British-built XE tilts at C-Class crown and broadens Jaguar’s profile
Having been in this position before, reports Iain Robertson, Jaguar Cars cannot afford to squander a compact executive segment opportunity, especially up against the Teutonic Threesome, which are hard nuts to crack.
Richard Burton, character actor supreme, created the perceived pronunciation for the sometime British sporting saloon and its place in the hearts and minds of fans, when he insisted upon emphasizing the car’s ‘U’ in the 1971 gangland movie, ‘Villain’. In the meantime, despite upholding a genuine value-for-money stance throughout most of the brand’s existence, ‘Jagwar’ and even a slightly disrespectful ‘Shagwar’ enabled the Coventry Cats to assume the mantle of caddishness and roguishness.
While the Mark One saloon of the mid-1950s set the brand best-seller ball rolling, it was the inimitable Jaguar Mark Two that captured the spirit in 1959, selling over 91,000 examples by the time the axe fell a decade later. The sad, sorry and poorly received X-type (note the small ‘t’) would take a major cash and technology injection from Ford Motor Company some 32 years later to revive the precepts of a compact Jaguar.
Designed by Ian Callum, the X-type carried off its compact executive illusion and, in latter estate car form, became the darling of the middle England, class-conscious set. However, even with a 4WD set-up and up to 3.0-litre V6 power (although the 2.1-litre diesel version was always front-driven), an injudicious slip of the marketing tongue meant that the model was always incapable of shaking off its more rudimentary Mondeo underpinnings.
While I was disappointed with the chassis dynamics of early test examples, there was nothing intrinsically ‘wrong’ with the X-type. In fact, it was an attractive car, even if it lacked the cabin space of its foster parent. However, Jaguar (and Ford) mismanaged its launch and effectively damned it before it had much chance to make its mark. Starry-eyed consumers expected a modern Mark Two, which Jaguar was happy to provide, but the die had been cast and it became an ‘also-ran’ in the executive category, which should not have been much of a surprise, as the original Mark Two had suffered from a not dissimilar ignominy.
So, here we are again…the same designer as before, the same concept but an all-new name, XE, introduced in April 2015, following several months of scene and stage-setting. Now, with proud Indian conglomerate support and a much publicised, sometimes over-the-top, rolling-out process, the compact, ostensibly British, sports executive saloon has returned to the market. Confidence was high from the outset. By playing the ‘up-market’ game but producing an all-new, fresh and wilfully independent product, Jaguar believes that it can make a serious tilt at the top-selling BMW 3-Series, the ubiquitous Audi A4 and the outstanding Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The promise exists, although fulfilment might take somewhat longer to achieve. Perceptions take a long time to die off. Jaguar remains bullish and there is no denying that the XE looks the part, even though telling it apart from the larger and well-established XF is somewhat more difficult. Yet, discerning the 3 from the 5, the A4 from the A6 and even the C from the E can be equally awkward, sometimes even for company personnel, in twilight, with a following wind. Recognising how many XEs are on our roads, a factor that does lead to greater acceptability and important sales, can be confusing but they are there, even if not quite at the same level as the German trio’s offerings.
It is the much-vaunted Ingenium, small capacity class of engines (2.0-litre in either petrol, or diesel guises) that provides core potency. The test car has a turbo-diesel that develops 160bhp. Fairly unstressed and, aided by both 280lbs ft of torque and the leggy 8th top gear ratio of the automatic transmission, which makes 70mph cruising a mere 1,500rpm languorous luxury, it provides an adequacy of power that really demands an exploitable sporting feel from the ‘chassis’.
As with a number of carmakers, Jaguar provides a switchable chassis control (Sport setting also swaps white for red illumination of the instrument cluster) and the different parameters are discernible, without making the car harsh in its responses. However, I cannot help but feel that Jaguar, despite its new-found vitality, takes far too long to pursue the market, rather than attempting to grab it by the scruff of its neck and wring out a determined lead. All of Jag’s rivals can boast greater power, stronger performance and noticeably better responsiveness from their equivalent models.
