If the F-Pace Sucks, Jaguar Is Dead

The brand is at a crossroads. Can this new crossover can save it?

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“If you drink, change your shoes before you go outside to take a piss, or you could be dead.”

This is the first thing I’m told about Arvidsjaur, Sweden, a municipality situated just 67 miles below the Arctic Circle. I’m here to drive the 2017 Jaguar F-Pace on a frozen lake. This crossover, the first in Jaguar history, is here for a final round of cold-weather testing. This advice comes from a local, a genuine Northern Swede, who’s shuttling me in a Land Rover to JLR’s winter testing facility. It’s -20°F outside, headed for a low of -25° later tonight. “When you walk outside drunk in your slippers,” he continues as we barrel into the darkness, nothing but snow and forest visible in every direction, “you fall, hit your head, and the cold makes you dead in five minutes.”

Duly noted.

But the Jaguar execs probably need a drink more than I do. The F-Pace has to be absolutely brilliant. Because if it’s not, the company’s effectively sunk. Fortunately, the outline for a rescue mission already exists.

In 2002, Porsche sold 21,000 cars in the U.S. That’s the year the Cayenne debuted, much to the horror of sports car purists (who, by the way, should shut up and take their lumps). Last year, Porsche sold 51,756 vehicles in the U.S.—nearly 60 percent of which were either the Cayenne or the Macan SUVs. Which explains why Porsche is still able to build a Cayman GT4 and a 911 GT3.

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And Jaguar? In 2002, the company sold some 61,000 cars in the U.S. In 2015, a record-setting year for practically every other brand, Jaguar sold fewer than 15,000 units, a decline from 2014. Consider this: The Porsche Macan, the F-Pace’s rival, nearly outsold all of the Jaguar models in the U.S. last year. If business doesn’t pick up, we won’t get another F-Type. Or any other Jaguar, for that matter.

So the company is hoping, praying, truly, that the F-Pace will be something like a Cayenne and Macan rolled into one. Jaguar is betting the farm on it. And here’s a detailed look at how the Brits are stacking the deck:

Make a Crossover that Drives Like a Jaguar

“We were so impressed with the Macan when it came out,” explains James Matthews, the lead engineer on the F-Pace’s dynamics, “that we stopped the program for two months.”

That was in mid-2014, pretty late in the game to hit the pause button. But Matthews explains that his team had to develop protocols for benchmarking the Macan, including new methods for side loading the suspension—methods that would lead to new ways to test their own cars’ suspensions. “Essentially it was: ‘Right. This is really good. What do we do to beat this thing?’”

Michael Frank/TheDrive.com

Jag’s immediate problem, in terms of handling, relates to the fact that the F-Pace is built on the underpinnings of the XF and XE models. Although those sedans handle well and inspire driver confidence, Matthews says you’re adding leverage to the lower half of a sports sedan suspension by pulling the chassis up and away from the wheels. Even with a very stiff, 80-percent aluminum body, the 3913-lb. F-Pace, which has 8.4 inches of ground clearance, had to be reworked. In particular, the front suspension was made 30 percent stiffer against lateral loads. In addition, Matthews said the engineers worked hard to get the “noise” out of the equation—that squishy, boat like quality. To do this, the F-Pace team added high-pressure diecast aluminum front suspension turrets, new front crossmembers and revised bushings while also recalibrating all the subframe mounting points. In short, it’s a stout chassis, and, all told, Jag says 81 percent of the chassis is unique to the F-Pace.

Jaguar engineers also found too much “corruption” in the rack and pinion steering, an electric system gifted from the XF, where it has been praised for excellent feel. The problems were twofold in making it work for the F-Pace. First,  unlike the XF, the F-Pace has powered front wheels. Second, there’s that additional leverage acting on the front end of the higher-riding F-Pace. So the F-Pace’s pinion gets an additional stabilizing joint that reduces deflection. Of course, driving the F-Pace on frozen segments of proving ground isn’t the same as asphalt, but the steering does feel exceptionally direct. There’s zero noise, or corruption (to Matthews’ term), felt through the tiller. And that’s a very good thing.

