Gaydon, England — The 2017 Jaguar F-Pace is not the new Land Rover Defender. Instead, Jaguar sees it new offering as a key rival to the Porsche Macan, and a bunch of other German crossovers. Our route weaves in and out, over and under Fosse Way somewhere between Gloucester and Leicester. After the morning rain, the meadows peppered with spidery Klimt trees glisten like large ponds sprayed with green stardust. No, this course is not even remotely as challenging as the Great Divide or the Rubicon Trail. Shod with optional 22-inch wheels and summer tires, our smoke grey final-phase prototype is about as well prepared for the foray into Farmer Jack’s hinterland as a mountain climber attempting to conquer Everest in sneakers.
Still, the F-Pace does have some serious, if hidden, off-roading talents. After all, this is the architecture Land Rover will base its new mid-liner on, which is destined to slot between the four-door Evoque and the Range Rover Sport come 2018. Also known as Super Evoque, the five- or seven-seater thus avoids the steel matrix of its lesser siblings.
Now we are back to the tracks that lie ahead. The first section is 100-percent mud. Just as Eskimos distinguish between 16 varieties of snow, U.K. field barons know at least a dozen types of mud. While the color scale ranges from Sahara sand to deep charcoal, the consistency can be anything from frozen black pudding to chocolate mousse. The F-Pace is, even more so than its competitors, the grandmaster of acronyms; it offers to assist with ABS, ASR, IDD, AEB, ASPC, DSC, LHL, and ASPC. ASR is Jaguar-speak for adaptive surface response. The F-Pace is the first Jaguar model to entertain specific electronic tools for snow and ice, tarmac and gravel, or deep snow and deep gravel.
Thankfully, ASR automatically switches modes to suit the conditions. Keen on even more high-tech assistance? Then zoom in on ASPC, short for all-surface progress control. In effect, this is a sophisticated hill-descent cruise control that can be set from about 3 to 20 mph. The system applies the brakes to curb torque flow, and the driver simply needs to steer. The system works according to three different algorithms labeled snow, ice, and wet grass.
Wet grass is a very special turf indeed, especially for a vehicle equipped with wide low-profile tires designed for high speed and high on-road grip. But Mike Cross, chief engineer for vehicle integrity and long-standing chassis guru in charge of all Jaguar and Land Rover model lines, does not budge in his passenger seat as the 2017 Jaguar F-Pace veers to the right, down towards virginal grassland. Out of the ruts and on to the daisies, we’re still in Drive, still in second gear. There is no transfer case stuffed with a set of bigger low-range cogs, but there is first gear, and from 2,000 rpm onward, we have loads of pushing, pulling, and shoveling power. Sure enough, I get it wrong the first time around and very nearly have us stuck. Too much torque, too much wheelspin, too little traction as the tire tread quickly absorbs the slimy brown stuff. So it’s back to the tarmac to shake off the brownies, accelerating then braking hard once, twice, three times.
Eventually we find another vacant property, another grassy slope, and another opportunity for the F-Pace to show off. This time, it’s easy on the throttle right from the start, and ever so careful with the steering angle. Voilà. Backed by plenty of grunt even just above idle speed, she pulls through with bravado, masters the sloping plane in one unbroken process, puts the nose straight on the final climb, and i-n-c-h-e-s to the top. On the way back down, the hill is long, pock-marked with little islands of gorse, heather and bracken, a giant slalom for cows and SUVs, and a spectacular view over nameless moorland. With ASPC on alert and the cruise control set on a timid 10 mph, we tip-toe through the tulips that might have been, avoiding the brake pedal like the plague. This is too easy. Until the terrain drops onto said inclination and the F-Pace drops with it, beginning a slow sideways slide. I wind on a bit more lock to catch the car’s front, but all that does is kick the rear end loose, too. Help? Not required, at least if the poker face next to me is anything to go by. Moments later, when the hill tilts back to normal, the spook is over.
On off-road rubber, this Jaguar is bound to be more courageous and competent than an untalented driver. But even on bespoke 265/40 R22 tires, there is almost always enough compliance to absorb proud cattle grids, short trail sections provisionally paved with bricks, or the odd crater-shaped pothole. Thanks to the greater sidewall height that exceeds the one typical of the 21-inchers selected by other brands, sharp stones and tall curbs are also less of a threat. The available surround-view cameras provide a welcome assist in difficult terrain. Missing from the options list are a serious off-road kit, adjustable sway bars, and any kind of vehicle height adjustment.
