In the not-too-distant past, an encounter with any Jaguar motorcar would have left the motoring enthusiast feeling a curious mixture of elation and disappointment. On the one hand, the cars were gorgeous to a fault (their styling missteps around the turn of the century notwithstanding) and good fun to drive, but at the same time they all had some fatal flaw. In many cases, these flaws were as a result of individual components not cooperating with each other – the S-Type’s gearbox being at odds with both its engine and its driver, for example. In other cases, patchy build quality smacked of a rushed development process, often as a result of meddling from Ford’s executives. But whatever the cause, we all loved looking at and driving the cars, but wouldn’t want to touch them even with someone else’s paycheck.
But the shadow of Ford-enforced conservatism has moved away since Tata bought the British company. Back then, many naysayers had visions of re-badged Indicas and yet more confused management decisions, but the years since their last takeover have actually turned out to be very good for Jaguar. Bolstered by a serious cash injection and granted the freedom to do their own thing, Jaguar has, perhaps for the first time in its history, been able to escape the quagmire of coming up with great designs but being kept (for whatever reason) from fully developing them.
The turnaround has been nothing short of spectacular. It all started with the lovely F-Type sports car, which quickly became a firm all-round favourite on the grounds of its seductive styling, charismatic drivetrains and sparkling chassis dynamics. But sports cars don’t sell in huge numbers, so the company needed to apply their talents to mass-market offerings as well.
They rose to this challenge and developed a brand new, aluminium-intensive platform to underpin both their new sedans and their first-ever SUV, invested in a new family of engines, and finally started paying attention to in-car technology. And to make sure that the beauty isn’t merely skin deep, they threw a lot of effort at making sure the styling turned out just-so as well. The result is the first generation of Jaguar saloons for which no apologies need to be made, and we were fortunate enough to find out why this is so.
The first to see the light on this new platform was the XE sedan, Jaguar’s entrant into the fiercely competitive compact executive sedan segment. Approaching their entry-level model, the first impression is of a strikingly beautiful, well-balanced design. While the overall look echoes that of the first-generation XF, the detailing is fresh and crisp. Apart from the obligatory LED light signatures, the shape is free of unnecessary embellishment, with just enough sharpness in its styling creases to keep it from looking ordinary. It’s a clean style, entirely in keeping with modern trends yet distinctive enough to draw admiring glances wherever it goes. The same applies to the larger (second-generation XF), only with the addition of an extra window to the side profile and a flatter rear windscreen. The two cars are clearly closely related and differentiated mostly by size, so there’s a nice sense of design continuity between these models.
The similarity extends to the cabin as well, where the XE and XF share their design theme of horisontal lines, a shallow glasshouse and uncluttered detailing. Their dashboards are, for all intents and purposes, identical, as are their steering wheels and general user interfaces. There isn’t a gear lever to be found anywhere, instead there’s a rotary gear selector which rises smoothly from the centre console as soon as you press the start button with its pulsing backlight. Yes, it’s a little gimmicky, but it adds a certain sense of occasion to the starting sequence and definitely stands out in a world of joysticks and silly lozenges behind the steering wheel.
Their instrument clusters are very similar as well, with classically styled gauges for the speedometer and rev counter flanking a rather grainy digital info display on both our test cars. The XF does have the option of upgrading to a customisable, fully digital cluster if you specify the optional InControl Touch Pro infotainment system, but that wasn’t fitted to our early-build example. No matter, because (apart from that info display), the cluster is really nice to look at and highly legible too. The same cannot be said of the standard InControl Touch audio system’s interface, which was unintuitive to operate and slow to respond to inputs. Following exposure to the optional Pro system in the exquisite F-Pace, it’s a good idea to tick that box on the option sheet. And while we’re criticising things, the XE is really cramped for rear seat passengers, where that sloping roofline and those low-slung front seats conspire to rob the rear perch of much of its usefulness.
The only other gripe common to both their cabins revolved mostly around some sub-par trim pieces below hip level: it’s all nice and upmarket in look and feel, until your gaze and touch drops slightly lower. The XF seemed better in this regard (probably because it’s the younger model of the two), but neither can match the tactile quality of a nicely specced BMW or any Audi. That said, they still represent a big step forward from the slipshod quality found in a first-generation XF, for example.
