We’re on a twisty back road between Welshpool and Bala in north Wales. The reason we’re on this road is because it’s one of Mike Cross’s favourites. Why? Because it helps this hugely experienced engineer to put the mystical quality known as ‘Jaguarness’ into every new car bearing the wild cat badge.
Today, the car he’s working on is the E-Pace, Jaguar’s smallest SUV so far with a starting price of £28,500. The compact/medium SUV market is now mega-competitive, with vehicles like the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA and some other slightly bigger vehicles now counting for about a fifth of all new cars sold in the UK.
So the E-Pace is a super-important car for Jaguar. It blends the steel architecture of the Land Rover Evoque and Discovery Sport with similar 2WD and 4WD systems and all-independent suspension set-ups, and Jaguar’s own Ingenium four-cylinder engines.
Cross is keen for people to understand that the E-Pace is very much a unique car (it’s a bit longer than the Evoque in both wheelbase and overall length) and very much a Jaguar in the way it’s designed to handle. The suspension has been Jaguar-modified and tuned. Its tailgate, bonnet, roof and front wings are all aluminium to reduce weight by a claimed 37kg. Even so, the lightest E-Pace is still 85kg heavier than the bigger F-Pace, which has a lot more aluminium in its monocoque.
Our prototype E-Pace has a 296bhp Ingenium turbo 2.0-litre petrol engine and big 245/45 tyres on 20-inch wheels (21s are available), but it doesn’t have the optional adaptive damping or the gearshift paddles that come with the top-sport R-Dynamic pack.
Your first impression of the cabin is of design simplicity and a build quality you wouldn’t normally expect in a prototype. Just about everything you can get in the F-Pace – 12.3in central screen, Wi-Fi hotspot, JLR-unique InControl apps – is going to be offered in the E-Pace. JLR expects the average E-Pace to cost something like £45,000.
Once moving, the next thing you notice is the agility and manoeuvrability that comes wth compactness. Then you notice the low-speed refinement. With passive suspension and 20in wheels, manhole covers and city road scars don’t go unnoticed, but the composure and poise are there.
It’s time to test designer Ian Callum’s claim that the E-Pace is “a Jaguar sports car designed for daily lives”. With this engine, the 0-60mph acceleration time of 5.9sec is right up there with the class leaders. The excellent low-rpm thrust is matched by equally excellent traction courtesy of the Active Driveline 4×4 system, the sportiest of the two E-Pace options. This system is much more willing to torque-vector power to the rear wheels, boosting the enjoyable (and Jaguar-essential) feeling of a rear-wheel drive car.
The nine-speed ZF automatic gearbox comes has two shift modes plus a non-spin ‘winter’ setting. Drivers can change gears ‘manually’: holding onto the gears to the 6500rpm redline reveals a pleasingly sporty tone, a nice progression on Ingenium engine applications in other cars which have delivered mixed results. At pottering speeds you can hardly hear it. Under power, and letting the box choose its own 5000rpm shift points, progress is satisfyingly rapid.
On variable-surface roads, there’s little road noise, strong stability and grip, and fine body control on all but the bouncier high-speed sections, where the extra control offered by the adaptive dampers would come into its own. “The ordinary ones are good, but adaptives extend the performance envelope,” says Cross. For us, the ideal configuration would include adaptive suspension, the Active Driveline and shift paddles.
It’s hard to be definitive about the steering, as we’re passengering here rather than driving, but even from the ‘wrong’ side of the cabin the amount of wheel input even in tight corners looks usefully low. Cross maintains that there’s no problem with light steering as long it tells the driver what’s happening at the front wheels. The E-Pace certainly feels quick and safe, and the sort of car that you could use hard in all conditions.
The E-Pace will be built in Austria and China, not the UK, as the Evoque and Discovery Sport are taking up all Halewood’s capacity. Even so, this feels very much like a British car – and a real Jaguar.