Jaguar's XE is much improved. Jonathan Crouch drives the volume D180 diesel version.
Though the Jaguar XE has been around since 2015, it's entirely possible that as a buyer of a compact to mid-sized premium sports saloon, you might not have yet come across it. If that's the case, allow us to introduce you to this revised version, which is smarter, quieter and classier inside than the original and remains appealingly different to the usual German suspects in this segment. On paper at least, it now seems to have the design, technology and ambition necessary to succeed in this sector, with the dynamics of a BMW and the luxury of a Mercedes, plus all the efficiency and connectivity modern business buyers now expect. It's a surprisingly strong contender, especially in D180 diesel form.
At its original launch in 2015, Jaguar's XE, the brand's smallest saloon, was tasked with selling in bigger numbers than any Jaguar before it. It didn't. And the British brand has been scratching its head wondering why. They've responded with this significantly revised version, which offers more luxury, technology and value. Or, if you want us to put it another way, basically, it's the car we should have had right from the start.
The question is though, whether all this will be enough to rejuvenate the XE's fortunes. It does, after all, have to contend with a brand new version of BMW 3 Series, plus substantially revised Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 models. In short, further headway in this segment will be difficult to achieve. Can this improved XE manage it? We tried a D180 diesel variant in a bid to find out.
There's only one diesel engine now on offer to XE buyers, a simplification of the model line-up removing the previous 163 and 240hp versions of Jaguar's 2.0-litre four cylinder Ingenium black pump-fuelled powerplant and leaving just the mid-level D180 derivative we're trying here. Which isn't of much consequence because it's the variant that most buyers in search of such a unit would have chosen anyway, a decent 430Nm torque figure propelling the XE in this form with reasonable vigour, 62mph from rest occupying 7.6s en route to 140mph, whether you choose the rear-driven version or the alternative AWD variant we're trying here. Like all versions of this Jaguar, both only drive through an 8-speed ZF auto transmission; sales of manual gearbox versions of the original XE models were vanishingly small, so that option's been deleted too.
Right from the off in an XE, you get to experience what Jaguar's engineers call the '50 metre feel' - the all-important first impression that any vehicle conveys about the way it will drive. This one feels sharp, purposeful and, from the very start, beautifully composed over our country's terrible tarmac. Part of that's due to a much more sophisticated suspension system than most competitors use, a so-called 'Integral Link' set-up that's particularly good on a route with quick, sweeping, open bends, over which this car sweeps imperiously from turn to turn, soaking up undulations with perfect poise.
Jaguar claims to have 're-invented' the XE, which is something of an exaggeration but there's little doubt that this revised version has a more assertive air than its predecessor. Every model now gets beadier LED headlights, sleeker LED tail lamps and alloy wheels of at least 18-inches in size.
Take a seat inside and if you happen to be familiar with the original version of this model, you'll notice a significant move up-market, thanks to far more extensive use of soft-touch materials and a completely different level of infotainment technology. As before, you sit quite low here, cocooned by a wide centre console fashioned with stitched leather and piano black trimming that creates far more a cockpit-style feel than you get in rivals.
There's a slicker 'pistol grip'-style gear stick from the brand's F-TYPE sports car to replace of the awful old circular transmission selector; re-designed door cards free up fractionally greater space for your elbows; plus there's a much higher level of spec, with the standardisation of features like leather upholstery and 12-way electrically-adjustable front seats. As before, space in the rear is fairly tight. And there's a 450-litre boot. The rear seats can be optionally heated and offer a 40:20:40 split-fold and a through-loading feature.
Jaguar's taken a scythe to the XE range, slimming it down to the models that sold in reasonable numbers the first time round and deleting versions that didn't. As before, there's only a single saloon body shape and the brand's 8-speed ZF auto gearbox is now mandatory. D180 prices start at around £35,000. XE buyers will be choosing between three levels of trim - 'S', 'SE' or, as here, 'HSE'. Whichever you prefer, your dealer will then give you the option of specifying your car with an optional sporty 'R-Dynamic' pack for around £1,600 more.
To give you a perspective on the value proposition, let's take as an example what will probably be the line-up's strongest seller, a D180 'S'-spec variant fitted with that 'R-Dynamic' pack, a car that at the launch of this revised XE line-up would set you back just over £36,000. Jaguar's keen to point out this version's list price to be £670 less than a directly comparable D180 'R-Sport' variant in the pre-facelifted range, despite the fact that over £1,100-worth of extra equipment has been added to this revised design. That's a customer saving of £1,770.
Here's an area in which this XE simply has to be on the pace. Business buyers rightly often feel there's little to choose between the key contenders in the compact-to-mid-sized executive saloon market sector and it's therefore not unusual for final decisions to be almost entirely based on things like fuel and CO2 readings, depreciation and overall running costs. If you need a single answer as to why it took Jaguar so long to return to this segment in 2015 following the demise of the X-TYPE in 2009, then it's here that you'll find it. They simply didn't have an engine efficient enough to enable them to properly compete.
But these days they do. So what about the XE's D180 diesel engine? Well in truth, this British-built 2.0-litre 'Ingenium' unit has slipped a bit in terms of its fuel and CO2 showing against obvious rivals; the figures - up to 50.7mpg on the WLTP combined cycle and up to 130g/km of NEDC-rated CO2 - are about 10% behind those you'd get from a directly comparable BMW 320d or Mercedes C220d. But from the launch of this revised XE model, this Jaguar compensated by becoming the first car in its class to comply with the stringent RDE2 NOx emissions limit. This aids company car drivers with a useful 4% BiK tax rate cut and also helps private retail buyers with a reduced first year VED charge.
The XE shows that Jaguar can bring something to this kind of car that no other rival brand can quite replicate. Mainstream buyers in this sector may have often previously ignored this car's sublime balance of ride and handling, but those who've tried one and appreciated the exemplary drive dynamics in play here have often found it hard to walk away from ownership. Prior to this facelift, these people had to overlook quite a lot to sign a cheque for an XE, but this revised model's smarter cabin, better value proposition and improved diesel efficiency make it a far more palatable proposition.
Of course there are still lots of reasons why this small Jaguar saloon might not stack up for you. There are no really affordable entry-level engines, no estate body style and as an owner, you'll be more restricted in terms of cargo room and rear passenger space than you would be in an obvious rival.
But keep this car on your shortlist anyway, then go and drive it. It's the kind of car that when driven hard, makes some others in its segment feel distinctly one-dimensional. Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons insisted that a sports saloon of this sort must 'make you feel alive'. This one does; he'd have liked it.