Driving the Jaguar XE 20d; or, Nine Lives for Diesel

Too rich for many VW fans, but still one fuel-rationing Brit.

Jaguar Xe 20d

You might consider Volkswagen’s emissions scandal as a big, black nail in diesel’s coffin. But Jaguar (and Land Rover) is prying the coffin open, offering diesels in its newest models, all properly styled, British and sporty: The entry-level XE compact sedan, midsize XF and F-Pace SUV.

“Why?” and “How?” might seem appropriate responses to Jaguar’s move, in the wake of VW’s 100-story fall from grace. The “Why” involves two things, beginning with the still-magic mileage of diesel. The EPA credits the XE’s 2.0-liter turbodiesel with a frugal 32/42 mpg in city and highway, or 30/40 mpg with optional AWD. Secondly, Jaguar remains a luxury underdog, and diesel might lure a few prospects from Mercedes’s and BMW’s diesel models. (But not Audi, whose own scandalized diesel business is on what may be a permanent hiatus here.)

As for the “How,” I’d direct you to the Jaguar’s roomy trunk, where you’ll find a filler cap and reservoir for its Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system—one that could have saved VW several billion dollars worth of headache, deposed executives, and customers. Like every remaining diesel passenger car on our market, the Jaguar carries several gallons of Diesel Emissions Fluid (DEF). That urea-based exhaust solution neutralizes smog-forming nitrogen oxides—the bane of diesel engines—by converting them to harmless nitrogen gas.

See, VW’s management boasted that its diesel engines would meet America’s more-stringent pollution standards without a pricey and complex SCR system, which also requires owners to have that tankful of DEF refilled roughly once a year, or do the 10-minute job themselves. (We know how American drivers feel about even a mild inconvenience). VW engineers were tasked with this emissions breakthrough, macht schnell! Instead, heavily pressured engineers discovered there was no magic bullet, and hatched a fateful plan – with or without the blessing of management -- to simply cheat U.S. emissions tests with Trojan Horse software. In reality, and as some diesel competitors had suspected, VW diesels were actually belching off-the-charts levels of nitrogen oxides.

Jaguar underlines the fact that the XE meets tough California LEV III and federal Tier 3 standards, which for the first time will harmonize one set of pollution standards for all 50 states between now and 2025. That means diesel fans can drive the Jaguar with a clean conscience and cleaner tailpipe; so long as you can handle a $37,395 base price that’s just $1,500 higher than an XE with a 2.0-liter, 240-horsepower turbocharged gasoline engine. That four-cylinder gasoline version is rated at 21/30 mpg, which is poor by compact luxury-sedan standards, and identical to an XE with a rorty 340-horsepower supercharged V-6. So in my mind, if you don’t feel the need to knock off 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds, or to spend an extra $5,400 for that V-6 version, the diesel XE is worth a serious look – not least for saving a typical owner $650 a year in fuel compared with either four- or six-cylinder gasoline models.

I spent a week in a 2017 XE 20d with AWD, whose 180 horsepower and 318 pound-feet of torque proved… adequate. This Jaguar generated a 7.1-second scoot to 60 mph, trailing the gasoline four-cylinder by about one second and the blistering V-6 model by 2.5 seconds. The aluminum-block Ingenium engine weighs just 308 pounds, and gains efficiency with variable oil and water pumps, along with switchable piston cooling jets that operate only when needed. The engine is reasonably muted, with a barely detectable diesel tick-tock at idle, but a few coarser frequencies as it approaches 4,000 rpm, despite twin balance shafts that suppress unpleasant second-order harmonics.

As I learned in New York’s Hudson Valley, this economy-minded Jaguar won’t dynamite country roads like some run amok Mercedes AMG. Especially in its "Normal" driving mode, a boggy throttle maximizes turbo lag, and the little Ingenium can sound like it's working too hard. On the plus side, a healthy serving of torque gives the Jaguar reasonable urge for passing or merging, and the eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission helps keep the diesel in its sweet spot. And like any car with a first-rate chassis but only modest power (a base-model Porsche Boxster comes to mind) once you’re up to strafing speed in the Jaguar XE, it doesn’t matter that it took a few more seconds to get there: You’re still driving one of the most agile, engaging sport sedans in the class. A Cadillac ATS still holds the edge in pure steering feel and burly tire grip, but the Jaguar counters with a more-composed, luxurious ride. Dialing up the XE’s selectable Dynamic mode goosed the throttle and transmission, and I was soon careening through corners with nary a thought to what part of the petroleum barrel my fuel was sourced from.

What did grab my attention was the Jaguar’s slender, pedestrian steering wheel, stingy seat bolstering and budget plastic shift paddles, none especially conducive to G-force glory. As in some other Jaguar models, it’s easy to put a literal finger on what’s wrong with these interiors: So-so plastics and rubbery materials that recall something from the Gimp’s fetish closet. If Jaguar simply raised its game on materials and perceived quality, its otherwise cheerful cabins might be on par with Audi or Mercedes, rather than Acura or Infiniti. The XE’s back seat, while we’re at it, is among the tightest in the class, requiring up-front passengers to slide forward to create any semblance of knee room for adults in back.

Jaguar’s latest infotainment unit, the InControl Touch Pro system, is infinitely better than its virtual cave-drawing levels of old. But it’s still not the most intuitive, including a dearth of hard buttons and glacial response to some screen inputs, despite its hyped quad-core Intel processor. Mapping itself is almost Audi-good in graphics and detailed labeling, including the ability to pinch and swipe in smart-phone style. (But those dorky background photos to label functions, including an old-fashioned British phone booth, have got to go).

Performance and amenities aside, we know what really matters to diesel fans: Mileage, mileage and mileage. Could this handsome British sedan deliver a decent VW impression at the pump? To pull that off, the Jaguar would have to beat its federal fuel-economy ratings, not just meet them. And over a long freeway drive, at a mellow average of 62 mph, the XE diesel returned a stellar 46 mpg, easily beating the EPA’s 40-mpg rating. That’s especially impressive in an AWD sedan, one that parallel-parked into a snowy spot in Brooklyn that would have been tricky with rear-drive alone. On another highway stint, whipping the Jaguar like a psycho circus trainer, I still ended up at 34 mpg, economy you'd kill for in any gasoline sport sedan.

When I simply drove like a normal person – neither boy racer nor hyper-miler – the Jaguar’s combined city-highway estimate of 34 mpg was easily achieved. For the rear-drive model, that rating rises to 36 mpg, or 1 mpg better than a BMW 328d and its own 180-hp diesel.

As we speak, VW’s diesels are meeting a nightmarish fate, being yanked off the road by the hundreds of thousands, while the company pays a king’s ransom to owners to satisfy a court judgment. For America’s small-but-dedicated diesel cult, the painful loss has been an end to truly affordable options, leaving only the $24,670 Chevy Cruze diesel to soldier on for 2017.

In snazzy Premium trim, my Jaguar XE 20d cost $46,395, or nearly double what people were paying for VW Jetta, Golf or Beetle TDIs. That’s probably too rich for a VW owner’s blood, at least most VW fans I know. Will Jaguar prospects see a clean, no-cheating diesel as catnip, and help keep the technology alive in America? Or are they too focused on style and performance to give a hoot about conserving fuel and money? Readers, I leave it up to you.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.