Yet, the Ingenium diesel emits a mere 106g/km of CO2, which equates to a £20 annual VED fee, while boasting of an Official Combined fuel return of 68.9mpg, which stacks up competitively. I was unable to squirrel the extra miles from the fuel tank but I did return a wholly acceptable 56.8mpg in a week-long mix of urban and cross-country driving conditions, which, once again, takes the Jaguar to within spitting distance of its rivals.
In bald performance terms, the XE will accelerate from 0-60mph in a believable 7.7 seconds. Its top speed is given as 132mph, which might take a decent run to reach but the overall gearing and a decently aerodynamic outline should make it feasible. Apart from a pleasing grumble at low speeds, the unit is refined and seldom makes its presence felt. The gearshift quality is silky-smooth in full automatic mode, although selecting ‘Sport’ and using the paddle shifts mounted on the reverse of the steering-wheel cross-spokes, while appreciably fast reacting, a more dynamic feel is imparted. As has become Jaguar-Land-Rover practice, the main selector is a rising, machined metal cylinder in the console, which is fine, as long as you acclimatise to a rotary, as opposed to a more natural, fore and aft stick operation.
Despite my earlier comment about sizing recognition issues, the XE is undoubtedly an attractive machine, from the cliché of its cat-like frowning headlamps, to the E-Type inspired tail-lamps. However, I wonder if the plethora of reminiscent styling details are perhaps more a display of design ‘laziness’, than a genuine desire to hark back to Jaguar’s past. While hardly a comic book representation (unlike BMW’s Mini, which IS a comic book!), once again, I find myself pondering over the XE’s profiling. It is my firm belief that Jaguar needs to innovate and make the car market sit up and take notice, not just be safe and follow the herd.
For me, the biggest issues lie within the cabin. A number of years ago, I offered Jaguar Cars the opportunity to use my larger, Northern European stature, to help its interior designers to build more capacious cockpits. That of the XE is cloyingly tight but not in a sporting hug sort of way. Much like the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4 used to be, rear legroom behind a taller driver is sorely cramped. If four company board members intend to whisk off for a power lunch, they will be better served by a Range Rover, as only Napoleonic directors will find a modicum of back seat comfort.
However, the driver’s environment is also cosy, as well as being comfortable, even though the seat does drop lower and reach rearwards to satisfactory limits, with a rake and reach adjustable steering wheel providing a support function, via the twisting knob where the former ignition key position would have been. Start-stop is carried out by keyless, pushbutton means. In that respect it is far better than the previous X-type. Yet, the side windows, rather than being deep and glassy and allowing light to flood into the cabin, are narrow and create an even more enclosed environment, not helped by the broad sweep of the plastic dashboard moulding, which continues into the upper portion of the front doors.
Whether this is ‘sporting’ or not is immaterial. Light ingress creates a more sporting impression that is of greater benefit to the driver and occupants than pretending to be enclosed, as one might be in a womb, or an even lower sportscar. Incidentally, there are several little Jaguar ‘ingots’ and imprints dotted around the cabin (from the top dead centre of the dash, to the airvent sliders) just to remind you that you are actually in a Jag.
The driving impression is actually very good. While not up to the class pinnacle (C-Class), it is a rear-wheel-drive rival for the BMW 3-Series, although the much-praised Audi A4 has never quite matched expectations. The ride comfort is good and the handling safe, while both steering and brakes are excellent.
Conclusion: Priced at £31,525 (£35,825 with some extras), while not as keenly price-tagged as Jaguar used to be, the XE is competitive. As stated earlier, Jaguar is playing in a hotly contested market sector, where the mainstream offerings (Mondeo, Vectra and Peugeot 508) now flounder. The XE needs to be better than any of the big threesome, especially since Volvo discounted itself from the ‘premium’ sector. Yet, it is not the case. The Germans will continue to outsell and outperform the British-built offering, unless some pertinent market-leading aspects are factored into the proposition. Personally, I would prefer the Volvo offering. In the meantime, ‘little’ Jaguar will continue to serve purpose on the periphery, making teensy in-roads here and there but never quite commanding the market. In many ways, that might be its ultimate ‘secret’.