It’s no secret the global launch of the all-new Jaguar XE this week is likely to go down as one of the most critical events in the company’s 80-year history.
Make no mistake; you’re looking at Jaguar’s future top-selling model, boasting a platform that will underpin a succession of the brand’s upcoming cars.
Success won’t come easy. Jaguar has a ‘David and Goliath’ fight on its hands with three hugely successful German marques primed to block the niche Brit player from taking a slice of what is a massively lucrative segment.
For decades, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have controlled this end of the prestige spectrum. Japanese brand Lexus is in there too, peddling luxury and service, but it’s the Bavarian brands that have continued to rule this market with a succession of outstanding cars.
And so the XE is Jaguar’s contender in a looming five-way battle for the all-important volume end of the luxury segment against the Audi A4, BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class – all of which offer high-value cachet and superb engineering.
It’s a daunting task, on any level.
Last year, Jaguar managed to sell about 89,000 cars globally, while BMW was able to shift more than 1.8 million units. Even more telling is that Porsche moved more SUVs than Jaguar did cars across its entire model range.
Jaguar has also had to contend with its reliability hangover – a legacy that stretches back 30 years or more, but one that has largely been sorted of late.
In the last five years, Jaguar has placed within the top-five spots in the J.D. Power Quality and Ownership surveys – even beating the likes of Lexus on occasion.
That said, the XE is coming to this prize fight as the decided underdog, and as such Jaguar has thrown everything it has at the car’s development, including a large chunk of the rumoured 3.5 billion Pounds Sterling ($6.8 billion) that JLR owner Tata is rumoured to inject into the group’s R&D each year.
For starters, it’s a clean sheet design - everything about this car is brand new.
The XE’s body is an all-new architecture, 75 per cent aluminium – the first in class – and one that will form the basis for the new XF sedan and F-Pace - Jaguar’s first ever crossover vehicle due in 2016.
In fact, it’s the lightest, stiffest and most aerodynamic Jaguar sedan ever built, boasting a Cd 0.26 that is identical to the futuristic BMW i8 hybrid sports car.
There’s also a new range of highly efficient ‘Ingenium’ turbocharged petrol and diesel engines, designed and developed in-house.
The XE arrives in Australia this September with the first of the new Ingenium powerplants – a 132kW/430Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel, along with three existing (non-Ingenium) petrol engines – two four-cylinder turbo models (147kW/280Nm and 177kW/340Nm respectively) and one top-spec 250kW/450Nm V6 supercharged version – all mated to a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission.
From the outset of the car’s development, chassis engineers paid special attention to the XE’s ride and handling, so the suspension is also aluminium with an exotic design at both ends – meaning double wishbones up front and a sophisticated Integral Link down back, and one that is usually found in larger, more expensive luxury vehicles.
It’s also the first Jaguar to get Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS), which Jaguar says has been tuned to deliver the same kind of feel as previous hydraulic systems.
New too is Jaguar’s infotainment system, known as ‘InControl’, which is centred on an 8.0-inch touchscreen with a host of new applications and functionality, including remote start from outside the car using a smartphone.
It’s infinitely better than previous JLR infotainment units with their questionable graphics and less-than-satisfactory processing speeds. That said, it’s still a touchscreen, so besides simple functions, its still difficult to use while driving.
If the XE is tasked with persuading the hearts and minds of junior prestige buyers, then it simply has to look the part – because image is everything in the company car park.
Thankfully, it’s an entirely different design proposition compared with the Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The XE is genuine Jaguar, but it clearly shares some common styling themes with its larger XF and XJ siblings, though less of a head tuner than the latter.
The most obvious family trait is up front, where the headlights wear the trademark “J-Blade” with swoosh-style daytime running lamps. According to XE designer Edmund Willis, there are also plenty of F-Type familiarities, like the LED glowing brake lights that imitate Jaguar’s sports car.
Homage is also paid to the E-Type, with the leaping cat appearing on the boot lid.
Inside, the materials are as impressive as its rivals, with ultra-soft leathers, a twin-stitched dash and real metal paddleshifters that proved perfectly positioned on the steering wheel.
