THE PEOPLE WHO RUN JAGUAR tend to get caught up in the company's heritage, and you really can't blame them. That past is glorious, and it's something brands like Lexus and Infiniti can never match. But heritage can be a crutch, or even a hurdle. Jaguar's design remained mired in the late 1960s through the early aughts, when buyers were snapping up avant-garde Audis and BMWs. When the most visible Jaguar today, the F-type roadster, debuted a few years ago, we heard almost as much about the E-type that inspired it as we did about the new car itself. And as for those six "continuation" Lightweight E-types built last year? God bless their every authentic rivet, but they didn't create showroom traffic.
That will be the job of the F-Pace, Jaguar's first SUV. The F-Pace is not an amber-colored prism for people wanting to squint their eyes, click their heels, and pretend they're having tea with Sir William Lyons at Browns Lane in 1965. Rather, it's a reflection of the present, where crossovers are the hottest thing going.
Fortunately, that reflection has refracted through a British lens. Built with aluminum bones and skin at Jaguar's Castle Bromwich assembly plant in England, the F-Pace is without doubt one of the best-looking crossovers on the market. The design is elegant, coherent, athletic. The tight rear end, with its F-type-inspired haunches and taillamps, doesn't suffer from the big-butt syndrome that afflicts so many other SUVs.
The F-Pace's interior is another break with Jaguar's past, as it emphasizes practicality over stylistic flourishes like the F-type's power-rising vents. Yet the cabin is handsome, roomy, and well made; everything you touch and see confirms you're in a Jaguar. And the rear seat is not a penalty box: Although the F-Pace has a high beltline like its cousin, the Range Rover Evoque, it's easy to see out the side windows. The panoramic roof, one of the biggest in class, doesn't overly impinge on rear headroom, there's plenty of room for legs and knees, and cargo space exceeds that of the Audi Q5, Lexus RX, and Porsche Cayenne. "I can't remember the last time, as a Jaguar designer, I could say we had best-in-class measurements," says Wayne Burgess, who's head of Jaguar's production design studio.
Jaguar certainly never had best-in-class infotainment, but its new Touch Pro system, the result of a four-year collaboration with Intel, is in the hunt. The 10.2-inch display screen in the clear and simple center stack provides amazing graphics and superfast pinch-and-zoom. It's enough to make any current Jaguar owner weep. Bummer is, Touch Pro is part of a $3200 technology package, and the standard setup isn't nearly so special, with a smaller screen and far less processing capacity.
And what about that other driver interface, the steering wheel? Well, it looks and feels right. The steering is not too light, not too heavy, very predictable and precise, perfect for dodging around fatalistic drivers on mountain roads in the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, where Jaguar hosted media.
As for the "pace" part, while most competitors have standard turbocharged four-cylinder engines, for similar money, Jaguar provides a 340-hp supercharged V-6, with a 380-hp version reserved for the S model. This is either a bonus for buyers or evidence that Jaguar is still lagging in powertrain development or both. Jaguar is working on a new engine family, Ingenium, which has already yielded a 2.0-liter turbodiesel, on sale this fall as the F-Pace's nominal price-leader model, the 20d. The Ingenium initiative will also eventually produce a gasoline four and, rumor has it, a new inline-six to replace the V-6.
The diesel is a little loud at start-up, but once you're under way, it seamlessly delivers its 318 lb-ft of torque. We spent most of our time with the more powerful six, the same engine that makes great sounds in the F-type. Here it's more subdued, with barely discernible supercharger whine, although the exhaust opens up under hard throttle. Even with 380 hp, the F-Pace doesn't feel quite as light as you would expect of a vehicle made mostly of aluminum. Good thing the V-6, like the diesel, is paired with ZF's excellent eight-speed automatic transmission. Hit the paddles for passing; once you're down to third, you're flying.
The F-Pace's off-road capability is a step above that of competitors, no doubt due to in-house expertise from Land Rover. There's hill-descent control and also a low-speed off-road setting whereby you steer, feet off pedals, while the car applies throttle and brake to climb inclines. Few owners will ever clamber along rocky trails in Montenegro's heavily wooded, high-altitude Lovcen National Park. The F-Pace was nonetheless happy to do so.
The F-Pace certainly feels like a Jaguar, but to call it the F-type of SUVs, as Jaguar inevitably does, is premature. That title will have to wait for an F-Pace R with a supercharged V-8 and tweaked chassis. It's surely in the cards, but Jaguar engineers will only smirk when asked about it.
An SUV might not be your idea of a Jaguar, but when was the last time you bought a new Jaguar? The brand sells only about 15,000 cars a year in the U.S., no recipe for success. If the F-Pace can steal even a fraction of the Lexus RX's 100,000 sales, it will secure Jaguar's future.