Crashing is not an option. I simply can’t imagine what Jaguar Land Rover would say if I returned their cat looking like it’d been in an alley fight. But there it is – the sharp left-hander over the rise caught me by surprise. I’d been having so much fun placing the XE ever closer to the yellow line through the chicanes of the R318 from Montagu to Touws River that I hadn’t allowed for the engineering marvel: Friday Corner. It’s the corner they botched when building the road, keen to get home. It jumps out at
you and, nine times out of 10, is badly cambered. Push down hard on the brakes until the entry to the corner, then power on, hang on … and hope for the best.
The small Jaguar’s front end turns in exactly as requested, the RWD scrabbling for traction under the acceleration, and the dash lighting up like a Christmas tree as it signals the many and various driver aids that are employed to help confound the immutable physics of force and motion. As the exit looms, the back end drifts ever so slightly, without any fuss or drama, and all of a sudden it is Day of the Drifters – an effortless manoeuvre, albeit a rather unintended one.
Safely through the bend, I take stock – despite my stupidity, there was never a moment of real terror. The Jag, if not the driver, remained calm, collected and entirely composed. A better driver would have turned it into a scene from Bullitt.
These six seconds truly cemented my admiration for the dynamics of the new Jaguar, a car with a lot resting on it. As the Indian-owned company gained more admirers going into the new decade and the list of models grew longer (the SUV-sized F-Pace will be a reality next year), the need for a volume-seller to rival the German stranglehold held by BMW, Audi and Mercedes became evident. Jaguar’s response was the XE – a re-imagining of the X-Type, the Ford-developed sedan that shared much with the lowly Mondeo. Jaguar got a bloody nose from that alliance and Coventry wasn’t keen to make those same mistakes again. Essentially, the key Jaguar elements – grace, pace and excitement – had to be present in the XE, along with less sexy real-world considerations such as efficiency, safety and quality.
Visually, the company has been mostly successful with the XE design, managing to retain a modicum of excitement while catering to a traditionally conservative segment. Designer Ian Callum’s brief was, among other things, to make XE instantly identifiable as part of the larger family. He achieved this by adding the inverted J Blade running lights at the front and the hollow grille, and staying true to Jag’s vaguely coupé-like profile with its family of E-Type-inspired rear lights finishing the look. Still, it’s not what you’d call riveting and, from some angles, the XE is decidedly referential, an amalgam of Audi, Lexus and BMW design cues.
Inside is more interesting on many levels. The first impressions are good – there’s a sense of history in there, even though it is contemporary and clean. The bolstered seats, substantial steering wheel, stitched leather and vaguely 1960s instrument cowling hark back to a time of privileged grace. Even the ubiquitous infotainment screen manages to feel slightly old school, nestled as it is in the padded dashboard.
All in all, it’s very pleasant to look at, but there are issues. Look more closely and it’s obvious that the Land Rover parts bin has been raided – the switchgear and door raisers are the most obvious – and while that’s not a bad thing, some of the quality is just not up to scratch.
Jaguar has not performed well in JD Power reviews recently – the low-rent instrument binnacle and some of the hard plastics just won’t compete with the best that Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are producing. Jaguar is still finding a balance between volume and exclusivity, and we venture that it’s not quite right yet.
There’s another problem: it’s fairly tight in there. The XE is substantially smaller than its bigger sister, the XF. In the back, there is precious little legroom and there is also limited headroom at the front, especially if a space-sapping sunroof is fitted. The front seats don’t go back or down particularly far and the RWD transmission tunnel intrudes on both passenger and driver space. Curiously too, the steering wheel – as bulky as it is – is only adjustable for height on some
models and is operated by a strange rotating lock on the steering shaft.
Jaguar has seen fit to launch just three initial models in South Africa – a 177 kW / 340 Nm two-litre petrol version, a 132 kW / 430 Nm two-litre diesel version, and the flagship S model: 250 kW / 450 Nm from a supercharged three-litre V6. The two-litre petrol car comes in Prestige, R-Sport or Portfolio specs, essentially upping the options compliment, and the diesel adds a stripped-down Pure spec to
its stable. The Pure also comes with a manual gearbox option, very welcome in a sector generally falling out of love with the stick shift.
Three models, three entirely different characters
Driving the three models back-to-back is an exercise in utter bemusement. That three cars – ostensibly all the same – can be so different is remarkable. Start off in the buffalo-charging, all-snorting
V6 S and it’s whoop-whoop all the way home. The venerable old V6 is music to any petrolhead’s ears, offering a deep howl that signals its intent – which is to head for the hills and challenge the astonishingly good, mostly aluminium chassis at every turn, literally. For feel, dynamic feedback and sheer driving joie de vivre, there are few better small sedans on the market. The contrast between the small body and its big heart lends it a character that’s easy to fall for, even if you pay a premium, both in outlay and at the pumps.
After the charger, the two-litre petrol XE is, to put it quite mildly, a comedown. It uses an old-era engine – and you can feel it. New Ingenium petrol units will arrive here in the (distant) future, but until then, it’s just a case of ho-hum and really not much to write home about. With this mill, the ability of the beautiful chassis is largely academic.
Move on to the new diesel, an engine Jaguar is rightly proud of, and things get decidedly better again. It is well mated to both the eight-speed automatic gearbox and the chassis, and its low mass means better elasticity – a diesel engine’s sole purpose. The result is a supple, athletic and very economical car that feels far faster than its figures suggest. It’s the one to have, all things considered.
You may not, however, be able to afford it. Blame the current exchange rate, but the XE is decidedly expensive for what is, after all, only a D-segment sedan. Crucially, it is up against some prime competition, and with the new Audi A4 just around the corner, Jaguar definitely has some work to do to get up to scratch.
I ponder this as I power through the uninhabited Klein Karoo, falling more in love with the archaic V6, as elemental as the surroundings it’s bulleting through. It just doesn’t seem fair somehow: so much pleasure just out of reach, thanks to some pinstriped pimpernel in Docklands dallying with my currency. But it’s there for the having and that’s comforting, at least. We all need goals.
In a nutshell
Jaguar XE 20d Prestige
Responsive, elastic new diesel engine, fine, taut chassis, direct steering, brand cachet
So-so styling, middling interior quality, high price
- Engine: 2.0ℓ, 4-cylinder, turbocharged diesel
- Power: 132 kW @ 4 000 rpm, 430 Nm at 1 750 –2 500 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h 7.8 sec, top speed 228 km/h
- Tyres:205/55 R17
- Economy: 4.2ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- CO2 emissions: 109 g/km
- Price: R590 400
BMW 320d Sport auto
The mainstream choice, not as sporty as it once was, but still fun, excellent steering, gearbox and pliant suspension, frugal, and roomy too. Utterly Everyman. 0–100 km/h in 7.2 sec, top speed 230 km/h, power 140 kW / 400 Nm R496 200
Audi A4 TDI S
Excellent value, reliable mill, the best gearbox out there, beautiful interior, pretty decent spec in the
S variant. New model due out soon, though.
0–100 km/h in 7.9 sec, top speed 222 km/h, power 130 kW / 380 Nm R423 500
Mercedes-Benz C220d Exclusive auto
Fine South African-made sedan, excellent dynamics, hugely flexible engine, interior tight, design middle
of the road for some. Best tourer. Exclusive package offers good kit.0–100 km/h in 7.8 sec, top speed 233 km/h, power 125 kW / 400 Nm R529 000