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Test Drive: Jaguar XE

The new XE marks Jaguar’s second attempt to take on the Germans in the premium compact segment. Does it cut the mustard this time?

Jaguar XE. Photo: Palani Mohan
Jaguar XE. Photo: Palani Mohan

Remember the X-type? Launched in 2001 as an alternative to Audi’s A4, Mercedes’ C-Class and, most crucially, BMW’s 3-series, it marked Jaguar’s first stab at the executive compact sector – a car that, if successful, would establish the British brand as a high-volume manufacturer of premium automobiles, much in the mould of its German competitors.

The problem was that though the X-Type was by no means a bad car, it wasn’t the right car. It was based heavily on the Ford Mondeo, which, though worthy enough, was hardly an appropriate foundation on which to build a luxury sporting saloon. It also looked frumpy, employing a design language that seemed rooted in the ’60s and ’70s, and resembling a then-current XJ – itself hardly cutting edge in terms of styling – that had unfortunately shrunk in the wash. Effectively a fake Jag, it sold in nothing like the numbers necessary to achieve its lofty objectives, and production was quietly discontinued in 2009.

So back to the drawing board, the make-or-break goal this time being to create an altogether more convincing contender for this key market segment. Unlike its predecessor it would be a proper Jaguar, a car so compelling stylistically, technologically and dynamically that it would entice potential customers from the clutches of Ingolstadt, Munich and Stuttgart, not in dribs and drabs but in droves. That may not have been the easiest of briefs, but with Ian Callum (Aston Martin DB7 and Vanquish, and Jaguar XK, XF, XJ and F-Type) now helming the design studio, the chances were that it would at the very least look the part.

The results of those years of effort were finally made official at the 2014 Geneva salon, with the announcement of the impending launch of a new entry-level Jaguar – unsurprisingly dubbed XE – and, in September last year, the unveiling of a prototype (full production of the car began in April). As beautifully proportioned as the X-Type wasn’t, this handsome beast begins with a front end that recalls the F-Type’s and ends with an elegant, coupé-like roofline and a dainty spoiler at the tail. And if in spite of being sleek, clean and contemporary it also appears just a little conservative, that’s probably exactly want the market wants.

Jaguar XE. Photo: Palani Mohan

Jaguar XE. Photo: Palani Mohan

That conservatism, however, doesn’t extend to the car’s fundamentals. It’s built on an alloy-rich modular platform shared also with the new, bigger XF (as well as the soon-to-arrive F-Pace SUV), and its monocoque body shell is made largely from aluminium, a metal that weighs less yet is stiffer than steel. Front suspension is a proper double-wishbone set-up and there’s an equally pukka integral-link arrangement at the rear; steering is electronic; and an array of high-tech driver aids comes as standard, from a torque-vectoring braking system to dynamic stability and traction control.

A range of entirely new engines is also either already available or in the offing. While oil-burning models come with Jaguar’s own 2-litre Ingenium turbodiesel four, petrol versions of this lighter, more efficient and more powerful in-house unit probably won’t arrive until late next year. Until then, gasoline power comes from a pair of Ford-built turbocharged 2-litre fours or a supercharged 3-litre V6, excellent and proven engines whose plebeian provenance is nothing to be ashamed of. All petrol engines transmit their power to the rear wheels via a ZF-sourced, eight-speed automatic gearbox offering sequential manual shifting, which, for those who care about such things, is much the same transmission as on the 3-series BMW.

So I can get the measure of this new saloon – a car that’s crucial to the long-term future of this British-based company – I’ve been handed the smart key to a relatively lowly XE Prestige for a few days of intensive driving. Although the Prestige comes with the baseline petrol engine that produces 197bhp and a reasonable 280Nm of torque, it does get posh leather seats and brushed-aluminium interior trim. Devoid of aggressive body kit, 19-inch wheels or low-profile tyres, and wearing a metallic-brown paint job that I think is called “Quartzite”, it’s evidently no boy-racer special, yet I’m won over by its air of restrained elegance.

Equally subtle is the interior, which is commendably uncluttered and given cohesion by a horizon line that runs the lower length of the windscreen, visually linking the centre of the cabin with each front door. The driving position is frankly superb, the seats are comfortable and supportive, the wheel is nicely located, materials feel good and the ergonomics – including the central touch screen and ancillary switches – work intuitively and well. Even a parking camera is standard. Although there’s no instant wow factor about this space, in practice it hits the spot perfectly.

Pressing the starter button raises Jag’s now-familiar circular gear selector, which is, as always, a cinch to use, At idle, the engine turns over imperceptibly, and when I pull away it’s almost as unobtrusive. With slightly less than 200 horses for a car weighing upwards of 1.53 tonnes, it ‘s hardly over-endowed with power, but in combination with the smooth-shifting eight-speed it still gets us moving briskly. Acceleration from rest to 100km/h is claimed to be a fraction more than 7.5 seconds.

Jaguar XE

Jaguar XE. Photo: Palani Mohan

Top speed with this engine is said to be 237km/h, but in reality the XE Prestige is less about absolutes than the assured and effortless manner in which it goes about its business. Maximum torque is available at less than 2,000rpm, so there’s plenty of usable urge from this mildly tuned turbocharged four – and when it doesn’t respond quickly enough to throttle inputs a flick of the left-hand paddle smartly does the trick (you can also, of course, throw any pretence at fuel economy to the wind by switching the transmission to sport mode). It feels refined, too, only becoming harsh when I really pile on the revs – and as power peaks at 5,500rpm that’s rather a pointless exercise anyway.

What really sets the XE apart, however, are its dynamics. The steering is direct, responsive and nicely weighted; the handling – aided by those torque-vectoring brakes – is tenacious, balanced and predictable; and the ride comfort is quite simply remarkable, absorbing even the most brutal bumps that poorly maintained roads can throw at it. Unlike the XE R-Sport and XE S, the Prestige comes with humble 17-inch wheels and lacks sport suspension, yet so fettled is its chassis and so supple the ride that you won’t need to opt for anything fancier. In fact, judged purely as a driver’s car the Jag is so good that I reckon only the 3-series could match it (though I very much doubt the Beemer would better it).

The downsides? While you could hardly be more comfy when seated upfront, passengers in the back are less pampered, no thanks to the rakish, headroom-restricting roofline. So if you’re childless and hang out with basketball teams you’ll probably be looking elsewhere. Likewise luggage space is more restricted than in any of its German rivals, the price one pays, I suppose, for having such a good-looking ride.

In every other respect, though, this is a genuinely brilliant car, so much so that when next you’re agonising over whether it’s to be a 4, a 3 or a C, you’d be crazy if you didn’t consider a Jaguar XE. Of the four, I know which would get my money – and for once it wouldn’t be German.