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At last. At long last. Jaguar has bravely stepped out of its den for a second chance in the ultra-competitive compact exec world. You remember the a-Ford-able, front-wheel drive X-Type, don’t you – yup, the one that turned poor old Lyons in his grave. Well, that went south in 2009, leaving the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS, Infiniti Q50 and the almighty BMW 3 Series without a feline foe for five long years.

For good reason – Coventry knew they had to get it absolutely right this time, and once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. So, over two billion pounds and what has seemed like an eternity later, in creeps the Jaguar XE, packing an all-new aluminium-intensive modular architecture, a new family of engines, up-to-date technology and sports car-inspired styling.

Completely ignoring what they say about curiosity and cats, we eagerly hopped over to Navarre in northern Spain to meet the XE in its new 180 PS 2.0 litre Ingenium diesel, 240 PS 2.0 litre petrol and 340 PS 3.0 litre supercharged V6 forms. We even used the V6 as a weapon against the challenging Circuito de Navarra.

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I have to admit that upon the Jaguar XE’s unveiling at last year’s Paris show, the styling left me a little underwhelmed. Sure, the sculpted bonnet, scowling bi-xenon eyes with ‘J-blade’ DRLs, plus F-Type-inspired side gills and tail lamp signatures are cool elements, but they don’t immediately jump out at you.

Of course, you may like this aesthetic restraint, but for me, there’s just too much of a resemblance to big-brother XF, although the recently-unveiled new model widens the looks gap a bit. Don’t get me wrong – the XF is a cracking-looking thing, but this isn’t like calling the C-Class a mini S-Class. The likeness here is, sadly, less in its favour.

That doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s muscularly well-proportioned – it’s Ian Callum, after all. Approach the XE from any angle and you’ll appreciate how compact and taut it is; not an ounce of fat, as if it were a single element to begin with. The rear doors look a bit pinched when viewed side-on, but otherwise, this is how compact execs are meant to look – as ‘sports car’ as four doors can get.

And a lot of that ‘sports car’ look is down to its dimensions. The XE is 4,672 mm long, 1,850 mm wide and 1,416 mm tall, with a 2,835 mm wheelbase. So it’s very low and very wide; more so than both the 3 Series and C-Class. This contributes to a 0.26 drag coefficient, making it the most aerodynamic Jaguar ever. Overall length and wheelbase eclipse the Beemer and come very close to the Benz, although no one’s beating that long Infiniti Q50.

In ascending order, you have Pure (SE in the UK), Prestige, R-Sport, Portfolio and S (V6 only) trims. Pure gives you fabric seats and gloss black door trim and Riva Hoop, while Prestige ups it with Taurus leather (perforated if you opt for ventilated seats), blue ambient lighting and brushed aluminium for the door trim and Riva Hoop.

Graduate to R-Sport and you get a bodykit (bigger air intakes, side sills and boot lip spoiler), sports suspension and ‘noble chrome’ side gills. Step inside to a sports steering wheel, etched aluminium door trim and Riva Hoop, and Taurus leather/mesh fabric seats. No prizes for guessing which 3 Series trim this targets. Analogous to R-Sport is Portfolio – the luxury trim gives you herringbone-perforated Windsor leather, a two-tone dashboard and colour-keyed twin-needle stitching, but no bodykit.

The performance-king V6 S (right) has the same bodykit as the R-Sport (left), only the side intake blades are gone and the rear apron is gloss black. Red callipers peek through 19-inch or the fabulous optional 20-inch ‘Propeller’ alloys. Sports suspension, of course. Inside, you’ll find Taurus leather/suede seats, a gloss black centre console and dark hex aluminium on the doors and Riva Hoop.

Now we get to its skeleton. The XE is the first vehicle to use Jaguar Land Rover’s modular iQ[Al] platform, which will underpin many future models. As you’d expect from JLR, it’s aluminium, aluminium, aluminium – 75% of the body is made of the stuff, giving rigidity, strength and lightness that promote safety, dynamism and fuel economy. Still, its 1,474-1,700 kg kerb weight range is hardly earth-shattering – with less aluminium, our 316i and C 200 already weigh around 1.4 tonnes each, and even lighter variants exist elsewhere.

Up front sits the F-Type’s double wishbones, while ‘Integral Link’ multi-links take up the rear. The XE is the first Jag to have electric power steering – apparently Coventry’s engineers only now consider the technology “sufficiently mature” for a Jaguar. They say it helps to reduce consumption and emissions, while making advanced driver aids possible. The system varies assistance and damping according to speed; it can even compensate for road camber changes.

Something you won’t find anywhere else in the class is a low-speed, low-traction management system, called All Surface Progress Control (ASPC) in this case. Adapted from Land Rover and available only on automatic models, ASPC ensures smooth progress over snow, wet grass and other slippery surfaces by way of cruise control between 3.6 km/h and 30 km/h – the driver merely steers.

