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Jaguar's first attempt at a compact exec saloon is good - very good. But can the XE hold off the BMW 3 Series and Alfa Romeo Guilia to retain its crown?

For as long as there has been a Jaguar, there has been an edition of Autocar to reflect on its merits.

Throughout this time a long list of Jaguar models have come and gone – some forgettable, a few lamentable and some of them among the most beautiful and evocative cars ever built. All have their place in the narrative arc of one of Britain’s best-loved firms, and its finest moments still provide the lodestones by which grace and beauty and growl can be historically measured.

With the stakes high, Jaguar has bet the farm. There’s a new platform, an entirely new engine – diesel first, petrol later – and even a new factory.

With the Jaguar XE, the firm is not necessarily looking to add to its crown jewels. There will be no old men 50 years from now mistily recalling the summer spent at its wheel. That’s what the Jaguar F-Type is for.

The task before the XE is more about the bottom line, which makes it exponentially more important. Although the existence of Jaguar is virtually assured by the huge pile of money being amassed by its Land Rover sister, its status as a proper, profitable mainstream car maker is contingent on the kind of volume that only a compact executive saloon like the XE can generate.

Succeed, and the brand’s three-decade struggle to establish itself as a functioning alternative to the premium German manufacturers finally gains a sustainable foothold. Fail, and its current standing as Jaguar Land Rover’s low-volume, low-hip-point fun division ossifies, perhaps for good. As we know the XE delivered on its promise and has seen the Jaguar XF and Jaguar F-Pace to its range - with promise of a new direction in the shape of the Jaguar I-Pace.

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But back when Jag's compact saloon was preparing to come to the fore, many inlcuding ourselves felt like: we’ve been here before, with the X-Type, whose arrival in 2001 brought hope of the same thing. Ultimately, it failed and took Jaguar a long time, and a new owner, before it has been prepared to climb back in the saddle.

With the stakes high, Jaguar bet the farm. There’s a new platform, an entirely new engine range, an all-wheel drive system and even a new factory. 

From launch, there will be five trim levels, and six engine variants - mainly made up of four-cylinder Ingenium petrol and diesel units, priced from just over £28,000. To see how good it is we already put the XE up against its closest rivals in the shape of the BMW 3 Series and the Alfa Romeo Guilia on the rural roads of Wales, but now the XE faces its sternest test.

Jaguar XE rear

It’s possible that you might find the Jaguar XE underwhelming to look at. Clearly, Jaguar has not used the same magic markers with which it penned the Project 7 or even regular Jaguar F-Type.

What it has done instead is build on the groundwork laid by the Jaguar XF and the first XJ to produce a sleek, compact saloon that is very recognisably a Jaguar.

Aluminium, JLR's go-to material, accounts for 75% of the body weight in the Jaguar XE

Underneath, though, it has been far more intrepid. Jaguar to use the iQ platform, an all-new piece of modular architecture that underpins cars as diverse as the XF and Range Rover Evoque.

Aluminium, JLR’s go-to material, accounts for 75 percent of the body weight in the XE, with most of the rest being the high-strength steel found in the doors, boot and rear underbody (for better weight distribution) and in the B-pillars as a reinforcing element.

Use of the alloy makes the platform slightly lighter than that of its rivals, but overall the car is not – a fact partly attributable to Jaguar’s insistence that it uses not only front double wishbones in the XE but also its 'integral link' rear suspension in place of a conventional multi-link setup.

The engineers were willing to absorb the weight penalty because it does a better job of isolating the driven rear wheels from unwanted directional forces, helping to deliver the superior mix of suppleness and agility that typically distinguishes a Jaguar from its rivals. Similarly, the state of tune sought in the electrically assisted steering is intended to be redolent of the immediacy of the F-Type’s.

Only one engine carries over from the F-Type, too: the supercharged 3.0-litre V6. Other engines are a mix of petrol and diesel units from the Ingenium engine family. These four-cylinders are the biggest news, as they are a genuine clean-sheet design. Both petrol and diesel versions are based around a common block, sharing the same bore and stoke, 500cc cylinder capacity and spacing. Like the platform, there is an inherent modular flexibility to the engine’s anatomy, so both down and upsizing are already anticipated.