A big shout-out must go to the craftspeople that designed the beautifully fashioned front bucket seats. After several hundred kilometres behind the wheel of the XE, across some of Spain’s more twisty roads - I’ve decided, unequivocally, they are the new benchmark in the class, offering unparalleled comfort and support regardless of the road conditions or driving style.
Despite the pluses, and there are plenty, it’s still not enough to de-throne the generously curvaceous C-Class cabin with its benchmark materials and exquisite look and feel.
But that’s not the case when it comes to the driving part of this Jaguar proposition. This is where the XE – in any guise – assumes top spot on the podium. Yes, a proper cat amongst the pigeons – and never a more fitting use of this idiom.
Spain might be on the financial brink, but this is a spectacularly picturesque country, peppered with some of the most exhilarating driving roads on the planet – and the location for our first drive of the Jaguar XE.
First up, was a quick 138km blast in the high-power version of the 2.0-litre turbo petrol, from Vitoria airport in the north – to the Circuito de Navarra; a challenging, but fast-paced race track where we would get the opportunity to track test the powerful supercharged V6 version.
The XE is one of those rare cars that you feel at home in right from the get-go – a combination of the perfect driving position and a chassis that feels like its got a secure Bluetooth connection with your motor neurons.
If this is what Jaguar’s designers and engineers can do with a clean-sheet design, then bring it on – please. This is a car whose engine and chassis are in a perfect state of sync.
The stats say that this thing will scoot from 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds, and while that’s not particularly quick – I’m telling you straight, it’s no slouch and you don’t want for pace even on the gun-barrel straights.
More importantly, the ZF eight-speed transmission gets the power down with effortless ease and refinement, even in Sport mode, so the car can carry good usable speed through even the extra twisty stretches.
Cabin noise is remarkably well muted, too - limited to just the right level of engine note to heighten the drive experience.
Most of the XEs come with a standard suspension set-up, while the top-spec 3.0-litre ‘S’ model gets adaptive dampers. But here’s the thing – we tried both systems and both are equally brilliant over any surface whatsoever.
The ride/handling balance is simply superior to any of the Jag’s current rivals, something I wouldn’t have thought possible up against the 3-series and C-Class. It doesn’t seem to matter how hard you push, or the condition of the road surface – the XE delivers a ridiculously supple ride, while remaining utterly unflappable.
Turn in is razor sharp, and there’s a tonne of grip available at the front end. The electric power steering is a masterstroke of fine-tuning – light enough for excellent low-speed manoeuvrability, but loading up in concert with the level of lock induced.
It’s next to impossible to find the limits of the XE’s chassis on public roads, particularly if you’re behind the wheel of the supercharged V6 S. Good thing then, that we’ve got a session at the racetrack booked to properly explore the car’s adhesion limits.
It’s a quick car and there’s absolutely zero lag as the supercharger winds up from the very instant you give it some throttle. This is the sweet spot in the range for me.
Navarra is a challenging circuit with several flat-out kinks, but generally you need a lot of guts and plenty of commitment to get the best out of it. Not so with the new Jag.
With a gentle prod from shotgun-riding race instructor, the car is flat through the bends with uncanny levels of grip and balance.
Any understeer is kept in check with fade-free brakes – even after countless high-speed laps on a warm day. If you do find the outer edge of tyre grip, the XE’s prodigious balance makes it a simple task to gain control of the slide and no sooner getting back on the power and onto the next corner.
I can’t recall driving a sedan on track with this kind of middleweight powerplant while being able to extract every last kilowatt of power and Newton-metre of torque with such deft composure and confidence, as is possible in this new Jaguar XE.
Even a quick punt in the first of the new Ingenium diesel models revealed a superb blend of ‘go’ and refinement from a 2.0-litre displacement – better even than the BMW equivalent in this regard.
Pricing and specifications haven’t yet been announced, though according to JLR Australia’s General Manager Communications and Marketing, Tim Krieger, the XE will be “very, very, competitive and offer a compelling proposition against rival brands”.
It might be all that Jaguar needs to take its place on the podium.