First Drive: 2017 Jaguar XE

“It looks like a Jag,” design chief Ian Callum told us just a day before the L.A. Auto Show under a beautifully sunny California sky. “10 years ago, you wouldn't have been able to say that."

Callum is right, of course. He's talking about the 2017 Jaguar XE, the British brand's second go at a small car after the forgettable X-Type experiment fizzled following just a few short years on American shores. More important is that the ghost of Jaguar's past is nowhere to be found in its present renaissance, a divergence made flesh in the sleek modern lines of the XE's chiselled profile. In fact, the four-door draws down from the mid-size XF, the car that kicked off Jaguar's split from the heritage design language that had firmly anchored it to days gone by.

Don't peg the XE for a player in the imitation game, however...

The XE is pegged as the new face of Jaguar in terms of more than just visage: it's been tapped to lead the entry-level luxury charge for an automaker that has girded its loins in the battle for volume sales against its Continental adversaries from BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz. Connecting with more than a handful of customers every year has always been Jaguar's biggest challenge, and its product planners, engineers, executives, and designers are collectively holding their breath in the hopes that its smallest model might give the company its biggest chance to finally draw a showroom crowd.

No Follower

I've been wanting to drive the Jaguar XE for a long time. I've always been a fan of the underdog, the little guy, and underneath its dapper Oxford accent Jaguar has long found itself on the periphery of the luxury souk outside of the British Isles. Not only does the XE have its work cut out for it in transforming the trickle of interest in the brand into a torrent, but it's up against one of the world's most dominant market constructs: the BMW 3 Series. The Teutonic sedan has enjoyed decades of unchallenged sales supremacy despite repeated assaults from the likes of Audi (the A4), Mercedes-Benz (the C-Class) and, most recently, Cadillac (the ATS).

It's understandable, then, that the 2017 Jaguar XE has adopted a few of its chief competitor's characteristics, including a focus on delivering high tech goodies and lively handling that have become the de facto yardstick for premium sedans. Don't peg the XE for a player in the imitation game, however, as there's definitely enough of Jaguar's unique perspective on high end motoring mixed into the car's all-new platform to make it more than a mere cipher for the current luxury zeitgeist.

Work With What You've Got

L.A. traffic is a rightly-maligned blight on an otherwise agreeable corner of the world, but sitting bumper-to-bumper in the Jaguar XE gives me a chance to notice the details that will blur together later when the flow speed picks up. Despite its small stature - I'm 5'7" and my head touches the ceiling in the backseat - Jaguar has worked to impart a feeling of space where perhaps there isn't as much as one would desire. This includes scalloping the interior door panels to create a tall wrap-around beltline that visually broadens the car's cockpit (even if it doesn't do much to help those slouching in the rear). As per usual Jaguar has managed to properly balance XE-specific styling cues with the economic realities of parts commonality between all of its models, although I lament the decidedly old-school gauge cluster that side-steps the incoming tide of bright and attractive TFT displays.

Smooth Operator

Once moving at a more respectable pace, the Jaguar's character begins to shine through more clearly. Boasting an aluminium-intensive design that keeps curb weight low without sacrificing a pleasing insulation from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, the XE's 340 horsepower, 3.0L supercharged V6 is responsive to the spur of right foot, surging the car forward with a snarl. An eight-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox on offer, but it's the same unit found in the amazing Jaguar F-Type roadster and coupe, which means the quick swapping of cogs as well as several drive modes ranging from commute-oriented Drive to the more engaging 'Dynamic' setting. The supercharged V6 is the top-tier edition of the car for the 2017 model year – there's also an efficiency-focused turbodiesel motor to be had with the sedan, as well as a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder gas motor at the entry level.  All-wheel drive will be optional with the XE.

On a closed course the Jaguar XE proves itself to be a willing playmate. It's here that the decision to focus on keeping the mass of the car low has paid particular dividends, as body roll through fast corners is less perceptible than in other luxury four-doors of similar size. The XE is willing to pivot, slide, and hustle its way around the pylons of the admittedly short-and-tight autocross course Jaguar set up for our amusement, but after several laps it’s clear that the same engineering expertise that makes even the extended-wheelbase XJ L executive car fun to drive has only been amplified by the XE's smaller package. Braking is authoritative, if a little touchy in regular motoring, and Jaguar's experience in tuning the F-Type's electric power steering system is borne out by the sedan's above-average feel through the wheel.

A New Beginning, Again

It takes more than a California afternoon to determine just how much stock one should put in the 2017 Jaguar XE's bid to unseat the 3 Series from its throne. That being said, my time with the car showed me that the baby Jag has all the right moves to at the very least make a run at carving out a slice of the luxury segment it's been tapped to invade. Coupled with its aggressive, yet not overly menacing styling, its comfortable ride, and its mix of power and frugality when it comes to engine options, the Jaguar XE is as legitimate a contender as any other compact premium sedan.

Sometimes moving forward means you have to choose between what you can afford to take with you into the future, and what needs to be left behind so that it doesn't weigh down your aspirations. By keeping Jaguar's sporting DNA alive, but jettisoning the Old World attitude and embracing the outsider spirit in both its marketing message and its vehicle strategy, Jaguar has successfully created a new identity written it out in aluminium, glass, and just a touch of adrenaline.

Pricing: 2017 Jaguar XE
2017 Jaguar XE 20d: $45,000
2017 Jaguar XE 30t: $48,500
Trims (pricing TBA): Prestige, R-Sport

It looks like a Jag 1/21/2016 6:59:58 AM