In lower-powered 2.0-litre diesel guise, with a new six-speed manual gearbox, it develops 161bhp and 280lb ft of torque while returning 75mpg combined and emitting just 99g/km of CO2. Even the 178bhp version, with 318lb ft on tap, manages 67.3mpg and 109g/km. The optional eight-speed automatic tempers the figures a little, but the XE is safely among the class leaders. New for 2017, is the addition of a twin-turbocharged diesel engine good for 237bhp and 368lb ft of torque and claims a combined cycle of 54.4mpg and emissions of 137g/km.

Also joining the range for 2017 is a duo of 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol Ingenium units producing 198bhp and 247bhp respectively, with both mated exclusively to a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, while topping the range is a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 found under the bonnet of the XE S. It produces 375bhp and 332lb ft of peak twist and can hammer the XE to 60mph in 4.8sec before hitting the limiter at 155mph.

Jaguar XE dashboard

The general industry-wide shift towards making cleaner, less cluttered interiors is mirrored in the new Jaguar XE, whose dashboard is dominated by a central touchscreen.

Around it, there are eight buttons that are mostly first-tier menu shortcuts, and there are just two discreet rows of push-buttons below the screen. All are very straightforward and logical, too – you can control the temperature without having to bother the touchscreen, for example – if lacking in outright character and flair. 

USB and aux sockets are tucked away beneath the centre armrest, so you don’t have to worry about hiding cables and devices when you leave the car unattended

Colours are reserved – at least on R-Sport models, although less overtly ‘sporting’ trim levels can move away from black – and there aren’t detail touches like the slow-rotating air vents or electrically buttoned glovebox opening of the early XFs. That’s probably sensible when you work out the cost of fitting them compared with the number of people for whom it’s a deal-breaker. The ‘surprise and delight’ will come elsewhere, Jaguar hopes.

But what’s in place is good. It feels respectably well assembled, the perceived quality of materials is fairly high and things are laid out logically. The gentle twist and rise of the automatic gear selector is, to be fair, still a neat touch and, coupled with an electronic handbrake switch, makes plenty of room in the centre of the transmission tunnel for an armrest, two large cupholders and an array of switches to adjust the drive modes. More on those later.

The driving position is also sound. Standard R-Sport cars get eight-way adjustable seats. There are 10-way (fitted to our test car) and 14-way adjustable options, too. However, all give the same net effect: a seating position notable for the fact that you become quickly unaware of it. The seats are comfortable and supportive, the wheel brought easily into reach and the dials clear.

Things are not quite so impressive in the rear of the cabin, where the seats have a smidgen less room than the leading cars in this class. It’s only a centimetre or two here and there, you might argue, and in a bench usually only occupied by children anyway. Fair point.

As a £420 option, the rear seatbacks can split 40/20/40 to augment a 455-litre boot – again, smaller than the class norm but not by a substantial margin. Both the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, for example, have 480 litres of boot space with the seats up.

There are five trim levels to choose from, however the S trim is only available with the 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine. Those looking for a smaller capacity engine will have to make do with the other four trim levels, which are all well-equipped making it a competitive package in a congested segment. The range is split into two - Luxury (SE, Prestige and Portfolio) and Sport (R-Sport and S)

An XE with the entry-level SE trim will see the car fitted with 17in alloy wheels, electrically adjustable front seats, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, autonomous emergency braking, traffic sign recognition, lane departure warning and Jaguar's 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav, Bluetooth, DAB radio and smartphone integration.

The mid-range Prestige gets heated front seats, leather upholstery ambient interior lighting and numerous chrome touches, while those looking for a little more luxury are well catered for with the Portfolio XE, as it includes Windsor leather seats, 18in alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlights, a full chrome grille and a Meridian sound system.

Those pining for a sportier XE can opt for the R-Sport trim (BMW's M-Sport equivalent) which gets all the goodies fitted to the Prestige equipped XE plus 18in alloy wheels, sports suspension, an aggressive bodykit and bi-xenon headlights including Jaguar's signature 'J' Blade day-running lights. Opt for the full fat XE S and not only do you get the fabulous supercharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol in the nose, but also 19in alloy wheels, adaptive dampers, an even more aggressive bodykit, keyless entry, a 380W Meridian audio system, a powered bootlid and red brake calipers.