While tastefully appointed, the interior isn’t the most dramatic and inspiring of places to be. The signature Riva Hoop (the ‘hoop’ that travels from door to windscreen to door) gives off a cockpit feel, and the way the side air vents encroach snugly into the door cards and sit on the upper ledge (the doors have two ledges!) is visually interesting, but everything else is disappointingly conservative. The 3 Series is just as guilty, but have you seen the C-Class’ interior?

You sit pretty low, and that transmission tunnel remains as tall as ever, adding to that ‘sports car’ feel but not helping the impression of space, especially with the dark interior. The positioning of the window switches and the layout of the Jaguar Drive Control (Eco, Normal, Winter, Dynamic modes) aren’t ideal, but otherwise, ergonomics cannot be faulted, due to the overall conventionality resulting in instant familiarity.

The front seats are up to 14-way power-adjustable – some have adjustable lumbar and are heated/cooled, but extendable thigh supports are nowhere to be found. The steering wheel is electrically-adjustable for rake and reach. Plenty of 12V sockets – one in the armrest box along with an SD slot, USB socket and AUX, two under the rear air vents and one in the boot.

The eight-inch InControl touch-screen offers iOS and Android functionality, WiFi, navigation and voice control. While easy to use, it has to be said that it isn’t the most graphically-appealing, functional or responsive of interfaces – BMW’s iDrive and Merc’s COMAND remain ahead here. The display is capable of showing split-screen views of the top, front, back and front wing of the vehicle. And of course, you can opt for an 11-speaker Meridian sound system.

Ahead of the rear-view mirror is a stereo camera that makes possible autonomous emergency braking (up to 80 km/h), traffic sign recognition, lane departure warning and high-beam assist. There’s also radar-guided Adaptive Cruise Control, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, plus auto parallel and perpendicular parking. A class-first laser head-up display shows vehicle speed, navigation directions, speed limits and cruise control details.

The pinched rear doors hint at the back seat space available. Think the 3 Series is cramped? Jaguar begs you to think again! With the front seat in my own seating position, 175 cm-tall me has adequate shoulder room, hair brushing against roof when leaned back, and very little legroom. Saving graces are a natural backrest inclination, good thigh support and a middle seat that doesn’t feel like you’re sitting on a rock.

Some models get a powered rear blind, but none of the cars tested had rear side blinds. Uniquely, the back seat is split 40:20:40, which negates the need for a load-through catflap. Pulling two yellow knobs in the boot unlatches the seats, but you have to come round to the rear quarters to push them down. The seats then fold 60:40 – you unlatch the middle 20 by pushing a button beneath the middle headrest.

The boot holds 450 litres – good, but its classmates all do 480, while the Infiniti Q50 manages 500. Diesel cars have an AdBlue selective catalytic reduction filler cap here, and under the boot floor you’ll find the battery and either a spare tyre or a tyre repair kit. A powered boot is available on some models.

Nitty-gritty time. For now, the Jaguar XE is available with a new 2.0 litre Ingenium four-cylinder turbodiesel in 163 PS/380 Nm and 180 PS/430 Nm states of tune, the familiar Ford-derived 2.0 litre turbo petrol in 200 PS/280 Nm and 240 PS/340 Nm forms, and the 340 PS/450 Nm 3.0 litre supercharged V6. All petrols get an eight-speed ZF 8HP45 auto; diesels either that or a six-speed manual. Supercharged V8s are on the way – wait for the R and SVR models!

We stepped out of Vitoria-Gasteiz airport to a beautiful sun-soaked afternoon, and there to greet me was the 180 PS 2.0 litre Ingenium diesel variant, decked out in R-Sport trim, 18-inch alloys and, joy of joys, the do-it-yourself gearbox!

Impressive little engine – operation is smooth throughout, and the shove gradually builds from 1,500 rpm before really getting going between 2,000 and approximately 4,000 rpm. At this point, the motor goes from a civilised hum to belting out a pretty sporty soundtrack that can be addictive. Engine refinement is good on the whole, and the clatter is inaudible inside at idle.

The gearbox is a delight – the heavy spring bias calls for a very positive and confident gearchange without being overly notchy, serving to engage you deeper in the drive. Now you’re thankful for the high centre console, for the gear knob is ideally positioned, finding your palm as if by telepathy every time. Ratios are quite evenly spaced, and the clutch bite gradual.

Now, modern Jaguars have always had more than decent steering – their hitherto hydraulic loyalty resulted in a rudder that felt markedly weightier, chattier and more natural than all the electric stuff out there. And while their first attempt at EPS doesn’t bring the analogue, alive feel back, it’s accurate, adequately-weighted and quick. Not as instinctive and talented as the 3 Series’ helm, perhaps, but more conducive to spirited driving than the C-Class’, I dare say.

On winding country roads, the Jaguar XE is at home – almost literally, considering the kind of tarmac you find off British motorways. The car feels light on its paws, agile and athletic, with a planted chassis that wouldn’t let itself be bullied by mid-corner ruts and ridges. This car’s passive sports suspension proved a near-perfect blend of dynamics and comfort – minimal body roll, no bounciness through undulations and little harshness. Malaysian roads may tell a different story, though.