That’s as far as the visual impressions go, but the way they drive really upsets the status quo. Both the XE and XF turn the tables on their opponents in this department, and in the process set new standards for driver’s cars in their respective segments. The new aluminium chassis with its double-wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear end is, in a word, spectacular. Careful control of the suspension geometry gives them both a settled yet agile feel as they flow down the road. That’s right, these cars don’t merely move, they flow with a sort of assured, confident grace. The ride quality in both cars are excellent in spite of the wide low-profile tyres which come with the R-Sport package, and even sharp road imperfections fails to send any jarring shocks through to the occupants.
It gets even better when the road turns twisty, where the F-Type derived suspension enabled eager direction changes, loads of road grip, and predictable and neutral behaviour should you explore the adhesion limits of the tyres. And all the while, the steering wheel writhes in the driver’s hands, faithfully relaying every nuance from the points where the rubber and tarmac meet. This has to be one of the most feelsome electrically assisted steering systems around, and its faithful responses and clear communication puts the likes of the (outgoing) BMW 5-series, (new) Mercedes E-Class and Audi A6 to shame. Both XE and XF are dynamic masterpieces, and give the impression that the chassis engineers used up the entire budget before the interior designers came in to work one morning.
The drivetrain engineers apparently also drew the short straw as far as budget allocations go. XE and XF offer largely the same selection of engines, made up of a choice between turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder units in either petrol- or diesel flavours and a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol, all driving the rear wheels through the customarily excellent ZF 8-speed automatic gearbox. Our XE came with the diesel producing 132 kW and 430 Nm (part of the new “Ingenium” family of engines), while the XF was endowed with the four-pot petrol producing 177 kW and 340 Nm (which is a direct relative of the unit serving in Ford Focus ST).
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either engine: the diesel is suitably frugal and torquey, while the petrol has ample shove and a free-revving character. The problem is that neither engine quite measures up to the brilliant chassis, and both fall short of their German competitors as well. The diesel in particular is surprisingly noisy and a little short of breath compared to BMW’s similarly-sized unit, while the petrol engine never feels as aggressive as its output figures suggest it should. This is borne out by the stopwatch, where the Jaguars cannot match the performance benchmarks set by the Germans in any metric. More’s the pity, because chassis dynamics of this calibre deserve motive power of equal excellence.
And then we get to the price tags, where things unfortunately go a little sour for the Brits. Because Jaguar Land Rover doesn’t operate a local assembly plant to earn export credits like the German trio does, their offerings are slapped with full import duties. Add to that our currency’s dismal performance and the fact that these cars cannot be cheap to build (on account of that aluminium body and race car suspension), and the Jaguars end up looking rather pricey in comparison to the competition. While standard equipment levels do compensate for the steep pricing some extent, the alternatives still offer better value for money.
Do these new-wave Jaguars adhere to the traditional formula of elation and disappointment? Not at all. They offer enough reasons to entice the discerning buyer without falling completely flat in any single criterion. Exceptional driving dynamics, enticing styling and a certain level of exclusivity all add to their allure, while reasonable performance and build quality and a decent level of standard equipment, keeps them from losing all the ground they’ve gained in their classes. Neither XE nor XF are exactly mainstream choices in any case, but it’s nice to know that both can stand toe to toe with their opponents on their own merits. There’s no need to apologise for either purchase, and that in itself is a major step forward for the brand. Long may they continue down this path.
Jaguar XE 20d R-Sport Specifications
Engine :1999 cc straight-four, turbocharged diesel
Gearbox :8-speed torque converter auto, rear wheel drive
Output :132 kW @ 4000 r/min, 430 Nm @ 1750 – 2500 r/min
Performance :0-100 km/h in 7.8 seconds, max speed 228 km/h
Consumption (official) :4.2 ℓ/100 km
Luggage compartment :455 litres
Price (before options) :R 677 100
Jaguar XF 25t R-Sport Specifications
Engine :1999 cc straight-four, turbocharged petrol
Gearbox :8-speed torque converter auto, rear wheel drive
Output :177 kW @ 5500 r/min, 340 Nm @ 1750 – 4000 r/min
Performance :0-100 km/h in 7.0 seconds, max speed 248 km/h
Consumption (official) :7.5 ℓ/100 km
Luggage compartment :505 litres
Price (before options) :R 882 026