What is it?
It’s not quite finished. That’s the first thing to know. Jaguar has its ‘FeelXE’ strapline and is letting us do precisely that by driving the new car. But it’s not quite finished yet.
This test XE, Jaguar’s answer to the BMW 3-series and Mercedes-Benz C-class, is still a prototype. That explains why there are stickers on the outside of the car and, you might be able to see on the console in some pictures, a large red emergency stop button, which is a legal requirement of prototypes. Another 600 pre-production cars will be built before XEs arrive for customers to feel in May, priced from £26,995.
It’s rare that we have the opportunity to drive a car as new as this. I don’t mean ‘new’ as in ‘before production’, but ‘new’ as in ‘a new, mostly aluminium platform, rolling down a new production line, powered by an engine that is new and built in a new engine factory’.
A mostly aluminium body? Of course. Jaguar has fairly well nailed its colours on this one. The XE has an aluminium-to-steel ratio to roughly the inverse proportion of every other car in this class. A mixed-metal monocoque is fast becoming the norm, but Jaguar seems to use steel where others prefer to use aluminium, and vice versa.
I claim to be no great arbiter of aesthetics but to my eyes the XE looks good. It looks like a Jaguar from the front, which is no bad thing, although when following it from a distance you might wonder whether you’re behind an Audi A4 or a Citroën C5, but I suspect familiarity will cure that.
To the inside, then, where the XE is most unfinished – in surfaces and stitching – but still feels competitively luxurious. There is, praise be, a new multimedia system. It's still a touchscreen and less intuitive than the best (by which I mean BMW’s iDrive), but it uses softer, more organic colours inculding a grassy green for the sat-nav route. It’s a pleasingly clean interior, too, and is light on buttons.
Is it roomy enough? We didn’t manage a back-to-back comparison during this trip but have run a tape measure over an XE. Accommodation is competitive with a 3-series, but – and I suspect this is the aluminium construction making its presence felt - boot space is limited to 455 litres (the 3-series and C-class both have 480). Rear shoulder-room is tighter than that of both the BMW and Merc, too.
What's it like?
We drove two XEs. One was a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol with 335bhp, costing £44,870. We’re familiar with this motor from the F-type, so I’ll just tell you that it’s smooth and responsive and as fast as you’ll need an XE to go.
The more interesting engine is the new 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, badged ‘Ingenium’ and built at Jaguar Land Rover’s new £500 million engine factory near Wolverhampton.
There are two power variants. The lower-powered 161bhp one will be rated at 99g/km of CO2; the one we tested has 178bhp and costs £33,025 in R-Sport trim.
This engine is one area where Jaguar feels there’s still a little work to do, and it's right to think that. It’s not the overall volume that’s a problem, but the nature of the notes and the odd vibration that reaches the cabin. The nice thing about a powerful diesel is that if you make it sound like a powerboat then everything is right with the world, but too much high-frequency clatter at the expense of powerful, low-frequency grumble is a bit of a problem, as it is here.
So there are some tweaks in order before production, ditto on the stop-start system whose vibration is intrusive when it starts. Jaguar says there’s time to take a look at the calibration of both.
Certainly there’s no problem with the power delivery. Select a high gear on the fantastic ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox and plonk your foot down and, after a brief hesitation, the engine picks up from a steady 1600rpm or so. It makes peak torque of 317lb ft from only 1750rpm, and it pulls all the way through to 4400rpm before changing up as cleanly as you'd like.
Jaguar claims a 7.4sec 0-60mph time and we have no reason to doubt it. In normal driving it wouldn’t hurt the gearbox to kick down earlier, but taking control via the paddles is no drama.
Things Jaguar would consider finished are the ride and handling, and here the XE feels like a Jaguar through and through. We mean that in its most complimentary terms, too, because where the XF is its class’s benchmark car in terms of ride and handling, we think so too is the XE - accepting the caveat that we haven’t yet tried it on the very same road at the very same time as a direct competitor.
The XE has Jaguar’s first electrically assisted power steering, which retains – ghastly phrase approaching – Jaguar’s DNA in its consistency and slickness, of the sort absent in a lot of rivals. The XE’s set-up is steady around the straight-ahead, before weighting up with an approximation of feel and a lot of finesse. It’s the most pleasing system on a car in its class.
It’s backed by a ride that ably absorbs some pretty crummy surfaces, despite our test car running on the firmer of two available passive damping set-ups; there’s also an adaptive damping option. It’s bold of a company to put its first test cars on passive dampers - we’ve had to borrow a customer's car to try a 3-series on anything other than optional adaptive ones. Jaguar is rightly confident of the dynamic qualities of this car.
Does that extend to the handling? It does. This is not a sports car, but although the words ‘sports saloon’ drift into marketing rhetoric of too many manufacturers, this is a car that’s at the more dynamic end of the scale. It’s poised and rewarding, with fine control of its body movements.
Should I buy one?
As an enthusiast, you might well, because it’s good to drive. Jaguar’s intent was to give the XE the comfort of the best C-classes and the composure of a decent 3-series. To my mind, it exceeds both in both areas.
Whether it’ll win you over in other areas is still a point up for discussion. When full-production cars arrive we’ll know whether the XE is competitive or outstanding.
Jaguar XE 2.0 diesel R-Sport
Price £33,025; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1999cc, turbodiesel; Power 178bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 317lb ft at 1750-2500rpm; Gearbox: 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1565kg; Top speed 142mph; 0-60mph 7.4sec; Economy 67.3mpg; CO2 rating/tax band 109g/km, 17 per cent