I then tried a car with the same engine, but with the auto gearbox, optional adaptive dampers and in Portfolio trim. The bright upholstery makes a real difference, livening up an otherwise prosaic office, making it seem airier than it is and better conveying an impression of luxury.

Somehow, the ZF ‘box is still not as talented overall as BMW’s application – gearchanges are quick and smooth throughout, but Munich’s unit reads your mind, responses and does the relaxed/rapid duality better. No mention of the Jag’s gearbox talking to the navigation system like BMW’s does, so that could be a factor. The shift paddles don’t require finger-stretching, have relatively short click travels and do the job well.

While the auto feels just as rapid as the manual (both do the century sprint in 7.8 seconds), I noticed I could hear more of the engine with the auto, but this is likely down to gearchanges being more frequent. The adaptive dampers didn’t feel like they improved the ride all that much; in fact, was the setup even stiffer and more jittery? Difficult to tell, as we weren’t driving down the same stretch of road.

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Done with the diesels, I then got into the model most relevant to our market – the 2.0 litre petrol auto, with 240 PS, passive sports suspension and an R-Sport jacket. We know this engine – it’s the 2.0 Ti found in our XF and XJ. Here, the powerplant exhibits much less of the jumpy, turbo-lag-and-then-whoosh behaviour found in our XF 2.0 Ti and more of the XJ 2.0 Ti’s progressive and linear power delivery.

It is, however, less refined than the new Ingenium diesel, and with 90 Nm less torque, considerably less athletic. Peak power only arrives at 5,500 rpm, so you really have to find those revs for any kind of swift progress. Its nature can best be described as relaxed, and I wanted to say pick this if you do a lot of cruising, but the diesel cruises equally well.

Don’t get me wrong – the 2.0 litre petrol is not slow. In fact on paper, it’s a full second quicker to 100 km/h than the 180 PS diesel, auto versus auto. But things are different in the real world – we don’t make pedal meet metal in search of redlines all the time, do we? In the low- to mid-ranges (overtaking, coming out of corners), where it matters, it’s the oil burner that has the edge.

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But of course, all of them pale in comparison to the S and its 3.0 supercharged V6. With this under its bonnet, the XE is finally the car it wants to be, in possession of enough thrust to make full use of its wonderfully dynamic chassis. At low revs there’s an almost primal growl which escalates to an enraged, pulse-racing roar as the needles climb, twin-vortex supercharger whining wistfully in the background. This is a different breed of cat.

Don’t anger it and it remains perfectly docile and civilised in all situations – strangely, even the adaptive-damped suspension here provides quite a supple ride. And that’s in spite of those 19-inch rollers. Still, that distant low-rev growl always reminds you that only your right foot stands between baby Simba and Lion King Simba, and then you’ll go from 0-100 km/h in a little over five seconds.

So, to appease it, we brought it to Circuito de Navarra in Los Arcos. Opened in 2010, the 3.9 km track hosts the Superleague Formula and FIA GT1 series. It features an 800 metre straight, moderate elevational changes and many deceptively tight turns that can catch out all but the most experienced of drivers. Good job we had instructors beside us, then.

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It was clear by mid-lap that the Jaguar XE was very dynamically capable. There’s so much front-end grip, and turn-in is fast and sharp, thanks to torque vectoring braking the inside wheels during cornering. It takes a lot for the tail to break traction (DTC is engaged by pressing the stability control button once; press and hold and you’re really on your own); but when it does, catching it back is not as instinctive as you’d expect.

Part of it’s down to the steering – while it’s brilliant on the road, it lacks that meatiness you get when you take BMWs out on track. This meatiness – artificial or not – necessitates more steering effort and gives you more natural control. The XE’s tiller calls for more delicate and sensitive palm work, which can be difficult to do when the hairpin is fast approaching and your heart’s in your mouth – I don’t have racing-driver nerves of steel, mind!

Right, so when’s it coming? We’re told the first cars are set to arrive in ASEAN for homologation around July, and that Singapore is targeting a November launch, so that’d probably make it early next year for us. And since our XF and XJ are offered with both petrol and diesel engines, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the same for our XE, although the eight-speed auto should be the sole gearbox on offer.

What is clear is that the XE has made a comeback for Jaguar in this segment – and what a comeback. It may not be as comfortable, spacious or welcoming inside as the Mercedes C-Class, but dynamically, it deserves to hold its head high alongside the BMW 3 Series. If you resonate more with ‘sports saloon’ than ‘compact exec’, you’d do well to check this cat out – and you’ll stand out, for sure. Up in the clouds, Sir William Lyons is smiling.

XE 2.0 diesel 180 PS R-Sport manual

XE 2.0 diesel 180 PS Portfolio auto

XE 2.0 petrol 240 PS R-Sport auto

XE S 3.0 supercharged V6 340 PS auto

XE official images