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 3,670 pounds, a minimal amount by today's standards.
The base model, the XE 25t, comes with a turbocharged direct injection 2-liter engine, good for 240 horsepower. Surprisingly for this class, and in light of difficulties experienced by Volkswagen, Jaguar also has a diesel XE on offer, this one known as the 20d, using a 2-liter turbo-diesel boasting average EPA fuel economy of 36 mpg, more than 10 better than the 25t.
I, however, spent a week with the 35t AWD in R-Sport trim. This car comes with the XE's top engine, a supercharged 3-liter V-6, good for 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque and, as the name suggests, all-wheel-drive. R-Sport is essentially a top trim, adding features such as blind spot monitoring and lane keep assist, along with a body kit showing off more aggressive air intakes.
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 comes 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. In Dynamic mode, the adaptive suspension retains pliability, adding to the comfort while allowing some lean in hard cornering. It strikes an important balance between an elegant weekly commute car and a satisfying weekend backroads driver.
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. Although the front row seats make the XE cabin feel roomy, the rear seats look like they belong in a coupe. Taller passengers won't welcome the experience. 16 cubic feet of trunk space, the "boot" in British parlance, comes in about average for the segment.
The optional head-up display kept my digital speed in view at all times on the lower edge of the windshield, and with route guidance active additional green graphics showed upcoming turns. The orange and green graphics look a little lurid compared to BMW's much more sophisticated head-up display, but that's a minor point.
Noticing the same old Jaguar InControl home screen, with colorful graphics denoting navigation, stereo, phone and climate menus, I was disappointed at first, but drilling down showed Jaguar's new, updated infotainment. My first clue to this update was the 10.2-inch touchscreen, much wider than in previous Jaguar models. Behind the scenes, a quad-core Intel chip ensures adequate response times.
The biggest update is the new navigation system, from supplier Here, a digital mapping company recently acquired by a consortium formed from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. The new maps look finely detailed on the larger touchscreen, and not only offer plan and perspective views, but include a satellite view as well, similar to that seen in Audi vehicles.
Most useful is a free-form search box for destinations that queries the XE's onboard database as well as using its data connection to search online. While searches returned results quickly, I had to tap down through multiple menus to access it, not an optimal interface for a car.
Along with the four main menu items, swiping to the side brought up a wealth of additional controls and informational screens, from a driving efficiency rating to individual Dynamic settings for the XE's steering, throttle program and suspension. There's even a built-in web browser.
With Jaguar's InControl app on my iPhone, I could access a small ecosystem of third-party apps on the XE's touchscreen. InControl supports apps for news, audio and destination help, but as I only had Glympse and Parkopedia installed on my phone, those were the only ones I could access.
InControl also let me see contacts and the calendar from my phone, although I could not bring up a calendar appointment and send its location to the navigation system. Jaguar's InControl system also doesn't currently support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
The XE's robust Meridian audio system promised excellent sound with its 825 watt amp and 17 speakers, but the experience was ruined by speaker buzz, mostly noticeable on tracks with vocals and piano. I heard that buzzing playing music from my iPhone, both while plugged into the XE's USB port and streaming audio over Bluetooth. I can't imagine this problem would get by Jaguar and Meridian engineers, so it may have been limited to this one car. But it's an issue worth checking out during a test drive.
The 2017 Jaguar XE comes out as a truly extraordinary player among premium compact sport sedans, a segment dominated by the BMW 3-series for many, many years. XE has the advantage of being engineered from the ground up, lacking a model legacy to hold it down while still being able to draw on Jaguar's rich history.
It's base price of around $35,000 makes it instantly competitive with the BMW 3-series, along with the many other sport sedans available, from Lexus IS to Audi A4. Take the XE to its highest trim level, such as the car I drove, and you're getting close to $60,000, especially if you add adaptive cruise control and other driver assistance features.
Ultimately, the XE feels as good as a driver's car as the BMW 3-series, and the Jaguar badge on the grille carries a panache that will make it stand out until the company's mass-market dreams come true.
Editor's note: This review has been updated from an earlier posted drive experience with the 2017 Jaguar XE.