Jaguar XE pre-production prototype drive

Full-scale production of the Jaguar XE won’t begin until March, but we’ve driven cars from the very first trial-build batch. The XE shows promise, but there’s plenty left to do before the assembly line starts churning them out…  

Britain wants a slice of the premium compact car business currently owned by Germany. The Jaguar XE is designed to take on the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and beat them for both looks and driving pleasure.

The brand’s future is riding on the XE, and other models that also will use its new, aluminium-intensive architecture. Jaguar’s exclusive pre-production prototype preview in Portugal was a must-be-there event.

Rear-drive BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, plus the front-drive and all-wheel-drive Audi A4

Withheld until we drive final production versions

PLUS: Brilliant steering; obvious structural integrity; exterior style
MINUS: Work needed before it’s fit for production

JAGUAR’S XE, the company’s most important all-new model in decades, is lustrously brilliant in some respects and needs a lot of extra polish in others. Fortunately, there’s still time to make this rear-drive sedan what it needs to be – a genuine challenger to German dominance in the premium compact class.

The new Solihull assembly line isn’t scheduled to start full-scale XE production until March. Jaguar Land Rover no doubt understands it is a risky strategy to expose a new car in unfinished form, but the company also understands inviting a select list of international media to drive some of the first XE pre-production prototypes has powerful potential. It’s an opportunity to build the buzz surrounding this crucial new car.

At least a dozen XEs have been freighted to Portugal for this exclusive preview. Half are 2.0d models powered by the first of JLR’s new Ingenium modular engine family, a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel four. The remainder have the company’s familiar 3.0-litre supercharged V6 petrol-burner. All are equipped with ZF eight-speed automatic transmissions.

Both engines will be included in the XE line-up scheduled for August launch here. The Ingenium turbo-diesel is to be produced in two versions, but Australia will ignore the 120kW and 99g/km European-market low-tax special and take only the 132kW version. This is what Jaguar has brought to Portugal.

The supercharged V6 will deliver the same 250kW power maximum as it does in the XF, XJ and base-model F-Type in the S version of the XE, which, at least initially, will be the top model. The launch line-up will also include 147kW and 177kW 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol fours. These are Ford-made engines, destined to be phased out after JLR’s own Ingenium 2.0-litre spark-ignition turbo four goes into production.

Although the 12 XEs in Portugal look perfect from a distance, once inside it’s obvious they’re not. Some plastic parts lack production finishes and some of the trimmings aren’t what customers will see. There’s more that’s not right...

Starting the Ingenium turbo-diesel from cold is a rude shock. It sounds coarse and clattery, and there’s way too much vibration coming through the steering wheel and floor. It’s quieter and smoother when warm, but never brilliant. The car is R-Sport spec, fitted with Jaguar’s stiffer suspension. It’s brusque and busy on the rubbish roads east of Lisbon, and there’s too much road noise and vibration infiltrating the cabin.

But the turbo-diesel XE steers beautifully. The electric-assist system feels frictionless, precise, quick and consistently weighted. Just lovely. And the integrity of Jaguar’s three-quarters aluminium body is unmistakable.

Turns out Jaguar’s engineers know which areas need attention; drivetrain man John Pepperell admits “there’s a bit to do on refinement” of the Ingenium diesel. The car we’ve driven doesn’t have final production engine mounts or engine control software, he says.

Vehicle integrity engineer Graham Moss adds that these pre-production XEs aren’t fitted with some key sound-deadening material and lack correct boot linings. Production cars will be much quieter. They’ll ride better, too, says XE engineering manager Jon Darlington. The Sport suspension we’ve driven has springs 30 to 40 percent stiffer than the standard set-up, he says.     

For the drive back to Lisbon, we swap into an XE S. The supercharged 3.0-litre V6 is less raucous than in an F-Type, but it has the refined authority of a well-developed performance engine. The car is equipped with Bilstein adaptive dampers, and rides well in both default Normal and firmer Dynamic modes.

With both the grace and pace of Jaguar’s famed slogan, this pre-production XE S shows how near Jaguar is to achieving its aim of being the driver’s car in its German-dominated category. The Ingenium turbo-diesel, on the other hand, is a reminder of how far is left to go before the XE is properly prepared to wage premium compact class warfare.

: Jaguar XE 2.0 diesel
Engine: 1999cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbocharged diesel
Max power: 132kW @ 4000rpm
Max torque: 430Nm @ 1750-2500rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Weight: 1565kg (auto)
0-100km/h: 7.8sec (claimed)
Economy: 4.2L/100km (EU)
Price: $60,000 (estimated)
On sale: August approx.

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