dreamt up Jaguar’s last attempt at expansion – there were plans for it to build 500,000 cars per year – massively underestimated the size of the job. And Jaguar is still trying to recover from the damage done to its reputation.
But even when Jaguar resumed building good cars, it had an uncanny knack for producing exactly the right car at precisely the wrong time. It had big diesels when Europe was crying out for little ones and large petrol-powered cars that China taxed out of existence.
It had saloons while customers clamoured for estates, and rear-wheel-drive cars that customers in American snow states could not even contemplate. And, of course, not a sniff of the one breed of car its rivals were churning out by the hundred thousand and selling with their eyes shut. Jaguar had no SUV.
In recent years, Jaguar has tried to address all these issues – it bought in small diesels from Ford, designed estate bodywork for the XF and equipped it with four-wheel drive for the US. The Chinese even have their small petrol engines. So keen is Jaguar to fill every gap in its existing model line-up, it’s now even designed both four-wheel-drive and manual transmission versions of the F-type. But what it lacks is a staple model – an affordable standard offering to attract younger clients to the brand in vast numbers and then trust the other, more expensive models in the range to keep them there. And, of course, that SUV.
Which is where this XE, the most important new Jaguar in a generation, comes in. As a simple but vital rival to the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class, its role would be critical. But so too will it lend its platform, engine and suspension to the new F-Pace SUV. And there can be no doubt that, together, they have the potential to transform Jaguar’s future.
But can it be realised? I cannot speak for the unlaunched F-Pace, but I have spent a day driving prototype XEs and believe that, on balance, there are reasons to be cheerful.
You don’t need to drive the XE to understand its single most impressive attribute. These days there is hardly ever any such thing as a truly new car, because almost all use the platform, powertrain or suspension from something else in the range. Not the XE – everything from its structure to its home-grown Ingenium 2-litre diesel engine is not only genuinely fresh, but is built in brand-new facilities too.
It’s a good-looking car, thus fulfilling the first duty of any Jaguar, but its interior is passable for the class and not much more. The cabin is fluently styled and very clearly a Jaguar design, but its information presentation lags far behind the point BMW and Audi reached some years ago, while that sense of scaled-down limousine, achieved by the latest Mercedes C-class, is also missing.
But that, save some dodgy panel fit and quality issues that you’d expect on prototypes of this age, really is the worst criticism you can throw at it. Crucially, Jaguar’s contention that this is the driver’s car in the segment is entirely credible.
In fact Jaguar has done a splendid job with the XE’s chassis. Its decision to make the only predominately aluminium monocoque in the class saves enough weight to make the most frugal version of the XE the only car in the category with double-digit emissions. Crucially, it also meant Jaguar could add a little weight, particularly into designing a suspension system of a complexity you’d usually only encounter in a class (or two) above. The result is a structure that feels uncommonly stiff for any four-door saloon and suspension that provides a blend of ride comfort, precision and poise I don’t recall from any other similar car. I drove it on abysmal Portuguese roads, yet far from exposing weaknesses in the XE’s capabilities they allowed its talents to shine. It bodes very well for its potential performance when UK deliveries start in May.
The XE is also the first Jaguar to be fitted with electric power steering. As recently as two years ago Jaguar was very sniffy about EPAS, saying true steering feel could only be achieved with hydraulic assistance, but now it claims the technology has moved to a point where it’s actually better than the old system. That’s clearly nonsense, for while the XE steers well for a car with EPAS, I wonder if owners will deem the sacrifice in feel worthy of the tiny additional gains in fuel consumption.
I’m not yet entirely convinced by the new engine, either. Its power, torque and associated performance figures are class-competitive and its economy and emissions at or near the best of all, but the Ingenium I drove was rattly at idle, and audible even at a gentle cruise. Jaguar insists this is only because I was driving an inexactly constructed prototype with far less attention paid to noise, vibration and harshness than will be lavished on customer cars and I feel inclined to believe it.
But I’ll need to drive another more representative XE before I hail this engine as a world-beater.
I did also drive an XE powered by a 3-litre V6 supercharged petrol engine.
It was pleasant enough and impressively responsive, but was nothing like as smooth or enjoyable to listen to as BMW’s equivalent turbocharged straight six. I believe the Jaguar V6 is a cut down version of its V8 – and its 90deg angle would support that – and the result is fit for purpose but not much more. By contrast its optional adaptive suspension was superb and, for me, well worth the £800 outlay.
As is so often the case with prototype drives, my time in the XE actually posed as many questions as it answered, chiefly whether Jaguar will be able to get on top of the quality and engine refinement before sales start. I expect it will and, if it does, the XE will be good enough to do the job required. I think it is better in its class than any current Jaguar product and, if the final version is as good as Jaguar says it will be, it could yet be the best car in its class.
If the F-Pace SUV can match this excellence, Jaguar’s future will look brighter than at any time I can recall.
Engine: 2.0 litres, 4 cylinders, turbo diesel
Power: [email protected]
Torque: [email protected] rpm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 140mph