The XE is a rival to the big-selling 3-series and has been developed at huge cost, so it's the car that will turn Jaguar into a major player or break the company. Andrew Frankel gives his verdict
While its predecessor, the X-type, was based on the Ford Mondeo, the Jaguar XE is an all-new car
The question was simple, the answer unexpected. Did this allegedly all-new Jaguar XE share any componentry with the old, unloved and unlovely X-type it is somewhat belatedly due to replace? Nick Miller, chief programme engineer for the XE lowered his head: "Yes, it does." Not so new after all. So I asked what parts of a car that did such damage to Jaguar’s reputation could possibly be deemed good enough to serve again in a car on which Jaguar is staking its future? He timed the reply well. "Two screws and one rubber grommet."
In fact the XE is one of those ultra-rare cars that in all senses that actually matter is genuinely new, from its brand new platform past its brand new body, suspension and electronics to its brand new "Ingenium"diesel engine. New indeed, even down to the facilities in which both car and engine are built.
It’s that way because the XE is not so much a car as the template for much of Jaguar’s future. In time it will spawn not just an estate, but an SUV and most likely a coupe and convertible, too. If it succeeds Jaguar will cease to be a sprat among sharks and join the big fish. If it doesn’t, well perhaps we should not dwell too much on that.
Unlike the X-type, the XE certainly looks the part, but that’s just the start. No other small, prestige saloon comes with an essentially aluminium structure, nor with an engine providing double digit CO2 emissions. There is a version of this car, which let’s not forget is a rival to the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class, that generates less CO2 than the cheapest Volkswagen Up city car. Critically, Jaguar also claims that as a driving machine, it sets a new benchmark for the class. We shall see.
The XE delivers class-leading efficiency, which should make it appealing to company car drivers
The XE in front of me is a prototype, built six months before customer deliveries start in May. The panel fit is inconsistent, some interior plastics are poor and, at idle at least, the Ingenium is noisier than I’d hoped. I’d expect Jaguar to fix the first two issues before production but the third? They say so, but I’ll wait to hear for myself. For now, the Ingenium is available only as a 2.0-litre diesel producing 161bhp in the low emission variant or 177bhp for the regular car I shall be driving today. This emits 109g/km, putting it in the same taxation band as the best of its rivals, although an automatic gearbox nudges it up one band.
The interior of the XE is a little disappointing. It’s pleasantly styled but lacks both the luxury feel of the latest C-class and the world-class navigation, information and entertainment displays found in the 3-series. Jaguar has refused to adopt the single controller approach now favoured by all its German rivals and instead persevered with a touchscreen and buttons; and the system, while clearly improved, remains neither as intuitive nor attractive as those of its rivals.
There’s the same cramped rear quarters you find in all such cars – if you want space a Volkswagen Golf is a far better bet – and a well shaped but slightly smaller boot than the segment average.
So far things aren't overly encouraging. But what of Jaguar’s claim that the XE provides a new standard of driving dynamism for such cars? You can tell almost as much about a car’s chassis from the roads its manufacturer chooses to let you test it on as from the car itself, and those in Portugal Jaguar found for the XE were fiendish. Fast and narrow, with broken surfaces and unreliable cambers, any car lacking iron suspension control, unimpeachable structural rigidity and total steering precision is going to feel horrible. But on optional sport suspension, the Jaguar was master of all it surveyed, even though it's like every other car that has adopted electronic power assisted steering in that there is less feel for the road than you’d find in an old-style hydraulic arrangement.
Even so, there is no other car in this class in which you can sense so clearly all four corners working independently to round off every bump, soften every pothole and maintain the car’s ride height, probably the single most important determinant of both ride comfort and driver confidence. With the £800 adaptive suspension option, it’s better still. The best in a class including the hitherto unapproachable BMW 3-series? Without question.
The position of the Ingenium engine is harder to judge. On numbers alone it stands comparison to the best, while on the road it feels powerful right through the rev range and entirely simpatico with the optional automatic gearbox. My sole concern is its voice, which is not only gruff and gravelly at idle, but also never quite inaudible even at a gentle cruise. If Jaguar’s claim that this will not be present on customer’s cars is true, it will have created a world class engine that will serve with distinction for many years. If not it will hold the XE back in precisely the same way as Mercedes’ less than perfectly smooth four-cylinder diesels stop the C-class from achieving its best.
But there is a bigger picture here. Any Jaguar must do two things: it must first be good to look at, and then in the way it drives, deliver fully on the promise of those looks. And even on the sketchy evidence from the unfinished prototype I drove, it is clear the XE not only honours that tradition, but does so better than any Jaguar saloon I can recall. That a brand that produced fewer than 82,000 cars last year when BMW sold over 1.8 million can achieve as much is the stuff of wonderment.
I’ll stop short of hailing a new class leader, for that is a judgement that requires a fully representative car. But if the promised improvements to refinement and interior quality can be delivered, the XE will be regarded not merely among the best small saloons of its age, but among the greatest Jaguars of all time.
- Jaguar XE 2.0d R-Sport auto
- Tested: 1,999cc diesel engine, eight-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive
- Price/on sale: £34,775 (£26,995-£44,870 for the range)/May
- Power/torque: 177bhp @ 4,000rpm/317lb ft @ 1,750rpm
- Top speed: 140mph
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 7.8sec
- Fuel economy: 55.4mpg/67.3mpg (EU Urban/Combined)
- CO2 emissions: 111g/km
- VED Band: C (£0 first year, £30 thereafter)
- Verdict: If the production car smooths off the rough edges of this prototype, the XE will be a match for the very best premium saloons.
- Rating: Four out of five stars