Tim Oldland tests Jaguar’s new entry in the mid-size sports saloon market – can it banish the memories of the X-Type forever?
Jaguar’s relationship with the mid-size saloon segment hasn’t been a particularly happy one in the past. Huge expectations for the X-Type when it was released in 2001, but it never quite won the hearts of buyers – the styling was too old fashioned and packing too compromised for it to be a true success, so when it died in 2009 nobody really mourned its passing. Even the addition of a more practical estate and new diesel engines failed to ignite interest. The following 6 years were gold for the motoring press though, with ‘New Small Jaguar’ stories running every month as rumours surrounded the replacement model. In those years Jaguar went through a style revolution though, so expectations were high, and when the XE was revealed all fears were subsided.
So it was with great excitement that I sat at home awaiting delivery of ‘my’ Jaguar XE press car. Could they really have finally built a car to take on the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4? Well I’ll give you a bit of a spoiler up front – yes. A thousand times yes, and then some.
Let’s start with the most obvious aspect of the XE – the looks. I think the appropriate phrase here is ‘nailed it’. Jaguars are supposed to be sporty, athletic, poised and the XE is all of those and more. The new face of Jag saloons is the large open grille and slim headlights, and it is used to good effect here. The headlights cut deep into the bumper, almost touching the grille while their hockey-stick-shaped LED running lights catch the eye and draw attention. As this is the S model with the typical plethora of options it obviously has the best look about it, but the black finish to the grille, combined with the large intakes and deeper chin to the bumper really do give this an aggression that the BMW and Audi can only dream about. But it’s the way it combined aggression with beauty and grace that makes a Jaguar a Jaguar.
A strong crease line runs up over the front wheelarch and along the bodyside, cleverly disappearing where the doors meet to soften the look slightly and the roofline tapers down to the rear end. The boot definitely has a hint of Audi to it with the more angular rear lights, but the strong curved graphics within them let you know this is a Jaguar as soon as the lights are on. This car was running on a truly stunning set of 20-inch alloy wheels too, more on which later. Visually it’s far more modern and stylish than the 3-Series or even the brand new A4, so even if it were terrible to drive (it isn’t) it would certainly win a lot of buyers on looks alone.
Another area that would win the XE buyers is the interior design. It takes the clean style seen in the XF and XJ and adds some more mainstream touches – so there’s the new 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system high up on the centre console, with the air con and interior controls below. Drama is added by the rotary gear selector and pulsating start button, though we still think after driving many cars from JLR with the rotary selector that it just doesn’t feel as natural as a lever. I would’ve liked to have seen a traditional gear lever like the one in the Range Rover Sport on the XE, as I suspect might a few buyers. The steering wheel is a marvel, just the right size and thickness, with the right number of controls on the spokes and being a high spec car the full leather dashboard and centre trim was a delight to touch. The sports seats were a highlight too; comfortable on long journeys yet supportive in the corners thanks to the myriad adjustments possible. Accommodation in the rear isn’t great – you can thank the rear wheel drive layout and sloping roofline for that. Legroom is fine, but there’s a high central tunnel and headroom is less than the rivals.
But for now it’s just me, so time to go and see if the XE can beat the 335i that I had a drive of the week previously. Powering this XE-S is the 3.0 litre supercharged V6 seen in the base F-Type, so there’s 336bhp and 332lb/ft of torque which gives you 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 155mph. We just wish the XE weighed a little less than 1590kg. Much was made of the XE’s use of aluminium when it was released, but sadly this hasn’t resulted in the weight loss we were hoping for thanks to extra body stiffening and complex suspension setups. This gives positives obviously, but there are negatives too, such as the effect on economy. One place the XE-S falls down over a BMW 340i (as it now is), is that the BMW manages a combined 43.5mpg while in mixed driving the XE-S I was driving only managed 32mpg. Admittedly you don’t buy the 3.0 litre six-cylinder performance model of a car for its economy, but it certainly might affect some purchaser’s decisions. The XE’s V6 also has some downsides, noted in the F-Type too, namely the heavy flywheel effect meaning revs take an age to drop, but the excellent 8 speed automatic gearbox disguises this very well.
So that’s enough negatives – back onto the positives of which there are three more major ones on top of the styling and interior – ride, handling and noise. From the moment you hit the starter button the XE-S erupts into life with a blare of revs from those twin exhaust pipes and makes a most un-saloon-like noise. It’s a fruity, raspy V6 note reminiscent of Group B rally cars of old and when on the move it certainly keeps up the aural delights, especially when in Dynamic Mode as the exhaust stays in ‘rude’ mode. There’s just a slight hint of supercharger whine too, just enough to remind you that Jaguar chose not to follow the herd and turbocharge their V6 and V8 engines (though we doubt this will continue with the next generation).
The handling is another area that the XE-S has the 3-Series beaten, which has traditionally always been the 3’s trump card. The steering is light yet incredibly direct (especially in Dynamic Mode) and the body control through bumpy corners shows a deep understanding of damping that Jaguar engineers are famed for. This is also the reason behind the XE-S’s incredible ride. Despite riding on 20-inch alloy wheels with incredibly low profile tyres, it rides better in all situations than any 3-Series I’ve driven on 18-inch wheels, which is a truly incredible achievement by Jaguar. Even on motorways the secondary ride is exemplary, with very little vibration or small shocks coming through the steering to the driver. It’s truly a staggering achievement to engineer a car that rides so well, on big wheels, yet also has tightly controlled handling – throw the XE-S down your favourite B-Road and you’ll forget you’re driving a (relatively) sensible 4-door saloon car and in your head you’ll be piloting an F-type. Except (and whisper this bit) it actually handles and rides better than the F in my opinion.
I’ve not driven the new Audi S4 yet, but given Audi’s history in the handling/ride department it would be a minor miracle if they can beat the XE-S. Though I would relish the opportunity to find out and would happily eat humble pie if they’ve managed to sort it out.
As it stands I would place the XE firmly at the top of the segment based on my experiences with it. Yes there are a few faults, but see past them and you’ll have the sporting saloon car you can buy for £45,000.
Images by Steve Hall Photography