With air suspension at the rear axle and a slightly greater concentration of mass above it, the Sportbrake was unlikely to equal the handling flair of the Jaguar XF saloon, but it remains a dynamic benchmark among its estate-bodied peers.

There’s a surprising and wonderful fluidity to the manner in which it sets itself through corners, and conspicuously good handling balance combines with high grip levels and almost unbreakable four-wheel-drive traction to deliver cross-country pace that belies the car’s dimensions. There’s another element at play in defining the Jaguar’s distinguishing handling appeal, though: confidence.

Jag still gets the controls just right, and the XF’s brake calibration is pure McLaren: lots of preliminary pedal travel then a superbly progressive window for modulation. In the world of family estates, only Alpina puts this much thought into the driving experience.

The XF’s steering set-up is surely the best in this class for feel, natural weight and well-judged gearing. At 2.6 turns lock-to-lock it is quick but also precise, and with the weight of two cylinders taken out of the engine bay, the Sportbrake scythes into corners with a genuinely satisfying shortfall of inertia. We concede this is not the most effortless of steering systems to use, and corrugations and depressions in the surfaces of minor British roads can on occasion deflect the front axle. For many, though, that will be a reasonable price to pay for a set-up that leaves an Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate or Audi A6 Avant feeling wholly inert.

The XF’s lowered sports suspension is an equally impressive feat of tuning. It deftly resists crashing into its bump-stops even when the Sportbrake is driven in a manner unbecoming of a family car. Certainly there is an edge to the ride, although for a passive set-up it strikes an excellent balance between body control and impact absorption, while handling is engaging at all times. So engaging, in fact, that with the assurance from the steering and brakes, you might be lured into teasing the Sportbrake into a little positive attitude through slower corners.

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That such temptation exists speaks volumes of the dynamic flair of the XF; that this Jaguar will indulge you, even in four-wheel drive form and midway through its life, cements its place as the class’s handling benchmark.

The snaking Tarmac of Millbrook’s Hill Route served to shine a light on just how good a job Jaguar’s dynamics engineers have done of making the XF Sportbrake handle like a proper sports estate should.

Despite its reasonably large footprint, the XF still felt impressively lithe and athletic. Directional changes were delivered in a much more expressive and enthusiastic fashion than is the norm for the class – a trait no doubt aided by linear steering response and a helm that doesn’t dial in an artificial amount of weight when Sport mode is selected.

Traction is strong but not entirely unbreakable. Applying too much throttle through sharper bends will see its nose push into understeer; backing into a corner on the brakes encourages the back end to subtly rotate in a controlled, progressive manner. Its most notable shortcoming in this environment were seats short on lateral support.

Comfort and Isolation

Jaguar has wisely elected not to reprise the throaty exhaust tuning this engine received in the F-Type coupé. In its more aggressive driving modes the XF will burble cheekily on the overrun, and at no point when under load is it likely to be mistaken for anything other than a highly tuned four-pot, but the timbre is never unpleasant and it becomes demure enough for touring duties.

At a cruise, the R-Sport suspension continues to support the bodywork above it with the reassuringly firm pliancy we’ve come to expect of large Jaguars. There’s also the same remarkable ability to absorb poor road surfaces without surrendering to fidgeting excitability or body float elsewhere, which surely stems from Jaguar’s opportunity to develop its hardware on the rutted, cambered roads on its Midlands doorstep.

But while comfortable and cosseting, a long-range family car like this should do even more to isolate its occupants from the outside world. The main target of criticism here is tyre roar, which was undeniably exacerbated by our test car’s optional 20in alloys. In fact our microphones registered noise at 71dB at a 70mph cruise – a poor showing compared to the 65dB achieved by the four-cylinder diesel Audi A6 Avant 40 TDI tested last year, which, incidentally, also wore 20in wheels.

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In the end the XF Sportbrake should be considered among the most comfortable cars in this class but, conversely, far from the most relaxing. Its German rivals have moved class standards on by a distance in terms of chassis isolation, and Jaguar’s reply to the challenge is notable here by its absence.