Before lunch, it was wet grass only. After lunch, oodles of brown, gooey stuff is waiting for us to paddle through. Weight does matter when the front wheels try to get to the bottom of things, not so much for traction purposes but for changing direction at will, rather than pushing straight on. True, the 2017 Jaguar F-Pace is fitted with torque vectoring as standard equipment, but with all four wheels wobbling like candied cherries on vanilla pudding, selectively decelerating one of them is no big help. The Range Rover Sport would first sink into this mud bath and then row itself forward with a vengeance; the Jaguar, which is more than 1,000 pounds lighter, manages to keep its nose up and above the most syrupy soil most of the time. There are three driving modes to choose from — Normal, Dynamic, and Individual — and they affect throttle mapping, shift strategy, steering feel, and damper setting.
Off the beaten track, Dynamic makes no sense at all. The spiciest calibration works best on sealed surfaces where there is a faint trace of power oversteer even through third-gear esses, despite total surveillance by various watchdogs. I know this because I admired Cross going through the motions. Disabling DSC increases the degree of on-demand leeriness, but like the Porsche Macan, the F-Pace wasn’t born with on-road drift-king aspirations in mind. On a pebble-infested road, however, giving this crossover stick was at least as entertaining as letting the new Audi Q7 fly on South-African sand pistes.
Perhaps the main confidence-inspiring quality is the prompt and reassuring turn-in. A snappy flick points the vehicle straight at the apex, and when supported by a brief lift-off-induced front-to-rear weight transfer, the car is setup perfectly for the subsequent cornering action that can be pencil-sharp or wide-brush-creamy. Once more, the light weight is a crucial parameter. It filters out any trace of ponderousness, lets throttle and steering define the rhythm, and relieves late braking from that here-comes-the-mass aftermath.
Although marketing folks made the engineers include the steering in the drive-mode selection, the difference between Normal and Dynamic is a mere nuance. Dampers firm up noticeably, throttle response changes from brisk to busy, and the shift pattern evolves from attentive to constantly prepared. While the buttons to operate the system are positioned low down in the center console, the initial choice is made via the relatively distant touchscreen — more intuitive ergonomics would not be amiss here. In Dynamic, the black box suppresses automatic gearshifts through fast corners and down steepish descents, which can be a nuisance in certain conditions. Those who prefer to interact with the drivetrain via their fingertips must first hit Dynamic and then remember that this setup does not perform self-acting upshifts when the rev limiter signals game over. Although random manual gear changes are always an option, the transmission slips back into Drive after about 15 seconds.
Since solid ground is not so easy to come by in a part of the country dotted with black cattle and off-white sheep, the 2017 Jaguar F-Pace must race up and down the same strip three or four times. In this Welsh Rallye-type environment, it’s best to lock all parameters but the shock absorbers into the spiciest mode. The correspondingly swift throttle action helps to modulate the cornering attitude. Although the steering feels a little meatier around the straight-ahead position now, its clarity won’t blur as you wind on more lock. The shift pattern permits higher revs for maximum oomph. Admittedly, there is some body roll around a kink of quick boomerang corners, and the better-than-expected ride quality is at times compromised by short-frequency ripples and sharp transverse edges. The brakes are okay — no more, no less. The initial readiness impulse could be more focused, the deceleration that follows is consistent if not exactly fierce, and the final few feet prior to standstill require rather too much pedal effort.
Eventually, we rejoin Fosse Way and Cross takes to the helm again. The passenger seat is not such a bad vantage point to relish the flow that makes the F-Pace such an accessible and smooth drive, especially when fitted with the go-faster S package.
On the one hand, this Jaguar seems to have very few rough edges. On the other hand, it feels always eager, ready to switch to attack mode, behaving much more like a high-roof XE than a low-roof SUV, stable yet chuckable, a standing invitation to explore mutual limits. Is it as good as the Macan? Not as overtly sporty, not quite as single-minded, not as performance-oriented. But it is a little bit better balanced, rides smoother in the rough, and is very possibly more benign at the limit, and a good deal less expensive. This car is certainly compelling enough to lay the genetic foundation for a more affordable E-Pace and a more luxurious J-Pace.
2017 Jaguar F-Pace Specifications
- On Sale: Spring
- Price: $41,985/$43,385 (diesel/V-6)
- Engines: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve diesel I-4/180 hp @ 4,000 rpm, 318 lb-ft @ 1,750-2,500 rpm; 3.0-liter supercharged DOHC 24-valve V-6/340 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 332 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
- EPA Mileage: N/A
- L x W x H: 186.3 x 81.5 x 65.0 in
- Wheelbase: 113.2 in
- Weight: 3,913/4,015 lb
- 8.2/5.4 sec
- Top Speed: 129/155 mph