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First drive: 2017 Jaguar XE

Jag's most compact kitty really purrs, but still needs house training

The compact luxury class is one of the most competitive segments in the automotive industry, but for the past seven years, there’s been something missing. Jaguar bowed out of the division in 2009 after the X-Type halted production, and ever since, we’ve longed for a proper British sports sedan to give the category some kick. Thankfully, that salvation has arrived with the 2017 XE.

Built on an aluminum platform absolved of Ford DNA, the all-new XE leverages excellent chassis dynamics with tons of new tech, the benefits of which show up everywhere from the engine to the infotainment screen. Jag’s competitors are well-established in the segment though, which means the brand must aim high to stay afloat. To see how the XE stacked up, I flew to Aspen, Colorado for some seat time with this compelling cat.

Claws out

The XE is a luxury car aimed at drivers, so it’s only fair to judge its dynamic prowess first. In that regard, the four-door is a real gem.

Fitted with optional adaptive dampers, my chariot felt light, nimble, and linear as I flung it through the Rocky Mountains, with plenty of grip and little body roll to speak of. In classic Jaguar fashion, the available all-wheel drive system effectively acts like rear-wheel drive until extra traction is needed, allowing the perfect amount of controlled rotation — enough to keep your blood pumping but not enough to scare you. And if things do go a bit wide, the XE’s brake-activated torque vectoring slows the inside wheels to keep things tidy. It certainly feels like a driver’s car, with handling chops that easily rival those of the BMW 3 Series and Cadillac ATS. In many ways, the XE flat-out trumps them.

Ergonomics are not this car’s strong suit.

In terms of engines, I sampled two of the XE’s three powertrains during my time in Aspen — a 2.0-liter diesel with 180 horsepower and 318 pound-feet of torque and a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 with 340 hp and 332 lb-ft. Jaguar offers a 2.0-liter, 240-hp gas unit as well, however it wasn’t on hand for me to sample.

Let’s start with the diesel. There’s a lot to like here, including punchy low revs, smooth idle, and whisper quiet operation. It’s actually the first of Jaguar’s Ingenium lineup to show up in North America and one of the only diesels available in the segment, and its high levels of refinement make it an excellent ambassador for compression ignition. See, diesels aren’t all bad. But if I’m honest, its low output isn’t perfectly optimized for the car’s 3,560-pound starting weight, so it can feel a little sluggish at times.

Related: How Jaguar Land Rover is designing cars that will drive better than you

With the blown V6, things get significantly more lively. 0 to 60 drops from the diesel’s 7.5 seconds all the way down to 5.1 seconds, and although there’s a bit more weight over the front axle, the increased power and noise more than make up for it. Speaking of power, there could be more on the way, as a 380-hp version of the six-cylinder is already available in the F-Pace. Here’s hoping a hotter XE may show up down the road.

A mixed bag

Inside the car, things get slightly less cheery. A successful luxury vehicle must do the “luxury” part of the equation well, and while the XE’s interior is pretty, it’s hit and miss depending on where you gaze. Right off the bat, the cabin is narrower than I thought it would be, and the back seat is definitely on the cramped side. Headroom and visibility are both underwhelming all around, and there’s an odd triple-layer front armrest that looks and feels quite awkward when you plop your elbow on it. You had one job, armrest. Clearly, ergonomics are not this car’s strong suit.

The XE’s interior inconsistency applies to the materials as well. My diesel-powered R-Sport model ($56,345 as tested) was fitted with a vinyl-wrapped dash that looked and felt amazing, but less expensive versions like the base XE ($34,900) featured plenty of of inexpensive plastics that felt cheaper than the competitive equivalents. However, the seats — both the standard sets and the ventilated sport units — were quite good.

 

2017 Jaguar XE
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

Another element of luxury is ride quality, and the XE absolutely kills in in this area. Available active dampers constantly monitor road conditions and adjust accordingly, resulting in a ride that is firm yet polished even on 20-inch rims. Better yet, the suspension can be tailored through multiple modes, and the same can be said for the steering, engine, and transmission.

Related: With the XF, Jaguar finally shakes Ford’s failures and finds a fresh future

The XE does offer fixed suspensions in both Standard and Sport guises as well, but unfortunately, neither was available to test in Aspen.

Function follows form

Infotainment and user interfaces have historically been low points for Jaguar, but there are real signs of improvement on the XE. For instance, the available InControl Touch Pro system features a 10.2-inch touchscreen that is magnitudes more responsive than the old 8.0-inch unit, and the graphics quality is first-class. You’ll notice I said “signs of improvement” and not “a whole new leaf” though, because as expected, there are a few drawbacks.

The screen is devoid of any real buttons, for one, which feels like overcompensation for the brand’s previously clunky efforts. It almost feels too advanced, as features like air conditioning and seat ventilation are buried within submenus and are too difficult to find. These are essential, everyday functions that should be accessed with a simple control. In addition, much like the F-Pace, Jaguar’s InControl Apps smartphone system takes the place of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and that could turn off some buyers.

Overall, the XE’s center console and interior in general are nice to look at, but if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll find glaring problems staring back at you. After spending a day driving and riding in the XE, it became very evident that there are still a few bugs to be worked out.

Conclusion

With a seven-year absence from the compact luxury world, the XE is a triumphant return to form for Jaguar. The best seat in the house is undoubtedly the driver’s, but for some, that’s all that matters.

Other options in the segment may be more comfortable (Mercedes C-Class) or more technologically impressive (Audi A4), but few others will engage you like the XE will. Throw in one of the few diesels left in the class and an ever-improving technology suite and you have a car that was definitely worth the wait.

Welcome back, Jag, we’ve missed you.

Highs

  • Classy British looks
  • Excellent handling and ride
  • Lovely power from supercharged V6
  • InControl Touch Pro infotainment is much improved
  • One of the few diesels left in the segment

Lows

  • Some head-scratching interior designs
  • Cramped rear seat
  • Certain tech features are too hard to access