CAR Most Wanted of 2014: Jaguar C-X17

Published: 03 January 2014

Like an automotive Benjamin Button, Jaguar has spent the last few years shedding the trappings of advanced age, waking in the morning to find it no longer needs a stick to walk, finally allowing its Reader’s Digest subscription to lapse. XK, XF and XJ were like Omega-3 supplements to oil its achy joints, F-type an intravenous shot of Viagra. Perceptions have shifted, expectations risen, and the possibilities of what Jaguar can do have morphed beyond recognition in just a few short years.

Now an all-new aluminium platform, initially called iQ-Al (although likely to be given a less clunky name), is set to be rolled out across all future models, reversing the ageing process yet further and allowing Jaguar to respond with a spring in its step to today’s liquid market segments. IQ-Al will debut on Jaguar’s 3-series rival, due in 2015, but the car we’re getting a sneak preview of today, the C-X17 concept, gives a taste of the SUV due in 2016, set to be called either QX or Q-type.

I don’t doubt that a large number of you are looking at these pictures for the first time and recoiling in horror. It’s one of those crossover SUV things with a Jaguar badge stuck on, you’ll be thinking. Please, no, not that, anything but that. So it may be comforting to know that even Jaguar design boss Ian Callum once felt the same way.

‘Five years ago I wouldn’t have said a crossover was right for the brand,’ he reveals at an exclusive preview in Jaguar’s Whitley headquarters. ‘I’m a sports-car man and my established view was that a Jaguar needed to be low, but there’s a generation out there whose idea of a must-have car is a crossover, and whole countries know nothing else. I came round to the idea that we should try it.’

The sales figures suggest it could be a good idea too: Jaguar might be the world’s fastest-growing premium brand with year-on-year retail sales blooming by 33%, but the 44,000 units it shifted in the first seven months of 2013 lag way behind Land Rover’s 198,000. Its stablemate still rides high on the crest of the crossover SUV wave, and that trend shows no sign of abating: research specialists IHS Automotive predict sales of premium SUVs will increase 36% in the next five years.

A production version of the C-X17 is a chance to cash in on all that, but it’s a treacherous tightrope for Callum to navigate, Jaguar’s sporting heritage looming large below while gusts of Land Rover sturdiness force sporadic bouts of frantic arm-flailing.

The SUV concept’s positioning versus Land Rover is a conundrum, especially as this is the first time the two thus far complementary brands have overlapped, but insiders are confident that the focus on sporting, curvaceous design puts clear water between the Jaguar and any Land Rover cousins. Callum is equally cogent when I ask whether a car of this nature – and with Land Rover so focussed on off-road prowess – actually needs to have any off-road ability at all other than that granted by its raised ride height. ‘If you design a car with the suggestion of off-road capability, you need to fulfil that to a certain extent,’ he says. ‘Does it need to be as good as a Land Rover? No. Do you need to put multiple diffs and complexity in there? No.’

And what of the Evoque, Land Rover’s sales-conquering niche-buster? Surely that influenced Callum’s thinking…

‘We’d have done a design like this whether Evoque existed or not,’ says Callum. ‘I wasn’t mindful of Evoque in the slightest. I respect it, we’re aware of it, but it didn’t have an influence.’
Before walking into Jaguar’s design studio, I try to walk in Callum’s team’s shoes – Callum always references the team – and imagine what a Jaguar crossover might look like. I can’t; all I can conjure is something reminiscent of the original Porsche Cayenne or recent Bentley SUV concept – a jacked-up pastiche of an existing design language.

Then Callum casts open the doors to a large, empty courtyard and the silence is broken by a car firing to life behind shuttered doors. The C-X17 – a proper, working concept, just back from an on-location photo shoot – rolls out into daylight, the lustre of Caesium Blue paint glinting in the afternoon sunshine. It’s hard not to smile and nod in approval: the C-X17 looks both absolutely fresh, yet so cohesively tied to Callum’s current design language that you’d instantly ID it as a Jaguar, badges or no. At 4.7 metres long and 1.63 metres high, it’s as tall as an Evoque and provides the meat in an Audi Q5/Range Rover Sport sandwich in terms of length.

Several things quickly jump out: the design isn’t in the least derivative, but of all potential rivals it feels most comparable to a Porsche Cayenne or Infiniti FX, and both the strong overtones of F-type and the sense of length are striking. I’m also reminded of the first time I saw the Land Rover LRX, the concept that became Evoque – the C-X17 looks so right that it’s impossible to imagine it flopping.

But Callum will happily admit that this was far from an easy project. ‘It took longer than anticipated to get the silhouette right,’ he says as his latest creation rolls to a stop before us. ‘We couldn’t just borrow it off Land Rover, we’re more sinuous than that, and just a few millimetres can make such a difference. We had two or three attempts at it.’

Callum wanders around the CX-17, lingering over the F-type taillights and haunches, the Coke-bottle shape and ‘barrelled’ sides, pointing to headlights that are a development of XF and XJ, explaining that he felt no need to re-imagine the trademark front grille. But it’s the silhouette that he keeps coming back to. ‘We wanted a sense of length and speed,’ he says, swooping his hands along the flanks. ‘We wanted it to be exciting. You can sense the excitement of the proportions, even though it’s quite pragmatic.’

The concept’s abruptly truncated nose, he says, was always part of the plan, even on early sketches: ‘I wanted it to suggest the north/south engine and rear-wheel drive – Jaguar’s history.’ The production car would offer four- and six-cylinder engines along with rear- and all-wheel drive.

Callum describes how concept cars need to shout loud in noisy spaces, but that the gigantic 23-inch wheels are ‘far from inconceivable’, and that the glasshouse, while slim, is still possible ‘within real-world constraints’, that while the roofline is dramatic, it also helps with the aerodynamics – ‘you need to extend it as far as you can,’ he says.

‘We’ll have this eternal battle about the package and style, but if you have to take a bit of volume out of the interior to help the exterior, I’d say do it. If you want a car to take home something from B&Q every weekend, it’s not for you. But if you want to take the kids to school, have fun, maybe drive over a field, it is.’

Despite Callum’s talk of real-world constraints, of not wanting to mislead people with concepts, and the camouflaged mules already spied testing, the official line is the usual one: that this is a concept car only, one that’s far from guaranteed for production. But while Jaguar was quite right to can the C-X75 supercar concept – those buyers want a V12, not a powerful, battery-boosted four, no matter how clever – it’d be madness to walk away from the open goal that is the C-X17.

And when it does officially, inevitably get the green light, it’ll need to be a world-class driver’s car. That’s where the modular iQ-Al aluminium platform comes in, Callum describing his crossover concept as ‘a book-end of what we could get out of this architecture’, a small sports car no doubt residing at the other end.

‘We have developed the expertise to build aluminium-intensive structures like no-one else does, then shared it with Land Rover,’ says vehicle-line director Kevin Stride. ‘No-one matches it now and iQ-Al will take it further. We started with a clean-sheet and asked ourselves, what are the attributes that we want in a class-leading, no-excuses Jag. It will have innovative technology, seductive design, intelligent design. The core of the architecture is the middle and front, and the double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension is a common concept, but it’s fully tuneable for every segment – it helps ride, refinement, steering precision and handling capability. IQ-Al is a toolbox, it’s fantastic.’

The design is there, the perfect platform seems to be there. Jag’s crossover is a done deal, no? ‘I don’t like to over-promise on concepts,’ smiles Callum. ‘That’s all I’ll say.’