LISBON, Portugal – David used a sling to fell Goliath. Jaguar plans to use aluminum. Jaguar made just 81,570 cars last year; Audi, BMW, and Mercedes built between 1.6 million and 1.8 million each. Yet Jaguar has bravely decided the only way it can take on the German Big Three’s dominance in volume, profit, and competence is with a compact premium sedan of its own — the all-new 2017 Jaguar XE.
Jaguar tried this once before, of course, with the pitiful Mondeo-based X-Type, an expensive lesson that half-measures against these rivals are doomed to end in embarrassing failure. This time, Jaguar has essentially bet the business — around $3 billion — to help ensure the XE’s success and is hoping its aluminum construction will give its new cars one killer advantage over the (mostly) steel competition.
The XE is a new name and model in a market segment its maker hasn’t competed in since 2009, with new engines from a new factory in the U.K. and the key “aluminum-intensive” architecture. This structure will also underpin the next XF sedan and all-new F-Pace crossover, so if you’re considering buying either of those cars, keep reading.
Given the 2017 Jaguar XE’s colossal, existential importance to its maker, you may wonder why we’ve been given prototypes to test. The more cynical will ask if these are prototypes at all, and if calling them prototypes simply allows Jaguar to accept our praise and claim any flaws will be fixed by the time regular production starts.
We can assure you, however, that these are prototypes and not just because it says so on the side of the car. Sure, they’re not the zebra-striped, cut-and-shut mules regularly spied at the Nürburgring, but they are among the very first pre-production cars. Another 600 will be made over six months before the final specification is frozen and the first customer car is delivered in Europe this May. These cars have unfinished plastics and unstitched leather and big red emergency stop buttons. Pained-looking engineers will tell you privately what they already know needs to be changed: the engine mounts and calibration for the diesel; some spring rates; some sound deadening, and the trunk lining. When we’re done with them, they will be crushed.
The reason for letting us drive such early cars is Jaguar has a huge amount of factory capacity to fill. European order books are open now, and orders usually surge when the first drives are published. American customers won’t get their cars until early 2016. By then Jaguar should have fixed anything we or tens of thousands of early European customers don’t like.
But there isn’t much that needs fixing. Jaguar engineers like to talk about the “50-meter test”: how a car should communicate its character as soon as you take off. The XE does. You can sense the greater rigidity of the aluminum monocoque; a 3 Series doesn’t feel slack, but this 2017 Jaguar XE seems tauter, more precise, and quieter.
It’s not stiffer in ride though. Mounting the suspension to a more stable, consistent platform allows it to do everything better, so the XE has a lovely Jaguar suppleness over poor surfaces its rivals can’t match. This is also due to the nature of that suspension: double wishbones at the front, where most use struts, and an integral-link design at the rear, where most of the rivals use a simpler multilink setup. The rear arrangement allows Jaguar to decouple and deal differently with inputs that affect ride and handling, improving both.
Despite its aluminum construction, the 2017 Jaguar XE has no real weight advantage over its rivals. In some cases, it may be heavier. Jaguar has used its lighter monocoque to offset the more premium suspension, and it has used only as much aluminum as it needs to hit its emissions targets. The doors, trunklid, and rear section of the floor — about 25 percent of the body-in-white — are steel: partly to improve weight distribution, but also to reduce the material cost of an expensive car to build.
Emissions targets also explain Jaguar’s adoption of electric power steering. It claims that electric power steering (EPAS) is now finally good enough for Jaguar to employ. The real reason is that tough global regulatory requirements mean the 2 to 3 percent savings in carbon dioxide emissions is too great to ignore. Hydraulic systems remain better for immediacy and feel, but, yes, the new electric assistance is more than good enough.
Put it all together in the XE and you have a car that carves as well as it glides. There’s still a slight vagueness around the dead-ahead and a moment’s hesitation as the steering wakes up, but once into the bend it feels quick, precise, and perfectly weighted. That supple ride resolves into well-judged body control. The XE displays exactly the composure, grip, and agility you’d hope for from a sports sedan. The torque-vectoring system sucks the nose into apexes, but the XE retains an analog feel, with a natural level of lean and enough bandwidth left to smooth away mid-corner bumps. Importantly, it’s as impressive on the standard passive setup as it is with the available Bilstein adaptive dampers. Its range of ability — from fluid steady-state ride to agile backroad behavior — is probably greater than that of the BMW 3 Series back when it was the undisputed dynamic champion of this class.
But Jaguar’s standard engine offering may not conquer all. The 340-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 is used throughout the Jaguar range, and who wouldn’t like to boast that their compact sedan shares its engine with the F-Type? It is punchy and linear, but its supercharger whine dominates the engine note: good, but not great.
We also tried an Ingenium engine for the first time. The new four-cylinder gasoline and diesel units have cost Jaguar Land Rover more than $750 million to develop and will be used across the Jaguar and Land Rover ranges. A 180-hp 2.0-liter diesel will be offered shortly after the supercharged V-6 in the U.S. The gas 2.0-liter Ingenium will arrive later in 2016, with the option of a six-speed manual. All-wheel drive will be offered with all three engines.
The automaker has hyped Ingenium, its first true in-house engines in decades. The numbers are impressive: The base diesel (not offered in the U.S.) will have C02 emissions approaching Prius levels of cleanliness. The full-fat version we’ll get feels as responsive and torquey as a premium turbodiesel should, and it cooperates particularly sweetly with the ZF-sourced eight-speed auto. But at idle and low revs, its noise and vibration levels were about 10 percent above what you’d expect. Jaguar played the prototype card here and promises things will improve. We’ll be watching, and listening.
You sit low in the XE’s sporting, sculpted cabin. Though not quite production-ready, the materials and finish are plainly premium, though I doubt customer cars will match the perceived quality of the C-Class. Likewise, the new InControl infotainment system is a major improvement, but no match for BMW’s class-leader.
Trunk size and rear cabin space are both smaller than some rivals, but we’re going to give Jaguar a pass here. Although it’s taking on the 3 Series and its ilk, it doesn’t need to capture anything like their volumes. It’s in Jaguar’s interest to build something distinctive and polarizing. Those who need a huge trunk or who regularly carry tall adults in the rear probably won’t buy the XE, but the payoff is a sexy, slippery (Jaguar’s most aerodynamic car ever at 0.26 cd) greenhouse and coupe-like profile that Jaguar hopes people will like so much they’ll need to own it.
So, the 2017 Jaguar XE is not quite finished. Even when it is, it won’t be quite perfect. But the XE is really, really good — astonishingly so given Jaguar’s scale and relatively limited resources. We know you don’t read AUTOMOBILE for Bible lessons, but if the XE wins out in the inevitable group test, we’ll make that David-and-Goliath analogy again: “So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.”
2017 Jaguar XE Specifications
- On Sale: Spring 2016
- Base price: $35,000-$50,000 (est)
- Engines: 2.0L 16-valve DOHC turbodiesel I-4/180 hp @ 4,000 rpm, 317 lb-ft @ 1,750-2,500 rpm; 3.0L 24-valve DOHC supercharged V-6/340 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 332 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
- Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine RWD/AWD seda
- EPA Mileage: 18-35/25-40 mpg city/highway (est)
- L x W x H: 183.9 x 72.8 x 55.7 in
- Wheelbase: 111.6 in
- Weight: 3,450-3,700 lb
- 4.9-7.4 sec