Jaguar F-Pace test drive: Inside job

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Jaguar enters the SUV market with its first-ever example of the type, the stunning F-Pace. It has to fit alongside the Land Rover offerings elsewhere in the company but Jaguar appears to have done a great job with that by focusing on its driving dynamics first and foremost.

It might seem strange for Jaguar, one half of the Indian-owned JLR conglomerate that is completed by Land Rover, to start making an SUV; after all, it really does step on the toes of its stablemate, doesn’t it, given LR is known for exclusively building SUVs?

But such are the pressures of market demands on the automotive companies these days. All of Jaguar’s key premium rivals have been churning out big 4x4s for years – Audi, BMW, Lexus, Porsche, Mercedes, Volvo… the British marque has been highly conspicuous by its absence, which has been prolonged.

Well, no more. Here is the F-Pace, a beautiful mid-sized premium SUV with an emphasis on sportiness ahead of off-road prowess (neatly dovetailing it with the comparable Land Rover products, which attempt to offer the opposite).

There is a long list of competitors from all of the above marques which the Jaguar has to fend off, but the rival slap bang in the middle of its crosshairs is the Porsche Macan.

Jaguar used this German SUV as a benchmark when signing off the F-Pace in final testing. The Macan is widely regarded as the best-driving SUV on sale anywhere in the world right now, no matter what your budget is, and Jaguar wanted the F-Pace to be of the Macan’s ilk, rather than instead zeroing in on its own traditional heritage of a super-smooth ride and luxury fittings.

The question is, has this worked? Is the F-Pace as good to drive as the Porsche? Does it function as an SUV, or has it sacrificed too much of its inherent usefulness in its aim to take on the drivers’ choice Macan?

The Jaguar seems like it is at a disadvantage from the off as we’re testing it here with a four-cylinder diesel engine. In the UK, the Porsche only comes with a 2.0-litre oil-burning engine as special order; the rest of its line-up consists of six-cylinder units rated from at least 258hp.

The Jaguar has a couple of big mills, of course, in the form of a mighty twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 diesel (300hp/700Nm) and a supercharged petrol engine of the same capacity/arrangement, developing a heady 380hp and 450Nm – this is the powerplant we tried out in the sublime XF S we drove a few weeks back.

However, as the F-Pace is very closely linked to the XF saloon, then it uses the same mechanicals and that means the entry point is the Ingenium 2.0-litre unit found here. This comes in two power trims in the XE and XF ranges, but for the F-Pace Jaguar only offers the higher 180hp/430Nm unit.

It’s a fine engine, with masses of midrange muscle and largely impressive refinement, but it can get a bit grumbly and rowdy under hard revs, or if it hasn’t been running long and is cold. Having tried the 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel in the F-Pace, we know what a gem that larger engine is – so we’d recommend matching the Porsche and going for six pots rather than four with the Jaguar.

The other issue with this Portfolio model was its strangely lumpen ride. Again, higher-spec, bigger-engined cars offer adaptive shock absorbers, or alternatively you can fit them as an option lower down the F-Pace range, but this particular car was running on fixed-rate springs and dampers – so, despite the fact it had £800 20-inch Templar alloys on it (not huge wheels in this class) with reasonably chunky sidewalls on the tyres, its ride composure was all too easily upset on poor road surfaces, be they rutted country roads or crumbling urban thoroughfares.

Like a lot of German cars, the Jaguar’s comfort levels soared once it was out on smoother, more open A-roads and dual carriageways, but there really shouldn’t be any discomfort at all when driving a Jag so it’s a shame the car sometimes felt choppy.

Nevertheless, the rest of the Jag’s make-up is incredibly impressive. It obviously looks marvellous, its styling details a blend of the F-Type coupe (rear lights), the XE and XF (front end), and its own SUV dimensions, and it’s a wonderful, handsome machine no matter the specification. Same goes for the interior, which is classily underplayed but still features some neat details like the rising rotary gear selector on the centre column.

Many rivals now employ flashy TFT instrument clusters but the F-Pace sticks with a pair of clear, attractive analogue dials and a digital display screen in the middle, and this arrangement works perfectly well at conveying information in a quick, easy manner.

We’d prefer the window switches not being mounted on the top of the door cards, as they are, and not everyone gets on with Jaguar’s InControl Touch infotainment (we like it, though), but in the main there is very little to complain about regarding the F-Pace’s shapely bodywork or luxurious interior – and it has a massive cabin capable of swallowing five adults, as well as a gargantuan 650-litre boot.

It therefore maintains all the practicality you’d require of a premium SUV, and of course the 2.0-litre diesel engine offers the best running costs, returning up to 53.3mpg (we saw a still-respectable 34.7mpg across a round 200 miles), sitting in Band D for VED and requiring 27 per cent Benefit-in-Kind tax.

On the move and driven gently, the Ingenium engine is hushed and there’s little to report in the way of wind noise or tyre roar, so unless the ride is playing up, the Jaguar’s a fine cruiser, one of its key strengths here being the lovely and slick eight-speed automatic transmission that slurs ratios with an exquisite deftness.

But we’re pleased to report that if you do decide to up the pace and drive the Jaguar a bit harder, it does feel every bit as good to steer as the Macan. The 2.0d doesn’t make the most of this chassis, true, but there’s less weight over the nose than there would be in a 3.0-litre V6 and as a result, turn-in is crisp – the steering is magnificent; clean, precise and feelsome – and body roll is minimal.

If you specify an F-Pace without AWD, then drive goes to the rear axle, but even the four-wheel drive models send most of their torque to the back for the majority of the time and that is evident in the balanced feel of the Jaguar SUV in corners. In short, it’s a beautifully resolved chassis… that really deserves the extra power of the grander F-Pace models. So aim for those if you’re going to buy.

Like the XF diesel we drove this year, the experience of driving the F-Pace 2.0d Portfolio was a confusing mix of sublime touches and a few frustrating details, that could easily be eradicated by digging a little deeper in pockets and specifying the car carefully. There’s no doubting that it’s an epically good SUV in most respects, especially considering it’s a first-time effort, and that if you do decide to buy the four-cylinder diesel for running cost reasons then you won’t feel short-changed.

But we think the F-Pace is quite spec-dependent and if you try one of the V6 Jaguars, you’ll be hooked. True, if you go for the 3.0-litre V6 then you have to have top-line S specification, which means at least £52,300; that’s a big psychological leap from £42,860 for the Portfolio 2.0d. Yet the rewards are greater there and that incredibly torquey engine allows you to get the very best experience from the F-Pace. Because, thus equipped, the Jaguar really is every bit as good as the Porsche Macan S Diesel… and, astonishingly, it’s maybe even better than the all-conquering German.

With its film-star looks and glorious cabin, that makes Jaguar’s first-ever SUV a clear winner in our eyes. And yes, we do still wonder what Land Rover – or, more specifically, the team behind the similarly dynamic Range Rover Sport (RRS) – think about this ‘in-house’ machine that does everything the RRS does, but with a starting price that’s nearly £25,000 less. If Land Rover starts making saloon cars, we think we’ll have our answer.

TECH SPEC

  • Model: Jaguar F-Pace 2.0d Portfolio 180 AWD
  • Price: F-Pace from £35,020, 2.0d Portfolio AWD from £42,860, car as tested £45,985
  • Drivetrain: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel, eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
  • 
Economy: 53.3mpg
  • CO2 emissions: 139g/km – £130 VED annually; 27 per cent benefit in kind
  • Top speed: 129mph
  • 0-62mph: 8.7 seconds
  • 
Power: 180hp at 4,000rpm
  • Torque: 430Nm at 1,500- to 2,500rpm