Once upon a time, thinking about Jaguar meant switching your brain to black-and-white for hefty dose of nostalgia. Under Ford's ownership it was a brand trading on its former glories, and being quickly left behind by Germany's automotive superpowers. But an injection of cash from Tata, the brand's Indian owners, has seen the big cat leap back to life with good looking cars that take advantage of modern materials to offer a distinctly different approach to BMW, Audi and Mercedes.
The latest Jag to launch is its crucial, midsize volume seller – the XE. So, does it feel like a Jaguar, and is it good enough to take on the German establishment? After spending a week in the supercharged XE S, we finally have some answers.
Check out our video about the XE below to enjoy the sound of Jaguar's howling 3.0-liter V6 being wrung out on some of Australia's finest country roads.
Before we start talking about the XE, we need to address the elephant in the room. Jaguar's last midsize offering was the X-Type, and boy was it a flop. Built under Ford ownership, the X-Type was proof accountants shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a luxury car's development.
Rather than invest in a bespoke, modern platform, Ford built the car around its Mondeo platform and fitted it with a body designed to evoke legendary Jaguars past. Suffice to say, no future Jaguar will be trying to evoke the legend of the X-Type.
No surprise, then, the XE has a new name, a new design and a totally unique chassis underneath it. Key to this rebirth is an aluminum-intensive body, like the one featured in the XF. Over 75 percent of the body is constructed from aluminum and high-strength steel, which means the XE S weighs in at 1635 kg (3605 lb), or 20 kg (44 lb) heavier than the all-steel BMW 340i.
No, that doesn't make all that much sense to us either. We can only assume Jag has banked the body weight savings and spent them elsewhere. It certainly seems like this light car has an expensive, heavyweight worthy suspension setup – but more on that later.
Taking a quick walk around the exterior reveals an attractive design, albeit one bordering on anonymous. Ian Callum totally redefined Jaguar's design language with the XF, and each subsequent model has refined the formula to the point where there's no mistaking the XE for anything but a big cat at the front end.
Down back is where things to a turn towards generic, although there is still a touch of Ian Callum's F-Type magic in the form of neat LED detailing.
Carrying on the F-Type connection is the XE's 3.0-liter supercharged V6. With 250 kW (335 hp) available at 6,500 rpm, and 450 Nm (332 lb.ft) on tap from 4,500 rpm, the motor's outputs are slightly down on the Audi S4's 260 kW (354 hp) and 500 Nm(369 lb.ft). But the Jaguar's engine counters those slight deficits by feeling properly special from the second you thumb the starter button.
It sounds expensive all the way through the rev range, with a hard-edged metallic rasp backed up by the perfect amount of supercharger whine to remind you it isn't a normal engine with a couple of turbos tacked on; it's a howling sports car engine tamed for more mundane daily duties. Not that it's mundane, of course, with a 0-100 km/h (62 mph) sprint time of 5.1 seconds and a 250 km/h (155 mph) top speed.
Around town the motor is civil and refined, even though it's let down slightly by the ZF gearbox it's coupled with. In normal mode the auto never seems to know which of its 8 gears it really needs, so it shuffles between second, third and fourth with frustrating regularity.
When you demand more power, or just breathe on the throttle to slip into a gap in traffic flow it's prone to kicking down one gear quickly before clumsily deciding it actually needs to go lower again, which can leave you waiting, lurching then surging toward the cars in front at an alarming rate.
It's best to flick the dynamic mode switch into eco, where the car goes straight for a tall gear and stays there. After all, it's not as if you're struggling for torque, and all that power is just a floored-throttle away.
Once you've escaped the urban grind, you're going to want to flick that switch from eco to dynamic mode and get down to business. This makes the speedo dial and interior lights flick from blue to red, and the gearbox will make aggressive downshifts under heavy braking if you're not willing to grab the plastic paddles behind the wheel and do it yourself.
It's on twisting, technical roads the XE S plays its ace. Jaguar has gifted this everyday car with a beautifully balanced rear-drive chassis, and it seems like every ounce of money spent on that stiff, light body was worth it, because the S is a close to midsize nirvana you can get without going back to the days of BMW E46 M3.
The electric power steering is nicely weighted, and the nose feels agile from the second you tip it into a corner. Once it's turned in, you can use the throttle to bring the back around in a neat, controlled arc without feeling loose or out of control, and then once you're pointing in a straight line again it's a matter of rolling onto the throttle and enjoying letting the howling V6 drop-kick you down the road.
No matter how ham-fisted or heavy handed we got with it, the XE never lost its composure, and never reached a point where it felt like things could get messy – it just soaked up the punishment and got on with it. Much of the credit for this impressive handling goes to the expensive mutli-link suspension. Having filtered down from the XJ and XF, the system manages to walk the tightrope between a pliant, luxurious ride and roll resistance at the limit.
With the BMW 3 Series coming in for criticism for a slightly loosely damped ride, and Audi known for packing its sports car suspension with a substance slightly less forgiving than granite, Jaguar has created a car to show the Germans you can have your cake and eat it too.
The only area the British challenger lags behind the German establishment is when it comes to infotainment. For the most part, the interior is neatly presented. The materials all feel high quality, the Meridian sound system never leaves you wanting more bass and the seats, although lacking a bit of bolstering, are comfy enough to sit in all day.
But the InControl touchscreen sitting in the center console feels like Jag brought a gramophone to an iPod convention. The graphics look a little unsophisticated, it's slow to respond and doesn't offer the same range of functionality as BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI. A refresh can't come soon enough, not just in the XE but across the entire Jaguar and Land Rover range.
Don't let the slow touchscreen turn you off, though. When we picked the XE S up, we wondered how Jaguar could ask AUD$105,000 (US$42,000) for it. But having pushed it in the hills and lived it for a week, it's clear the depth of engineering applied to the suspension, engine and steering justify the hefty dollar figure on the windscreen.