The Fosse Way is an old Roman road connecting Lincoln and Exeter in England. It’s 230 miles long, but just 6 miles west to east, with gentle curves breaking up mostly straight roads. There are enough challenging, fast curves and undulating pavement, especially near Jaguar’s Gaydon development center, to reveal a car’s chassis dynamics.
Driving the new Jaguar XE briskly down this wonderful section of the Fosse makes it clear engineers have nailed the chassis setup. Even on larger 19-inch wheels, it’s nearly impossible to beat the optional adaptive dampers into submission. The suspension always keeps up, so you feel like a rock star behind the wheel while the car cossets your passengers.
This is good news for Jaguar. The new small sedan is an important car for the struggling automaker. The Indian-owned company sold just 15,773 cars in a strong U.S. market last year, down nearly 7 percent from 2013. Audi and Lexus each posted sales increases of about 15 percent. Even Maserati came within 3,000 cars of catching Jaguar’s U.S. sales in 2014.
Americans must wait until spring 2016 to buy the XE, when all-wheel-drive production begins. Jaguar understands that the traction-enhancing option is a must for our market. There’s also a new Jaguar Land Rover-developed gasoline four-cylinder engine arriving later next year.
Our test car burned the fuel of choice for many European buyers: diesel. Jaguar offers U.K. buyers 163 hp and 180 hp versions of its new Ingenium 2.0-liter turbodiesel I-4. We drove the more powerful of the two hitched to an eight-speed automatic. A six-speed manual will also be available in the U.S. with either the diesel or the gasoline four-cylinder engine. Yes, the diesel is coming to the U.S. We’ll get the top-spec XE S too, with the F-Type’s 340 hp, supercharged V-6 paired only to an automatic transmission.
Let’s hope Jaguar sorts out the gasoline Ingenium engine because the diesel isn’t too impressive. The majority of XEs sold in our country will surely come with the gasoline 2.0-liter turbocharged four once it finally makes it to production. The diesel is as frugal and clean as the best from Germany but it needs some help in the noise/vibration/harshness department. It’s clattery, especially when cold, and some of the secondary noises entering the cabin make you question whether Jaguar engineers have been spending too much time cloistered in the gorgeous farmlands of the English Midlands. By comparison, a ride in a 3-year old, U.K.-spec Audi Q5 with a 2.0-liter diesel confirmed that Jaguar’s new compression-ignition engine is simply too agricultural.
We also wonder if the diesel has the power output to make Americans happy. It’s fine at lower speeds, but the diesel-powered Jaguar XE simply isn’t a very fast car, and this becomes apparent when merging onto an English motorway or passing on a two-lane road. There’s no reason Jaguar should offer the diesel XE in America other than to meet fuel economy standards and to give buyers a less-expensive alternative to the XE S until the smaller gasoline motor arrives. Still, Jaguar could bump the power output and fix the diesel’s refinement issue before cars arrive in the U.S. We did average an impressive 35 mpg (U.S.) over a week of hard driving in the U.K.
In that week, we learned that the XE is about on par with a BMW 3 Series in terms of cabin quality and available features -- at least in luxurious Portfolio trim -- but it’s clearly a step down compared with the impressive workmanship inside the latest Mercedes C-Class. Jaguar must also contend with the historic king of the cabin castle, Audi, and its all-new 2017 A4. We welcome Jaguar’s much-needed new touchscreen interface, but it’s far too distracting to dig your way through various folders of music or to input street addresses. We prefer the rotary control setups (iDrive, etc) in the German competition, and dedicated buttons for features such as heated seats and the audio system.
Despite such niggles, Jaguar has done a fine job with the XE. It’s the automaker’s first proper, from-scratch entry into the segment, and it’s a competitive one. We’re particularly impressed by the dynamics of the XE. It’s the best-driving car in its class, without question. We wish the steering had a touch more on-center feel and better feedback, and we miss the industry-leading hydraulic systems fitted to Jaguars of the past. Electric power-assisted steering (EPAS) is a plague that’s spread across an industry in search of improved fuel economy and lower emissions. We’re going to have to get used to it, and at least Jaguar is at the top of the EPAS tuning game.
We’re more concerned with how the Jaguar XE will fare in the competitive U.S. marketplace. It’s a handsome car but a touch too conservative, with styling very similar to both the first- and second-generation midsize XF. Many Americans don’t care about exceptional handling, which is the new Jaguar’s outstanding feature. The small Jaguar just doesn’t stand out from the competition in any other area. It also lacks any real British differentiation from the Germans. Remove the badges and it’s just another competitive European sedan with impressive handling.
It will probably come down to price -- especially the monthly lease deals -- for most U.S. buyers, which is not good news for profit margins at Jaguar. Some buyers may pick the XE for its less-common luxury badge, but Jaguar is playing in a tough segment. The marketing department will need a few tricks up its sleeve to conquest buyers in this cutthroat class, no matter how good the new small Jaguar is to drive. It really makes you wonder whether they should have taken a bigger risk with the 2016 Jaguar XE and set the car apart instead of following the same basic path forged by their European competition.
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