Jaguar XE cornering

JLR’s push towards powertrain autonomy is not just about improving engine performance but also about getting true control of its own engine destiny.

Sit in that petrol Jaguar XE, push the starter and the engine fires to a muted idle. There’s nothing here to suggest that this is an old unit overdue for replacement. It eases away from rest smartly enough and the initial change feels smooth and precise. ZF’s eight-speed automatic transmission wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is a car of sufficient performance to keep pace with any modern traffic, accomplish sensible overtakes and entertain you with its demeanour in the process

In general driving the XE is an easy-going car in which to bimble around. On the odd occasion, downshifts are a little sluggish to arrive, as the gearbox software hangs on to a higher gear to maintain its economy, but such is the turbocharged petrol engine’s torque delivery that it’s seldom a great hardship; its 206lb ft peak arrives at just 1750rpm, and down there it’s more responsive than most diesels. On those occasions when the delay on downshift is noticable, response to a left-paddle pull is swift anyway.

The XE in 197bhp tune is quick enough. Against the clock, it hauled itself to 60mph along Millbrook’s mile straight in 7.6sec. That’s a few tenths slower than is claimed for an Audi A4 2.0 TFSI or BMW 320i but not a difference that’ll feel noticeable in the real world.

Simply, this is a car of sufficient performance to keep pace with any modern traffic, accomplish sensible overtakes and entertain you with its demeanour in the process. It’s quiet on part-throttle and spins freely and with a peppy, smooth sound to its 7000rpm redline, although there’s no great compulsion to take it there, given that peak power arrives at 5500rpm.

Jaguar’s new range of petrol engines has to impress on-paper rather than on the road especially as the old Ford unit was pretty economical if you drive carefully.

On a restrained motorway run, it’s possible to nudge towards 50mpg, and although we suspect most owners will see closer to 40mpg, you should do better than the 29.9mpg we returned during our whole test period, which involved more spirited driving.

We also tried the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol in 237bhp guise and came away impressed. It feels really punchy from below 2000rpm, spins up extremely smoothly and cruises in near-silence. Jaguar claims to have been encouraged by the number of early retail customers choosing this motor over the diesels; those buyers should feel vindicated. In both higher- and lower-output tunes, the engine feels entirely comfortable with a car of the XE’s bulk - which shouldn’t really surprise, given that it has also done a tour of duty in the Ford Mondeo.

But what really strikes you is the refinement. You have to work this motor extremely hard before it borders on the thrashy; in the most part, it spins up willingly and smoothly, and it drops to a background whoosh once you’re up to cruising speeds (wind noise from the side mirrors will drown it out easily).

We have also tried the Ingenium diesel engines in both 161bhp and 178bhp guises and were suitably impressed with its power delivery, smoothness and economy. However, question marks were raised about its refinement, as it sounds gruff on cold starts before settling down once warm.

The long gearing on the lower-powered diesel does blunt its performance, however, over 2000rpm it is responsive enough. The more powerful 2.0-litre diesel is quicker and flexible, which makes it easier to live with on a daily basis.

Jaguar XE side profile

It’s tempting to say that the driving experience of the Jaguar XE is like its seats and driving position, in that very quickly you don’t give it a second thought.

But that risks making the Jaguar’s dynamics sound forgettable and uninteresting, which isn’t the case at all. It’s just that the XE is so easy to drive because its control weights and responses are entirely in tune with our your expectations. Be in no doubt: this is the most pleasing car in the class to drive.

Be in no doubt: this is the most pleasing car in the compact executive class to drive

It’s fair to assume that a car will work best on the roads of the country in which it was developed, but even on our earliest drives of the XE, in Spain, we knew that we were in a car with class-leading dynamics.

The addition of 19in wheels to our R-Sport test car has done little to adversely affect the ride, which is deftly controlled and never crashy, whether you keep the drive mode in Normal or place it in Dynamic, which firms the damping (where the optional adaptive dampers are equipped) and adjusts the steering weight.

But unlike in some models, where one setting is too firm and the other too soft because some managers decided there needed to be more distinction between the two, both modes on the Jaguar are eminently usable, with only subtle distinctions between the two.

