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Jaguar figures out the compact sport sedan

Ian Callum pictured with the Jaguar XE. — AFP picIan Callum pictured with the Jaguar XE. — AFP picNEW YORK, April 21 — There’s nothing simple in the world today. Even bread. It’s one of our most basic foods and yet the journey from farm to table is a daunting process. And the choices, from Wonder to artisan, are practically limitless.

Cars should be simple and mostly about conveyance. But that’s just the beginning of what some of us expect from them. Good ones can add elements of pop culture icon, status symbol, environmental statement and art object. Oh, and the truly desirable ones must entertain discriminating drivers.

Jaguar finally gets the compact sport sedan recipe right with its newest four-door, the quietly handsome XE. It is Jaguar’s most affordable machine, starting at around US$36,000 (RM158,130). More important, it competes nicely with the established players — the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS and Mercedes C-Class. Jaguar’s forgettable X-Type was never a real contender.

Jaguar engineers didn’t start from scratch. XE rides on the same robust architecture as the larger XF sedan and F-Pace sport utility vehicle (which is selling like the proverbial hot cakes). The structure is mostly bonded and riveted aluminium, much of which is gleaned from recycled material.

Complicating things, XE buyers must choose from three power plants. For maximum velocity, there is the supercharged V6 35t. Fuel misers will choose the 20d, a 4-cylinder turbocharged diesel that the Environmental Protection Agency rates at an average of 36 mpg.

I drove the 25t Prestige model, optioned up to US$47,000. That moniker means a gas-powered 2-liter turbo 4-cylinder is tucked under the bonnet. On the specified premium gas, it produces 240 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque.

No loafer, it scoots this rear-wheel-drive machine to 60 mph from rest in 6.5 seconds. The slightly slower diesel and high-performance V6 are available with all-wheel drive. All XEs change gears with an 8-speed automatic transmission.

Starting a Jaguar means a bit of theatre. Hop into the well-sculpted (but not overdone) driver’s seat and the start button pulses crimson in heartbeat fashion. Upon ignition, the rotary transmission selector rises from the console like a rock star. Manual shifts are executed with steering wheel paddles. Drive modes adjust transmission mapping, throttle response and steering weight.

My car lacked the US$1,000 adaptive suspension, but Jaguar engineers have baked up a satisfying blend of comfort and sport without it. The XE is proof that electric power steering can provide satisfying road feel to driving connoisseurs. Body movements are well tamed during hard romps in tight turns. Without driving them back-to-back on a closed course, it is tough to know which sporty sedan is tastier, XE, ATS or the 3 Series.

The EPA rates the 25t’s fuel economy at 21 city, 30 highway.

Still, there are some caveats, which you may notice during a test drive. Throttle response can lag at times. Mash the accelerator and it’s as if the ship’s wheelhouse has called down to the engine room for full power. This lull can provide unwanted drama at intersections with heavy cross traffic. Also, the fuel-saving automatic engine start-stop system makes itself known when firing back up. In rush-hour traffic, drivers will end up switching off the system if the front passenger hasn’t beat them to it.

XE’s cabin uses quality ingredients, but the other competitors rise above here. Those riding shotgun face a large swath of grained plastic. The wood veneer is so well done, it appears synthetic. For audiophiles, there is the excellent Meridian system with its accurate and detailed soundstage. But storage cubbies are on the skimpy side since the transmission knob takes up a good slice of the centre console.

There are some hard buttons to adjust the automatic climate system and such. But getting to the heated seat controls or radio presets means heading into the InControl touch-screen. The interface operation was moderately quick, fluid and trouble free for me during my week with it, but I’ve heard of the occasional hiccup from other auto journalists.

Those lugging child-safety seats in and out will find the rear door openings on the small side with back seat space somewhat meagre. Average adults will be fine but foot room is tight. A sunshade and heated rear seats are part of a US$2,235 package (not on my tester) that adds a vented feature to the front chairs. The raised drive shaft tunnel discourages a third passenger from riding in the rear.

The back seats split 40/20/40. That’s good because the trunk is not cavernous. Most sedans in the class will haul five carry-on suitcases. The XE stops at four.

My eye sees the XE as handsome, though it can be mistaken for any number of brands without the signature open-mouth Jaguar grille. That’s not to say it’s bland. In a week’s time, both my passengers and I noticed this Jaguar turned a lot of heads.

For those concerned about reliability, Jaguar Land Rover offers not just a five-year 60,000-mile warranty, but the scheduled maintenance as well.

It took Jaguar a while to find its way in this popular segment, proving how difficult and complex it is to bring something worthwhile to the table. The sedan market is ceding sales to SUVs, but the nuanced XE should be able to slice off some sales from its challengers. — The New York Times

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