Prestige and pedigree of the Jaguar brand in a small SUV – what’s not to like about the new E-Pace? Asks Gareth Butterfield

JAGUAR’S marvellous F-Pace was the marque’s first foray into the muddy world of SUVs. And although it might have been a bit late to the party, it certainly made up for lost time and quickly became its fastest-selling car ever.

We all know there’s an appetite for jacked-up soft-roaders these days, so it should come as no surprise that Jaguar has launched a second SUV into the market – the smaller and sportier E-Pace.

And it’s pretty much guaranteed to sell well. For starters, it’s pretty. It’s not as sleek and elegant as the F-Pace and its more terrestrial siblings but it’s not meant to be. Jaguar has deliberately aimed this at a more sporty market by modelling it on its F-Type sports car, and there’s plenty of hallmarks dotted around.

It’s the same inside Anyone who has been lucky enough to drive an F-Type will recognise plenty of similar details, including the passenger grab-handle on the centre console, the small, chunky steering wheel and the trigger-style gearstick.

Except the cabin feels so much more spacious and airy than the cosseting F-Type. Obviously, this isn’t a tough trick to pull off given the size difference, but this is certainly the least claustrophobic Jag cabin I’ve sat in for a long time.

It benefits from Jaguar’s new, larger infotainment screen – which is a million times better than the old setup and there’s some really cleverly-thought-out design touches. Overall, it’s a brilliant interior.

The E-Pace is based on the same platform as the Range Rover Evoque. This means you can be confident it won’t be afraid to get its wheels dirty – despite there being a front-wheel drive budget option – although it does mean it’s a bit heavier as this sits on a steel chassis rather than the usual Jaguar aluminium setup.

And the bulk is exposed when the car is fitted with the lowly diesel engines that are available. The car will feel sluggish compared to some of its rivals. This isn’t, however, a problem with the turbocharged petrol engines. They may only be two-litre lumps but with either 237bhp or 298bhp on offer, there’s plenty of poke to send through the nine-speed automatic gearbox. That said, don’t expect miraculous fuel economy figures. Low 30s MPG might be achievable in petrol guise, but only just.

However with the right engine and with everything turned up a notch using the “dynamic” mode setting, the E-Pace is surprisingly nimble. In fact, it’s one of the best-handling small SUVs I’ve driven. The 300PS engine I tested can haul the 1.9 tonne E-Pace to 60mph in six seconds and it feels crisp and keen to devour the corners.

The suspension is on the firm side, but the reward is a genuinely chuckable car that doesn’t have the ungainly feel you might expect from a heavy SUV. It’s marvellous.

And although the engine is small, it’s certainly fierce. A synthetic engine note is pumped into the cabin, which adds to the sporty feel, along with the supportive seats and sharp steering. The gearbox is the only fly in the ointment. It’s a bit slow and, in my book, nine gears is simply too many ratios. But, generally, it’s a surprisingly fun car to drive.

Had we seen this car a few years ago, before the SUV boom, it might have been a hot hatch. And it proves Jaguar is more than capable of bestowing its sporting pedigree onto anything. So to me, this is the one that got away.

Not that the E-Pace isn’t good at doing all the things you like an SUV to do. It’ll carry five in comfort, it has a great driving position, soaks up the bumps well in comfort mode and although it feels big, it’s available with a plethora of cameras so parking it is fairly easy.

It must be said it’s not cheap. E-Pace ownership might start at a reasonable £28,930, but you really do need to consider a few choice upgrades, particularly to one of the beefier engines. Fit the 300PS engine and you’re knocking on the door of £45,000 before you’ve ticked any boxes on the options list.

But, to some extent, that isn’t really the point. Jaguar’s sure to succeed with this car on the strength of its fine handling, sporty looks and its new reputation for turning its hand to geuninely good SUVs.

There are things the E-Pace could do better, but that’s true of any of its competitors. And if you’re in the market for a small SUV with plenty of character, one of the best badges in the business and oodles of presence, this could be the car for you.