Inside job: report from the glittering Jaguar XE world unveiling in London

The London unveiling of perhaps the most important Jaguar ever was a no-expenses-spared event.

The Jaguar XE at its world premiere at Earls Court in London. The company’s new entry-level model, which was launched with a grandiose ceremony, aims to help Jaguar compete with unit-shifters from BMW and Audi. Courtesy of Jaguar
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The onslaught begins as soon as my driver approaches London. Huge advertising posters line the route, telling tens of thousands of motorists that the time is nearing for a new Jaguar. Such is the way with marketing campaigns these days, there’s a hashtag that they want us all to key into the world’s social-media channels: #feelxe – because Jag, you know, wants you to get a bit excited about its new car and go mental on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

Along with hundreds of journalists from all over the world, I’ve been flown to the English capital to witness first-hand the unveiling of the XE – the sports saloon that Jaguar is pinning practically all its hopes on until the real volume seller, its SUV, comes along in two or three years. The extravaganza is due to take place at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, the venue for so many of Jaguar’s previous model debuts – because Britain’s long-defunct ­motor show used to be held there.

We’ve been drip-fed information titbits for days, with the promise of mixing it up with celebrities, live music and entertainment like we’ve never before experienced. Oh, and we’ll be the first in the world to see the XE in the metal, and there’ll be a strictly enforced embargo of 8.10pm on the night, after which we’ll be free to post photos and details on our blogs, websites, Twitter feeds and all the rest. Jaguar won’t tolerate anyone stealing its thunder – that message is made loud and clear.

The main message being heard here, though, is that the XE is a huge deal for its maker. It might come as a surprise for you to learn that, despite its rich history, its vastly improved reliability ratings, its range of extraordinarily good models, the undeniable beauty of its designs and the performance on offer from its hottest machines, that Jaguar still only sells about half the number of units that Porsche shifts each year. And that has to change if Jaguar is to survive – it really is as simple as that. It needs a car for the masses, a vehicle that can jump into the ring and fight it out with BMW’s 3 Series and Audi’s A4. If Jaguar can’t make this work, then perhaps there really is no hope, so the XE had better be a belter.

Early signs are extremely positive. The morning before the unveiling, we hacks are summoned to a press briefing that consists of technical seminars where the guys in charge of various aspects of the XE’s development explain what will set the car apart from its perceived rivals.

First and foremost, the XE is a sports car that just happens to have four doors. All variants will be rear-wheel drive and the Middle East will initially get the S model (let’s just hope the badging has been carefully thought out), which has the 3.0L, supercharged V6 from the F-Type – a huge advantage for the XE, because it’s a masterpiece of an engine that provides electrifying performance and a soundtrack your ears were made for. To know that thing will be powering a saloon car is excellent news.

Another unanticipated delight is that the XE S (see what I mean?) will be offered with either an eight-speed automatic gearbox or, and this really is music to my ears, a six-speed manual. It’s formed from 75 per cent aluminium – a new high-strength grade, most of which is recycled, meaning it’s light, stiff and environmentally sensitive. Other markets will be offered a diesel that, Jaguar claims, achieves CO2 emissions of just 99 grams/100km (take that, hybrids) and combined fuel economy of 3.76L/100km. No, those numbers are not typos.

Also, this Jaguar will be fitted with a state-of-the-art infotainment system that banishes to the dustbin the infuriating tech that blights even the F-Type. The XE is a car that will appeal to geeks as well as drivers, with previously unseen levels of connectivity between car and smartphone.

The S will have on tap some 340hp and 450Nm of twist, will be able to crack 100kph from rest in 5.1 seconds and then power on to a governed top speed of 250kph. Speak nicely to someone with the necessary software to liberate its true maximum and you’re probably looking at a car that can keep up with a Porsche 911. And, while pricing is yet to be set for the UAE, in the United Kingdom you’ll be able to get an XE for as little as £27,000 (Dh161,129) – loose change for a car that supposedly offers so much in the way of practicality, performance, driving dynamics and sheer beauty.

Ah yes, we still don’t know what it actually looks like, but that will be sorted out tonight, when we’ll see it before anyone else and the package will be complete. As a fan of Jaguar (I’ve owned two in my time), I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to seeing its new saviour, but I’m also beginning to worry that the unveiling will be a bit of a shambles.

