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In times past, dyed-wool traditionalists might have figured that Hell would freeze over before the famed Leaping Cat would adorn itself on the grille of a small SUV.
Times have changed, says Jaguar, though when referring to the new 2018 Jaguar E-Pace, which has just launched in Oz, the carmaker seems duty bound mention “sports car” frequently as an ever-present reminder.
“Sports car of its class” and “sports car designed for daily lives,” says design director, Ian Callum.
“Sports car dynamics with SUV practicality,” adds Vehicle Line Director, Alan Volkaerts.
Reminders, then, of Jaguar’s providence, in case you'd forgotten. And reinforcement, in case you don’t quite believe it.
Indeed, as we’ve seen at the pint-sized premium SUV’s international launch, the E-Pace goes to great lengths to ape styling cues – “shared DNA,” speaks the horse’s mouth – from F-Type, its fair dinkum sports car stablemate, if in a dumpy, plump, unmistakably SUV kind of way.
In the flesh, the family-friendly newcomer’s on-road presence can swing from sheer knockout to ho-hum depending on variant, wheel choice, colour et cetera. It’s a flexible ‘look’, then, depending on where a particular example draws from the so-called configuration “matrix,” where the customer is empowered to choose more or less any powertrain, any variant trim level and whatever they want from a bewilderingly fertile options list.
Jaguar doesn’t bundle suites of packages like German rivals do and, according to JLR MD Matthew Wiesner, specifically as point of difference for customers, but even disregarding tailor-made optional details, there are a total of nine different variants and five different engines – all backed by automatic transmissions and all-wheel drive – offered in Oz that can be mixed and matched.
So impression of E-Pace can waver wildly from one example to another, in look, feel and the driving experience.
The array of test cars available to try at the local launch was dizzying and there was opportunity for us sample just two quite different version. The first was the, ahem, First Edition, available only through 2018 as a limited edition sampled with P250 (2.0L 183kW/365Nm petrol) power, at $83,370 and with no options fitted. The second was an HSE with R-Dynamic accoutrements and D240 (2.0L 177kW/500Nm diesel) motivation, at $80,315 list with options raising the as-tested price to $99,355.
Common, though, is the all-important SUV packaging and Jaguar claims E-Pace sits somewhere between small and medium category size, boasting that its new competitor has “Tardis like” interior packaging in name-checking a certain time traveller’s Police box (which some readers might have to Google…).
In practice, though, the E-Pace isn’t surprisingly commodious. It feels cosy – and quite sports car like – in the first row, while the second has ample head and shoulder room while being a bit tight for legroom. The cabin space seems a tad short, ditto the boot, which offers a decent if unremarkable 484 litres with the rear seats in play, 1141L with the 60:40 split-fold pews stowed.
You do sense that E-Pace is an exercise of styling overruling outright packaging, especially with the sloping tailgate, but those responsible for maximising roominess have done a decent job with the silhouette Mister Callum prescribed, one that apes the F-Type in areas, particularly from the rear.
The F-Type continues inside: the asymmetrical dash treatment, the sloping dash fascia, the grab handle for the passenger in the left side of the console. It’s much more of sports car lineage than, say, Jaguar’s XE.
Similarly, the door cards and associated contours and switchgear avoids the fussy complication found in the sedan and are more natural and conventional and, on theme, the signature like-it-or-lump-it rotary transmission controller is absent, with driving mode selected via a more traditional so-called “trigger shifter”.
Materials, presentation and holistic design, too, is conventional contemporary Jaguar: impresses at first glance, if lacking a little of premium-ness under closer scrutiny in some areas. Ditto infotainment, which has a big glossy 10.0-inch touchscreen arrangement which is acceptable, if far-from cutting edge in interface, software design or features (no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto). Still, the cabin space thoughtfully locates oodles of stowage and is festooned with USB and 12V outlets, and you can option internal WiFi functionality, too.
On road, our petrol version’s 183kW/365Nm delivers a workmanlike if not quite lusty experience. It’s tied to a nine-speed automatic and what’s ostensibly the ‘base’ permanent all-paw system that shuffles torque fore and aft but, by seat of the pants, feels tuned more towards family hauler than proper driving enjoyment.
In more sedate drive modes, the powertrain is polite and satisfying, but engaging Dynamic reveals a fairly lacklustre character: doughy throttle response, lethargic transmission kick-down, and a general laziness to man battle stations.
The steering is even, nicely weighted and reasonably direct, but falls down in the sportiness department with a patent lack of feedback: the weight remains constant whether you’re gently tipping into a corner or you’ve blasted through tyre grip and ventured into understeer.
And the E-Pace does tend to overwhelm mechanical adhesion despite sitting on fat 20-inch rubber. The SUV does sit quite flat in the mid-corner, though its roll centre seems quite high, and it doesn’t drill the rubber into hot mix in much of a sports car-like manner.
The elephant in the room, and perhaps on the road, is weight. As reported at our international drive a few months back, the E-Pace is a bit of a porker, our petrol version around 1850kg, which is very portly indeed. Lots of inertia, then, as a wet blanket across this vehicle’s outright dynamic potential.
The diesel version is, at 1926 kegs, even heavier. But perhaps surprisingly, the oiler seems much keener on the move and more engaging when pushed along in the curves. A nice thick 500Nm aides progress immensely, off the mark or in the effortlessness of roll-on acceleration. And it’s impressively quiet, too – noticeably more so than the XE 20d I happened to be driving the day prior.
Mass notwithstanding, some newfound competency in the corners isn’t so surprising given the high-spec (177kW) diesel is mated to the high-spec, rear-bias Active All-Wheel-Drive system, which in the range is also reserved for the lusty, flagship 221kW petrol engine. Via electronically control clutches, it’s quicker and more forensic and dialling in exactly the right amount of torque where it’s needed, it’ll disengage rear drive at a cruise and, Jaguar promises, will power oversteer, sports car-like, on command when you bury the right foot.
There was no such tomfoolery on public southern Queensland backroads, but this powertrain and chassis combination proved patently quicker, more able and measurably more enjoyable in a pure driver’s situation than our petrol version was.
Further, the sheer stonk of the diesel and the capabilities of the handling package masks this E-Pace’s weight impressively – if you were to guess its weighbridge ticket without knowing the true number, you might well arrive closer to 1600kg or so by the experience form behind the wheel.
Right here, assessing whether the E-Pace makes for surrogate sports car in an SUV bodyshell gets damn tricky. To unearth its inner F-Type, you’d need to opt for the D240 or P300 engines to get the Active AWD. You need a minimum ‘S’ variant trim ($64,020 list) to tip into that powertrain and chassis format, which can be had in six progressively more expensive ‘trims’ until you land in upmarket RDHSE territory ($80,315 for diesel, $83,733 for petrol, before on-roads).
Turns out our petrol First Edition, at $84,370 list, is at once the priciest of the entire crop, yet gets the least dynamically adept chassis in range. Not what we’d call the sweet spot in the range, then.
But with 40 possible combinations of engine and variant level to choose from, surely there’s a cracking driver’s device (or three) somewhere lurking in the E-Pace fold.