► Jaguar E-Pace first drive
► New compact Jag SUV
► Top 296bhp petrol tested
The world domination of the SUV continues apace – or E-Pace, in this instance – with a new Jaguar off-road-alike that slots below the F-Pace both physically and alphabetically.
Rather than stealing sales from the larger car Jag reckons the E-Pace will bring new, younger customers through the door – and there are certainly enough of them; compact crossovers like this made up 40% of global SUV sales in 2016, and that number is only expected to increase.
It was inevitable, therefore, that the E-Pace would come along sooner or later. Premium rivals like the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 have been ploughing this particular furrow for years – and even sister-brand Land Rover is at it with the Discovery Sport and Range Rover Evoque.
Enough with the farming metaphors, what’s the Jaguar E-Pace like to drive?
Unsurprisingly it sits on the same platform as those JLR relatives (a chassis that can trace its heritage to the previous Ford Mondeo) but the E-Pace is more about sporting performance than off-road ability.
It’s powered exclusively by 2.0-litre, four-cylinder Ingenium engines ranging from a 148bhp diesel to a 296bhp petrol as used in the F-Type, although the latter’s soundtrack is a bit more business-like in the E-Pace.
You can have a six-speed manual gearbox or nine-speed ZF auto, plus two and all-wheel drive configurations, but the top petrol engine is AWD auto only. That means mechanically speaking at least it’s a rival to all-wheel-drive hot hatches like the VW Golf R or Audi S3.
Think about it – hatchback buyers are flocking to small SUVs like this, and sooner or later hot hatch customers will start doing the same. You can expect to see more and more performance-focused compact crossovers – the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, Seat Ateca Cupra and VW T-Roc R are just the beginning.
For now, though, the top E-Pace is a little off the actual pace. Granted it’s not a proper S-badged car but its 0-62mph time of 6.4 seconds won’t worry a Golf R, while Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 drivers will simply leave you in their dust. Still, at least you won’t have to look at a GLA 45 anymore.
It’s certainly not slow but hauling 1894kg around means although the E-Pace feels muscular on the move, its performance off the line isn’t quite as sparkling. The nine-speed automatic transmission is also quite hesitant and there were no gearshift paddles on our car, so it was tricky to overrule.
Oh. Does it handle well?
It’s certainly firm and the body control is quite neat as a result, but the brakes don’t inspire confidence as there’s very little feel through the pedal, which doesn’t mete out its power with much linearity.
The AWD system is grippy, however, unlike other current Jaguar models the E-Pace is set up to be predominately front-driven for economy, whether you pick the two-wheel drive model or the AWD car we’re in.
If you have the standard AWD driveline the system shuffles torque between the axles as you’d expect, but if you specify the Active Driveline (available on the top petrol and diesels) you get a trick twin-clutch rear differential like the Range Rover Evoque and Ford Focus RS.
There’s no drift mode this time, but you do get clever vectoring on the rear axle to help keep things neat and tidy, sending 100% of rear axle torque to whichever wheel has more grip. Pick the standard driveline and you make do with just the brake-based torque vectoring system.
Is it well equipped?
This near-top spec HSE car certainly is, boasting 20-inch alloys, powered gesture tailgate, keyless entry and 12.3-inch digital dials. The trim structure gives you the choice of the standard E-Pace or the sportier R-Dynamic version, and then from there you can add different equipment packs called S, SE and HSE.
Early adopters can get their hands on a First Edition model which sits above SE trim and gets you a pano roof, white leather seats, ambient interior lighting, head-up display and the Configurable Dynamics individual driving menu.
The interior is nicely styled and visually cohesive, save for a few areas where different panels and sections meet at awkward angles, notably around the infotainment screen. There’s loads of cabin storage space and techy options like a Wi-Fi hotspot for eight devices, too.
Overall the E-Pace feels like a step forward for Jaguar, particularly in the amount of tech on offer and the cabin design. It’s still behind the Audi Q3 in this regard however, and mechanically speaking it doesn’t feel as polished as the BMW X1, particularly in terms of refinement and transmission calibration.
Where the Jag does shine brighter however is in the looks department, with a character and style all of its own – unlike the (admittedly handsome) Giulia-on-stilts Alfa Romeo Stelvio.
As for this P300 model, while performance isn’t exactly lacking it’s not particularly exciting either, so we’d wait for an S-badged car if you want a proper hot hatch rival.
In the real world where you spend 80% of your time stuck in traffic you’re better off overall with one of the diesel models, all of which (with the exception of the base D150) feature more driveable, torquier (albeit rattlier) motors than this.
More Jaguar car reviews