Don’t Let the Nannies Spoil the Party

Glen Longbottom is Jaguar’s All-Road Capability Team Leader, the shaman who makes all-wheel-drive crossovers feel like rear-drive sedans. While the Jag-ute’s drivetrain is technically capable of putting all of its power to either axle, the most the front will see is 50 percent. The rear will take 92 percent, and is the default whenever feasible. “Everybody else in the segment just has endless understeer,” Longbottom says. He wanted something with “a bit of lift-off oversteer.”

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We like Glen Longbottom.

The idea is to pull power out of the front wheels as quickly as possible, once the rear tires can get a purchase.  Driving clockwise on a circular ice ring at a steady 40 mph, I drive by looking out the passenger window, balancing the F-Pace with a countersteer and a hint of throttle. If you don’t push enough power rearward this is tough to do, because the front wheels will continually claw for traction. There’s even an algorithm that allows for a Scandinavian Flick, a rally technique that allows the F-Pace to look like it’s being driven by Tommi Makinen. (Watch Colin McRae explain the flick here:

Also, a note on the F-Pace’ stability and traction control: You can toggle both off, all the way. Like, totally, completely off. How can you not love that?

Offer a Diesel for Less than a Gas V-6—and 22-inch Rims

The base Jaguar F-Pace will cost $40,990 and come with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder diesel producing 180 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque. It’s doubtful anyone will bother, given the price of gasoline. The base gas engine is a 3.0-liter V-6, which costs slightly more ($42,390) but gives you nearly double the output (340 hp), and there’s a 380-hp supercharged version, too. The high-volume F-Pace models will sell for quite a bit less than the $54,400 Porsche Macan S, lending room to fit the new Jag with the factory 22-inch wheels that aren’t available on the competition.  

Crush with Coolness

As you would hope, the F-Pace is pretty inside. The new infotainment system, which uses a super-fast, Ethernet-wired system to connect a 10.2-inch touchscreen and 60GB solid-state drive, is very cool. It doesn’t have a joystick, mouse or trackpad, but rather the tap, swipe, and pinch motions of a smartphone. It’s all you need to drill into sub-menus and access digital wizardry.

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Jaguar’s also offering a waterproof wearable sports band, called an Activity Key, which puts all the keyfob functions on your wrist. Handy for any activity (like going for a jog) where you’re concerned about getting your keys wet or losing them.

Match Porsche on Cabin Space—Smoke them on Cargo Capacity

Nearly every stat, from headroom to legroom, matches Macan. That makes the F-Pace far more spacious than the Evoque, a very deliberate effort to not cannibalize Land Rover, the parent brand that is keeping Jaguar’s lights on during its sales drought. But with the rear seat either upright (33.5 cubic feet) or folded (61.4 cu. ft.), the F-Pace has far superior cargo room to the Porsche (17.7/53 cu. ft.) and Audi Q5 (29.1/57.3), from which the Macan gets its platform.

This last feature, sheer usability, will be key to this Jaguar’s success. Although benchmarked against the Macan, the F-Pace likely will steal buyers away from the Cayenne (it’s nearly that roomy) and the Q5, both of which are been there, done that, known quantities. And, beyond utility, the F-Pace is sexier than anything else in the space. It’s got enough gravitas for macho appeal (contrasted to, say, the Lexus RX), and enough of that old Jag dazzle that once won more female buyers than any other luxury carmaker.

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So, yes, it looks like the new Jaguar F-Pace is a winner. Even when I was standing around in minus temperatures at the frozen track, the sound of Jaguar’s roaring 380-hp V-6 made my heart pick up a beat or two. And when I got behind the wheel, the ZF-derived manumatic eight-speed (same as in the XE and XF, but recalibrated for the AWD F-Pace) felt good. It did out-think me once, downshifting when I wanted to hold a higher gear, something a Porsche PDK wouldn’t do, but it’s calibrated to hold a gear even at redline, and that it did without fail. I’m also pleased to report that this sporty new crossover is punishing only in track mode—or if you can’t resist those 22-inch wheels. In that case, I hope you live in San Diego, not Mahwah.

Still, the question remains: Is the new Jaguar F-Pace good enough? To learn that, we must drive one on actual pavement. And only then will we know if the F-Pace is the game-changer Jaguar so desperately needs.

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