Next to the gorgeous F-Type, the new Jaguar XE looks conventional. It's a small sedan that wouldn't be out of place in the company parking lot next to the legions of BMW 3-Series and Audi A4s that tend to be the favorite of the up-and-coming executive class.
However, the XE is a far more important car to Jaguar than the F-Type, as its base price of $35,000 potentially brings far more buyers to the brand.
More importantly, it is a really good car, relying on advances in automotive engineering to keep it light while maintaining safety and handling. Jaguar calls the construction of the XE "aluminum intensive," meaning aluminum makes up about 75 percent of its structure. Curb weight comes in at a paltry 3,350 pounds, a minimal amount by today's standards.
To get some early driving impressions, I took a non-US market XE model out along the California coastal range. The XE will come out as a 2017 model car here later this year, with specifications already up on the Jaguar Web site. The example I drove bore "S" badges with Jaguar's green and red livery, the equivalent of an R-Sport model here.
This car came with the XE's top engine, a supercharged 3-liter V-6, good for 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. That's a serious power upgrade over the available 240 horsepower 2-liter turbocharged gasoline and 180 horsepower 2-liter diesel engines.
When I put the eight-speed automatic transmission in Sport mode and switched Jaguar's Configurable Dynamics setting to Dynamic, the connection between accelerator and power delivery felt direct and immediate. It was if my right foot had a direct line to the driveshaft, without all the intervening engine control electronics and plumbing. Flooring it made the little XE leap forward with no hesitation.
Give credit to the supercharger, that engine-driven impeller shoving air into the cylinders, and direct injection engineering ensuring a full fuel burn. The automatic transmission did its part as well, its Sport mode hanging onto a gear even as the tach needle blurred past the 5,000 rpm mark.
When merely putting along in traffic, where this sort of power response would prove annoying, I dialed the Configurable Dynamics setting down to Normal, or even Eco, reducing the throttle and steering sensitivity. The change was immediate, the XE assuming the character of a content house cat, letting me relax into the the sort of mindless driving that characterizes most commutes.
The XE's aluminum structure really came through in the handling and ride quality. I could feel the car's light weight at the steering wheel, and that's a good thing. You might equate heavy with "planted" but the XE's lightness gave a it quick and nimble character. It felt extremely maneuverable, responding precisely to my steering inputs both on the twisty mountain road and when diving into a traffic opening.
Beyond lightness, the XE's body felt stiff, an essential quality for good handling. Going into a turn, I was impressed with the precise steering, while the rigid body kept the tires in contact with the pavement. At tire squealing speeds on hairpin mountain roads, the XE felt balanced and confident. Hitting some wet patches, the back-end shimmied out but a combination of traction control and steady steering input brought the car neatly back into line without destroying my fun.
Hitting that Goldilocks zone, the XE is stiff, but not too stiff for an everyday comfortable ride. It strikes an important balance between an elegant weekly commute car and a satisfying weekend backroads driver.
Electronics to come
Cabin appointments in this model included lightly bolstered sport seats and a drive selector dial that rises up from the console when you hit the ignition button. Those elements will likely remain for the US market car. The navigation head unit on the example I drove showed the same interface and features you find in other current model Jaguars. However, Jaguar promises a whole new system when the XE comes available in the US market. Expect modern phone connectivity and fast touchscreen responses.
I mentioned the base price of $35,000. That gets you an XE with the 2-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine. At 240 horsepower and the XE's low weight, that model will likely be a very enjoyable driver. The US equivalent of the model I drove should go for about $50,000 base.
Those prices place it squarely in the premium sport sedan market, up against cars such as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Lexus IS. The aluminum construction and clean-sheet design also makes it akin to the Cadillac ATS model.
But the Jaguar badge on the grille carries a certain panache, giving the XE an exotic flavor that will make it stand out until the company's mass-market dreams come true.