However you set the mode, the XE is at once relaxing yet engaging. It steers with initial directness and middling weight but easy, predictable reactions, responding off straight-ahead with a positive, natural build-up of weight and feel, and retaining a stiction-free, oily smoothness throughout its 2.6 turns between locks.

That its dynamics are as accomplished as they are is a credit to its engineers, and presumably to the XE’s hardware. There’s the integral link suspension, whose weight and cost per unit Jaguar tolerates not only because it gives superior dynamics and having the same set-up on both cars is cheaper in the long run.

At the front, meanwhile, there are double wishbones on each side, so the XE’s spec sheet is as good as it gets. Nevertheless, the engineers who set it up should take a bow.

Jaguar XE

For the Jaguar XE to stand a fighting chance of catching a fleet manager’s eye, it was necessary for Jaguar to produce a genuine sub-£30k rival to the BMW 320d, Audi A4 2.0 TDI and Mercedes-Benz C220. As a collection of figures, the lower-powered 161bhp diesel engine in entry-level SE format provides Jaguar with its rock star.

Sub-100g/km, 75mpg potential, 8.4sec to 62mph, intervals of more than 20,000 miles between services, standard 17in wheels and 8.0in of infotainment touchscreen are almost the ideal numbers on which to prop a compact executive range.

Step up to Prestige trim and you gain leather front seats, brushed aluminium interior trim and ambient lighting

The mid-range seems decently catered for, too. As well as the mildly enhanced R-Sport tested here, there are Prestige and Portfolio trim levels, which offer differing degrees of leather-bound luxury.

Step up to Prestige and you gain leather front seats, brushed aluminium interior trim and ambient lighting, while Portfolio adds electric seats, bi-xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights and 18in alloy wheels.

R-Sport gets sports suspension, a different design of 18in alloys, leather seats, more aluminium trim, a rear spoiler and a sports steering wheel. Range-topping S trim is reserved for the 375bhp 3.0-litre supercharged V6 and has adaptive dampers as standard, 19in alloy wheels, an 'S' bodykit and brings even posher interior finishes - as it should.

In terms of ideal spec, many compact executive car essentials — sat-nav, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, DAB radio, Bluetooth, rear parking sensors — are standard across the range, so stepping up the trim levels is as much about styling and internal opulence as kit. That said, the Meridian stereo (£500) and heated steering wheel (£185) would make our tick list.

Jaguar has no immediate answer for the mighty oil-burning performance delivered by the BMW 330d or its ilk, but again – for the time being – the lustier 2.0D Ingenium’s 317lb ft of torque might just look like decent recompense for its predictably superior efficiency.

Among its petrol-engined equivalents, the XE is arguably less competitive than it ought to be. Failing to trouble the combined economy of the outgoing BMW 320i or the 328i (both powered by the same 2.0-litre four-pot) is regrettable, and although the petrol XE’s CO2 may be a less important consideration for private buyers than in the business-focused diesels, a near-30g/km gap in emissions remains decidedly unsatisfactory. Thankfully to Jaguar, the remedy's already in the pipeline.

4.5 star Jaguar XE

During the past three years, if you’d asked us which compact executive car you should buy, we’d have had only one answer: a BMW 3 Series.

Yet Jaguar has now launched a car that feels as good inside as the BMW, is virtually as accommodating and, crucially, is for the most part better to drive. Certainly, it excels over the other main players in this sector, the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. In doing that, Jaguar has done what Lexus, Infiniti and others could not.

Jaguar has been brave enough to make a car capable of taking on the established players at their own game

Jaguar hasn’t just made an alternative to the big three – offering something a little different, a touch quirky – to snare a few buyers. Instead, it has been brave enough to make a car capable of taking on the established players at their own game.

Because it has put a lot of stock into interior feel and dynamic ability, it has succeeded. There’s still a little work to be done to make both the four-pot petrol and diesel motors as appealing as the Jaguar XE deserves, but be in no doubt about its abilities. But be in no doubt the waters are far murkier than when the XE arrived, with the 3 Series the main target, since then Audi has revamped the A4 and Alfa Romeo has stormed the scene with its handsome and barnstorming Guilia. Never has the compact exec market been full of such a rich choice of options.

Jaguar XE First drives