WINDERMERE, England — I was fully prepared to suffer launch failure once I’d taken the wheel of Jaguar’s over-hyped XE sedan. This is, after all, the Audi A4/Mercedes C-Class/BMW 3-Series fighter that the British brand hopes will forever end talk of the execrable X-Type.
You remember the X-Type, the low-quality, tarted-up Ford Mondeo with the messy design and suburban performance. The car boasted unbalanced proportions, undersized twin headlamps and excessive and needless sheetmetal crases, curves and folds. The powertrain offerings were weak and raw, exposed in their horribleness by a mediocre all-wheel-drive system intended to disguise the car’s Ford roots.
Ford Motor, then JLR’s owner, was fully responsible for the X-Type mish-mash. With slug-like speed through a byzantine bureaucracy that reached across the Atlantic, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford made Jag embrace Ford’s accounting with predictable results.
Jag was forced to take a middling family car and try to turn it into a world-class sporting saloon. The X-Type was a Hindenburg-like catastrophe – a car so awful, it very nearly incinerated Jaguar.
(Yet X-Types remain in service. At a Morrison’s parking lot in nearby Kendal in the Lake District I came across a lovingly cared for powder blue X-Type. Minutes later I bumped into a green X parked in front of the Riverside Hotel. Both were in very good shape.)
So along comes the XE with its exclusive, cockney-accented Idris Elba London-to-Berlin drive videos, the Wimbledon co-promotion and the Circuit de Spa performance documentary. The World Premiere was at London’s Earl’s Court with dressmaker Stella McCartney offering “expert” commentary on the car’s aluminum construction and fuel economy. Four Weddings and a Funeral star John Hannah climbed from his celluloid coffin to wax on about Jaguar’s heritage. The English indie rock band Kaiser Chiefs sang and got paid.
In the car business, when a new model arrives like this, the car is invariably horrible. A good rule of thumb in the auto game is that the goodness of a car is in inverse proportion to the extravagance of the launch party. Great party, nasty car.
Here we have the exception. The XE is anything but nasty. The opposite in fact. You can tell that with just one look at this carefully crafted design.
Nonetheless, Jag under its Indian owner, Tata, has long known it must erase all memory of the X-Type from the public’s consciousness. If the XE is to have a chance against those big German compact-sized guns – the A4, C-Class and 3-Series – Jag can’t just allow the car to speak for itself.
Yes, the XE is a beauty. It feels more substantial than I expected, especially at high speeds on an empty stretch of the M6 toll road around the Midlands industrial city of Birmingham. Of course I did not hit 100 mph or 160 km/hour. Never.
The 3.0-litre, 340-horsepower V-6 in my supercharged R-Sport test car howled with delight every time I buried my right foot. (The engine is shared with the XF, BTW, while the basic underpinnings are shared with not only the XF but also the F-Pace station wagon.) The XF eight-speed automatic instantly snaps from gear to gear and is never lost for the right shift point.
The steering is tight, braking fade-free, predictable and progressive, and in corners — even tightening, off-camber bends — the XE plants itself and begs you to push harder, demand more from the largely aluminum chassis and body structure.
How serious has Jag been about ride and especially handling? Up front you’ll find a sophisticated double wishbone suspension, not some Honda Civic-like strut layout. All-wheel drive is standard in Canada.
The Jag ride engineers say the aluminum front spindles are light and stiff, while in the rear, the car benefits from an integral link system similar to what you get in the XF. The result: stiffness all around, the kind of solidity that allows the ride engineers to dial in precise handling yet allow for a supple ride. If you get over your head, the car has an endless list of electronic nanny assist technologies.
The downside at speed is noise. Lots of wind and road noise seep into the cabin and the faster you go, the
louder it gets. If you want a really quiet car in this class at 140, 160 km/hour, get an A4.
The A4 doesn’t look as good, however. Unlike the old X-Type, this compact Jag is balanced and properly proportioned. The car is low and sporty, with a long wheelbase and short front and rear overhangs.
The design is full of interesting elements, too, some also quite useful: large front air intakes, satin chrome side vents, gloss black side window surrounds, side sills, discreet rear spoiler and the 20-inch forged alloy wheels of my tester. It’s aerodynamically efficient at a 0.28 drag coefficient.
Naturally, Jag has put some real emphasis on the infotainment and connectivity side of things. The InControl Touch Pro system in my tester included a big colour touchscreen with an easy-to-manage design interface. All manner of iOS and Android smartphone connectivity is possible.
However, I found input response times for the electronics to be slow and the navigation system simply could not spit out directions in a timely manner. More software work is needed. The Meridian sound system is excellent.
The XE isn’t Jag’s flagship, but it is the brand’s most important car – the volume saloon that will make or break Jag’s improving reputation for quality and performance.
The X-Type? Refresh my memory. What was the X-Type?
2017 JAGUAR XE SC R-SPORT AWD
THE LOOK: “Our mission was to create an exciting and dynamic design clearly reflecting the XE positioning as a serious driver’s car. The cab-rearward proportions and tight packaging achieve that and give the XE the appearance of movement even when it is standing still. It bears a strong family resemblance to the F-TYPE and will stand apart in the crowd,” SAYS Ian Callum, Jaguar design director. Success.
THE DRIVE: The XE is now the class leader is handling – better than a 3-Series, an A4 or a C-Class. But at high speeds the car is noisy. The next goal for Jag: achieve world-class levels of quiet.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS: Aluminum construction, advanced powertrains, all-wheel drive, fancy electronics, driver-assist technologies…The whole modern package is there. The infotainment responses need to be faster, though, and the navigation commands don’t deliver instruction in a timely fashion.
THE CABIN/STORAGE: The design suffers from too much German influence. The seats are very good over a long drive. The rear space is okay for kids. The trunk is large.
THE BRAND: The Jag people have been carefully, patiently rebuilding their brand with an eye to being the luxury brand who have come to believe the roads are filled with too many Mercs, Audis and Bimmers. It’s working.
WHO BUYS? Up and coming professionals who want to be part of “the brand.”
Powertrain: 3.0-litre V-6, supercharged (340 horsepower, 332 lb-ft of torque).
Transmission: six-speed automatic and eight-speed automatic.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.8 city/8.2 highway using premium fuel.
Comparables: Audi A4, BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS, Volvo S60, Cadillac ATS.