What sort of mental imagery do your brain cells paint when you think of Jaguar? For me, the brand is epitomised by the beautiful and timeless E-Type, the 1960s Mk 2 saloon and even the XJ6 that Arthur Daley drove in the long-running British TV series Minder (you need to be of a certain vintage to remember this comedic drama about London's criminal underworld).
But the brains at Jaguar know you can’t cling to the past forever, because it’s this rearward-looking mindset that almost caused the brand to stall a decade ago. Since then, for the most part, the venerable Brit marque has leapt in a revolutionary direction, and the recently launched F-Pace is undoubtedly the most dramatic departure from the company’s carefully cultivated heritage.
The incentive to jump into the SUV fray was obvious. The German premium heavyweights – BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche – have all been cashing in handsomely from the genre, so much so that even Maserati and Bentley have recently joined the party, with Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce also preparing to unleash their own takes on the theme.
Jaguar could no longer afford to sit on the sidelines, regardless of any concerns of stepping on the toes of its sister brand Land Rover. Even in view of all this, the first time you slide into the elevated cabin of the F-Pace and are reminded this is a Jaguar by the leaping cat logo on the steering wheel, it still seems strangely surreal.
One might have thought Jaguar would look to Land Rover to source the hardware that forms the basis of the F-Pace, but it’s actually underpinned by an evolution of the lightweight aluminium architecture used by the XE and XF saloons, while the 3.0L supercharged V6 and eight-speed auto are also as per its stablemates.
The V6 is available in two flavours – entry-level models serve up a 340hp punch, while up-spec offerings (including the now-sold-out, limited-run First Edition that I was testing) score a pumped-up version that packs a 380hp wallop. The full-fat F-Pace weighs a beefy 1,861 kilograms (still less than the smaller Porsche Macan Turbo), so performance is merely rapid, rather than eye-wateringly intense. The gearbox is excellent – apart from being smooth-shifting, it has the knack of being in the right ratio at the right time.
The force-fed V6 is more vocal than one might have expected in a luxury SUV, but that’s no bad thing, because the twin exhausts spit out a pleasingly raspy note. What isn’t so pleasant, however, is the huge amount of wind noise emanating from the driver’s door mirror at higher speeds. This may be an anomaly in our test car, though, because a previous F-Pace that I experienced didn’t suffer from this affliction.
Jaguar has deftly honed the ride/handling balance of the XE and XF, and so it is with the F-Pace. It’s agreeably compliant (even on the 22-inch rims and low-profile rubber), yet it doesn’t mind being hurled at corners with far more entry speed than might seem appropriate for a lofty wagon. The 265-millimetre-wide Pirellis serve up bags of grip, and the Jag stays flat and composed under heavy cornering loads. That said, the brakes are a tad spongy and don’t wipe off speed with the urgency expected.
How does the F-Pace fare off-road? I don’t venture too far beyond hard-packed sand, because the low-profile rubber clearly isn’t suited to all-terrain heroics. But I sampled an F-Pace on 20-inch tyres with taller sidewalls at the car’s international launch in April, and that vehicle was no dunce in the rough stuff, thanks to the whizz-bang traction aids – adaptive surface response and all-surface progress control, in Jaguar speak.
The F-Pace’s cabin doesn’t deviate from the Jaguar formula, featuring the familiar rotary-knob gear selector, clearly laid-out virtual dials and excellent infotainment system. But the car falls short in the poor lateral and rearward visibility it affords, which is the result of its small glasshouse. Rear-seat passengers will feel particularly claustrophobic – their forward view is blocked by the high front seat backs, and the field of view out of the side windows isn’t great, owing to the F-Pace’s high-shouldered flanks.
Where the F-Pace scores especially well, though, is in its aesthetics. Jaguar’s crayon wielders have managed to conjure up proportions that gel well from any angle, while retaining a real sense of “Jaguarness”. I would argue that it’s the best looker in its segment, and this should help in Jaguar’s aim of attracting young, style-conscious buyers.
For a first stab at an SUV, Jaguar has pretty much nailed it with the F-Pace. It ticks enough boxes to take the fight to the Germans and will doubtless fatten up the company’s bottom line. All that remains to be seen now is whether it spawns an SUV family, with larger and smaller derivatives catering to every niche.
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