What is it?
The Jaguar XE – in what is, for the time being, top-of-the-line trim. The XE S is also the only version of Jaguar’s smaller saloon powered by a six-cylinder engine, so if you want your new British compact executive motoring experience with a bit more spice than a four-cylinder engine can supply, it’s the only game in town.
Supplying most of the aforementioned extra spice is the supercharged 3.0-litre V6 from the entry-level F-Type roadster - 335bhp of it, to be precise. Which is less power than Mercedes-Benz's incoming C450 AMG, but more than either a BMW 340i or an Audi S4 serves up.
It needs to be right on the pace, too, because this range-topping XE isn’t cheap at almost £45,000. But its equipment level goes some way to compensating for that, giving you sports suspension, adaptive damping, ZF’s eight-speed automatic gearbox, 19in wheels, a gently steroidal bodykit, bi-xenon headlamps and a Meridian premium audio system for your money.
What's it like?
The S is exactly what it ought to be: the best-driving XE we’ve sampled to date. And that’s a heartening find, because bigger-engined petrol saloon cars don’t always hit that mark (unless they’re dedicated performance models built by specialist in-house tuners). Too often they fall victim, judged on added real-world performance and driver reward, to the law of diminishing marginal returns.
The 90deg V6 isn’t quite as characterful here as you’ll find it in the F-Type – but it’s close. You can hear just enough whine from the Roots-type supercharger to add a frisson of excitement and then a typically tuneful six-cylinder howl as the revs build.
There’s none of the snap, crackle and pop of unburnt fuel detonations that the F-Type layers on, but the XE S still has more compelling audible charm than most rival saloons would venture.
The car feels very swift on the road, but that engine is as impressive for its responsiveness and range as it is for its outright punch. Where a modern six-pot turbodiesel may offer almost as much speed as this but little of the sense of drama, the XE S combines pragmatism with panache to stirring effect.
Responding to lesser throttle openings, it chips in smartly with plenty of torque at low to medium revs, so the car feels muscular and easy to drive. Dig deeper with the accelerator and the gearbox is quick to change down but always judicious and decisive – provided you don’t change your mind about how hard you want the car to go.
Lock the car in gear using Dynamic mode and the gearshift paddles and you can wring out the engine beyond 6000rpm, ratio after smartly selected ratio. That gearbox gives you lots of cogs to choose from, and often the best one for a particular bend or overtake won't be the one you expect.
You’ll get used to it. The beauty is that, whether you want to use the last 1000rpm of the rev range in third gear or 300lb ft-plus of mid-range torque in sixth, the powertrain will obediently let you choose either – before richly and stoutly putting its shoulder to the wheel.
The XE S’s talents don’t stop there, either. We’ve now had experience of the standard passively damped XE, the sports-suspended car and this adaptively damped sports suspension, all on UK roads. So far, we haven’t found one combination of wheel, tyre, spring and damper we don’t like or that doesn’t work very well indeed. But the XE S’s particular tune is a work of rare brilliance, giving the car dynamic talents way above and beyond the ken of its competitors.
There is a supple sort of ride compliance about the XE S, and an effective kind of isolation from road roar, that big-rimmed modern saloons seldom produce. The steel in the car’s body control rarely prevents it from handling long-wave lumps and bumps fluently at high speeds – whether they’re encountered on the motorway or on a B-road.
But the tautness is there, all right. It keeps the body intimately in touch with the surface of the road when you want it to be - level, in check and light on its feet at all times.
Grip levels are assured and stay strong at high speeds. And yet the XE S simultaneously conjures a really delicate cornering balance from its four contact patches. And as its driver, you can introduce and interject in more entertaining conversations between its engine and chassis than any of its more reserved German rivals allow.
Should I buy one?
The XE S puts the sport back into the modern sports saloon. It reminds you why you’d pick petrol over big-hitting diesel – and that you needn’t spend £60,000 to own a daily-use, premium-brand four-door that feels like a true athlete.
It’s undoubtedly more expressive and entertaining than its German competition. At the same time, it's a bit less spacious than a like-for-like 3 Series or C-Class – and a smidgen less immutably constructed and materially lavish inside.
Still, amid a cast of compromised, apologist driver’s cars, the Jaguar gets our vote.
Location Surrey; On sale Now; Price £44,865; Engine V6, 2995cc, supercharged, petrol; Power 335bhp at 6500rpm; Torque 332lb ft at 4500rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1665kg; 0-62mph 5.1sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Economy 34.9mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 194g/km, 33%