Grace… space… pace. Yes, yes, it’s rather hackneyed to start a road test of a Jaguar by quoting the fabled maxim with which the brand has so readily become associated. But the thing is, the Jaguar XE plays in the junior executive saloon class, where all three of those elements are in high demand. So, really, it should ace them.
The trouble is, until now, most of the XEs that have been sold have been diesel. And no matter how refined a diesel engine gets – and the XE’s isn’t, particularly – it’s always going to struggle with that first criterion.
But what with the growing antipathy toward diesel engines, that pressure on the oil-burning XE to perform might be about to ease. In theory, Jaguar should be well-placed to maximise on that trend, with its own range of well-regarded petrol engines and the electric-powered iPace exceeding expectations everywhere. Time, then, to revisit the petrol-powered XE, to see whether it stacks up in practice.
The XE is hardly a spring chicken, however – since it was launched in 2015, new or refreshed rivals from all of the German “big three” have come along, as well as strong challengers from Volvo and Alfa Romeo.
No surprise, then, that inside, the XE is feeling just a touch dated now. Its interior plastics were never the best, and next to most of its rivals’ interiors the XE’s feels just a little… well, normal.
The infotainment system, too, is on the fiddly side, though it does at least look smart and works well once you’ve got used to it. Happily, you also get the option of a decent TFT display in lieu of the dials, which you can use to bring up a clear and attractive widescreen sat-nav view. It’s not quite as attractive as Audi’s equivalent, but it is at least available – which isn’t the case for some of the XE’s rivals.
In the front you won’t want for space – indeed, the comfortable seats and well-placed armrests make the XE a relaxing place to spend a long journey. The same, sadly, can’t be said for the rear seats, which lack both leg and head room.
Worse still, the outer seats are oddly shaped with thick bolsters that push your shoulders forward and force you to face into the car, away from the window. The result is that you end up sliding toward the centre seat to get comfortable; seating three abreast would be awkward, especially as that middle seat has to suffer so much intrusion from the transmission tunnel.
The boot, too, is underwhelming; stacking luggage efficiently is a chore thanks to an angled boot floor designed to maximise space. But even so, the boot is still rather small, as is its aperture.
Fire up the engine, and you might question whether you’ve been supplied with the right car. During its cold-start warm-up process, the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine takes on a rough edge that makes it sound almost diesel-like; accompanied by an on-off throttle response that makes progress feel rather staccato, it makes progress anything but graceful.
Do push through it, though, because once the XE has woken up, it’s worth it. It still isn’t perfect; the ZF eight-speed gearbox is here rather more sluggish to respond than in other manufacturers’ applications, often pausing to change down two or three times when you clog it and delaying your getaway from junctions just a beat too long. The result is that you end up pushing the throttle too hard, so that when the gearbox does catch up, you go shooting off up the road.
And shoot you do, for this engine is delightful. Not only is there a lovely swathe of torque lower down the rev range for you to work with day-to-day, but when you really want to push it hard, it’ll reward you for revving it out with a zingy top end and a sweet little snarl. It beats a diesel-powered XE into a cocked hat.
But the real joy with this car lies in the chassis; here, the XE still reigns supreme over most if not all of its rivals. It’s simply so wonderfully supple; even on vast wheels and the R Design version’s standard sport suspension, a combination that’d shake your fillings loose in most junior execs like this, the XE’s ride quality remains sublime.
Yes, once in a while it might be caught out by the odd pothole, but it’s rare – and even at speed, the XE remains remarkably quiet, with nary a whisper from wind, road or engine.
But don’t mistake this fluidity for softness. Switch everything to Sport mode and pull one of the paddles to gain manual control, and suddenly it all comes good. Turn-in isn’t the most positive, which means your confidence in the XE isn’t immediate, but what you do get is a great sense for what the nose is doing, both through the steering and through the chassis. That steering is beautifully weighted, too, not to mention progressive and accurate, meaning aiming the big, fluted bonnet exactly where you want it is a doddle – and a joy.
As a result, you find yourself learning the car more as your drive progresses, and feeling for those outer limits of grip. There’s just enough give in the chassis to absorb any mid-corner bumps and the car settles nicely once you’ve picked your line, allowing you to lean harder and harder on the outer tyres and squeeze on the throttle.
Where so many modern drivers’ cars feel crushingly competent, the XE feels deft and lithe, dancing and flowing from corner to corner, engaging with you in a way few saloon cars can.
Grace and pace this Jaguar can certainly do, then, but space is still a problem. As, indeed, are other practical considerations, such as fuel consumption; this XE is considerably thirstier than either the BMW 330i or the 30bhp-more-powerful Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce. If fuel costs are a issue, then, you might be better off choosing the 197bhp version – or something else entirely.
But does the joy of driving the XE mitigate against its practical failings, as indeed was the case for so many Jaguars of old? Almost, but not quite. This petrol-powered XE is marvellous, but the buyer it’ll suit is very niche.
If, however, you are someone who rarely carries rear-seat passengers or luggage, doesn’t need to worry about fuel costs, can live with odd noises and a jerky throttle on a cold morning, and likes the idea of a small saloon that’s brimming with driver appeal… then this XE is for you.
Jaguar XE 2.0 250 R-Sport Auto RWD
TESTED 1,998cc four-cylinder petrol turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE £37,065/now
POWER/TORQUE 247bhp @ 5,500rpm, 269lb ft @ 1,20rpm
TOP SPEED 155mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 6.2sec
FUEL ECONOMY 39.8mpg (EU Combined)
CO2 EMISSIONS 165g/km
VED £830 first year, then £140 per year
VERDICT Cramped, thirsty, recalcitrant when cold and a touch flimsy round the edges – yet joyous to drive both quickly and slowly. Yes, that’s right – the petrol-powered XE is a Jaguar in the finest traditions of the marque.
TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of five
Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce, from £38,975
Matches the Jaguar on emotional and driver appeal – but aces it on practicality and fuel economy. If you’re after a soulful alternative to the German big three, this should be high on your list.
BMW 330i M Sport auto, from £39,160
Almost as exciting as the XE to drive, and far more practical and sensible, but lacks the Jag’s chassis finesse – and unless you spec the adaptive dampers, it rides rather too firmly, too.
Mercedes C300 AMG Line auto, from £39,410
Feels more solid – not to mention far more spacious – than the Jaguar, and the peppy 2.0-litre turbo is gutsy and responsive. But ultimately, despite a recent facelift, the C-Class lacks the character and the ability to hold the same emotional appeal as the XE.