The dress code, we’ve been advised, is “London Cool” – alarm bells are beginning to sound in my head, for I fear this is going to be less about the actual car and more about fashionable celebrities on the red carpet. I’ve been to celeb-fests with car companies before (Audi always seems to get the balance just right), but in recent times both Jaguar and Land Rover have embarrassed themselves by putting more faith in the draw of actors, singers and sportsmen/ women than in the products they’re putting into the spotlight.

It’s a worrying development in the industry. The masses might hang off every word uttered by a woman called Kardashian, but are those people really Jaguar’s target market? Do BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Infiniti or even the likes of Ford, Honda, Fiat, GM or Chrysler depend on the so-called endorsement of celebrities to get their cars noticed? When Sir William Lyons first showed off the E-Type – which has become one of the few truly iconic cars of all time – at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961, did he feel the need to ask Cliff Richard or Dizzy Gillespie to perform ditties beforehand, to ensure the media gave it some exposure? No, Lyons knew very well that the car he was debuting was the best of its kind and that certainty is what got the masses frothing at their collective mouths.

The XE’s public unveiling, however, turns out to be the very antithesis of restrained, elegant confidence. There’s a red carpet rolled out and up the steps into the Earls Court entrance foyer, but only those deemed worthy are permitted to walk it. The celebs (and there are plenty) are given white wristbands that grant them entry to the special enclosure (a tall hedge, no less, to keep prying eyes at bay), but not before they’re photographed in front of the “XE wall” like they’re attending the premiere of some Hollywood ­blockbuster.

After a short while, we’re herded into an auditorium of sorts, where we’re subjected to what can only be described as “XE: The Musical”: a 90-minute, self-indulgent, West End-style performance by bit-part actors, members of the Royal Ballet, Emeli Sandé and the Kaiser Chiefs. The story, which seems like it will never end, is loosely based on the life and times of Jaguar’s current design chief, Ian Callum, and it jumps from the present to the past and back again in a bewildering performance that has the assembled hacks taking to Twitter to vent their disbelief.

The whole thing draws out to the point that, by the time we finally get to see the car, the embargo expired an hour ago. The whole world has seen the XE before we have.

The car itself (yes, it’s nice to look at, but hardly revolutionary) has been flown across London suspended from a helicopter, in a stunt that Aston Martin pulled off in Dubai 18 months ago, before being sailed up the Thames on a motorised launch and driven into Earls Court to rapturous applause, while a teary-eyed Callum addresses the throngs to talk design.

It’s a pity that Jaguar has felt the need to put on these shenanigans, because the car should be strong enough to speak for itself – and, indeed, it looks like it should be able to do the job it’s supposed to. The reported cost of tonight’s show is some Dh25 million (not counting the spend on transporting everyone from all four corners of the world and putting them up in the finest hotels Knightsbridge has to offer). And that, more than anything else, is what leaves me scratching my head.

Just five years ago, Jaguar Land Rover looked like it was through. On the verge of extinction, thanks to the global financial crisis, it laid off huge swathes of its workforce; many people I personally know within the company were staring unemployment right in the face. Yet it has bounced back in spectacular fashion and now cannot keep up with customer demand, because of one thing: its range of cars. Jaguar and Land Rover have no need for such fanfare. Let the cars shine; let them speak for themselves, if they’re as good as they’re made out to be.

As those of us in the audience file out to queue for some bite-sized portions of classic British cuisine (the gourmet fish ’n’ chips are excellent), the celebs are whisked off to a barge on the Thames, where they witness Sandé perform a set that includes (I kid you not) a song inspired by the XE. It’s all rather puzzling, not least because the very people being catered to are here because it’s in their interests, not Jaguar’s.

Would they be likely to dig into their own pockets to fund one of these cars? I doubt it. Would you or I? If it’s as good to drive as it looks, and as its specification suggests, then, yes, we possibly would. The XE is, without a doubt, the most important Jaguar in history and, when the celebrity gossip mags are sent to be pulped and recycled, the photos from tonight’s hoopla will be all but forgotten. The XE’s true impact will be felt when it’s seen on the streets and in the showrooms; when it’s being driven by a new breed of customer that previously hankered after a 3 Series.

That’s the very best sort of publicity – and it doesn’t cost a penny.

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