2018 Jaguar E-Pace First Drive: A Crossover Cub Goes Scouting in Corsica
Big surprise: Jaguar’s small crossover is the Pretty Thing of its class. Do those hot looks translate to hot performance?
In 2018, SUVs have become the lifeblood of every carmaker. And they’ve become a lifeboat for performance brands that might otherwise have been scuttled by the SUV armada. Porsche, most famously, found the Cayenne and Macan crossovers to be its salvation, not its ruin; their global success paid for the development of relatively-underperforming sports cars. If Porsche had to live on returns of the 911, Boxster and Cayman, it might have been out of business by now. Jaguar has found itself in the same position—which is why I found myself on the French island of Corsica in the Mediterranean, driving the E-Pace crossover SUV. (Before we get started, a word about that confusing name: The E-Pace is not the electric Jaguar. That’s the Jaguar i-Pace, coming later this year.)
If this rocky island seems an unusual place to sample a Jaguar, this SUV also springs from an unexpected locale: Not England’s green and pleasant land, as exalted by William Blake, but Graz, Austria, at the Magna Steyr factory that also builds the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and BMW 5 Series. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to fame from his Corsican birthplace, the E Pace is small, powerful, and commandingly stylish. Like the larger F-Pace, it can easily be argued as the most-stylish crossover in a class whose two-box proportions don’t lend themselves to handsome looks. The secret here is girth rather than length: Tall, small pseudo-hatchbacks like the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class and Audi Q3 (or the Chevy Bolt for that matter) can appear stubby or insubstantial, like half-smoked cigars.
But the Jaguar is a significant three inches wider than any small-fry rival, including the Mercedes, Audi, and BMW X1 (and now X2, too). The E-Pace, in fact, precisely matches the width of the one-size-larger Audi Q5. Yet at 173 inches long, the Jag is about 10 inches shorter than the Q5 and other “genuine” compacts like the BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class. (I guess we should start calling those “full-size compacts,” given the endless splitting of SUV sizes and segments). So the Jaguar not only feels a touch roomier and airier than the typical tiny crossover, but it looks tremendously appealing as I view our E-Pace convoy from my spot in the rear.
Luxury brands love to claim, often dubiously, that their SUV designs are directly related to their sports cars, but the E-Pace really does evoke Jaguar’s sexy F-Type. The family resemblance includes the grille, of course, but also shark-like creases on the front fenders, muscular haunches, and blade-like horizontal taillamps that visually amplify the Jaguar’s wide, planted stance. Optional 20-inch split-spoke wheels look equally robust (17-inchers are standard), and buyers can even stuff those wheelwells with optional 21s. Adam Hatton, the E-Pace’s exterior designer, shows us the “eyelashes” inside the LED headlamps, his homage to the Lamborghini Miura. For this kitten-scale SUV, design Easter eggs include a graphic of a jaguar cub and its mother along the windshield base, a motif repeated by the puddle lamps’ projection on the pavement.
With its tumbled granite mountains, exfoliated cliffs, dense forests and seaside villas, Corsica provides a cinematic backdrop for the E-Pace. But I’m thinking a stunt double might make sense on these wilderness roads, which must be among the curviest, craziest you’ll find anywhere in the world. The Tour de Corse rally, held here since the ‘50s, is dubbed “The Rally of 10,000 Bends.” After a few hours of never-ending high-concentration corners, we learn it’s no exaggeration. The locals—who tend to speak both French and Corsican—drive in the oblivious, home-turf manner common to island natives. Some introduce themselves by appearing directly in our lane as they attempt passes on blind corners, flirting with either a head-on collision or a deadly plunge off a strip of pavement barely wide enough for two cars. For an idea of the pucker factor, check out these heartwarming rally hints from Tour de Corse organizers:
- Tight and twisty mountain roads are often bordered on one side by a rock face and on the other by a steep drop into the sea.
- Rough and abrasive asphalt places high demands on tires.
- Narrow roads mean errors can be punished heavily.
We fortunately avoid all those kinetic punishments—in part due to the E-Pace’s well-tuned ride and shipshape cabin, including strikingly-bolstered sport seats on R-Dynamic models. Jaguar’s 10-inch, TouchPro infotainment touchscreen peeks out from a handsomely modern, banked two-tone dash. Driver’s gauges—including an optional, 12.3-inch HD interactive display with a color head-up unit—are tucked below a natty stitched awning of soft-touch material. All five occupant positions get a standard USB port, with multiple 12-volt outlets and an available WiFi hotspot. Surprisingly, fit-and-finish and some materials actually surpass the pricier F-Pace; Jaguar designers clearly took the cabin criticism of that larger SUV to heart. But the electronic console shifter—which manages the nine-speed ZF automatic transmission—still looks low-rent. A nifty passenger grab handle is molded into the console, though a few head-tossing turns have my driving partner wishing for a traditional handle on the headliner.
As for space, the split-folding back seat does a decent imitation of a compact sedan’s. Its 35.1 inches of rear legroom trailers the F-Pace by 2.1 inches, and a Honda Civic sedan by 2.3. But the hatch is nicely wide, with handsome metal tie-down hardware on floor sliders. There’s a decent 24.2 cubic feet of cargo space, or 52.5 cubes with rear seats folded; a bit more than an Audi Q3, a skosh less than a BMW X1. The Jaguar swallows our gear with ease after a night at Domaine de Murtoli, a rustic estate that encompasses 2,500 acres of Corsican wilderness, a working farm, four miles of Mediterranean coastline, and a collection of 17th-century villas and shepherd’s quarters. Hunting abounds here, and we spot pheasant, partridge, and black-coated wild boar that trot into the brush when surprised by our headlights.
The Jaguar proves a bit porcine itself. It’s built on a largely-steel platform shared with the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque and Discovery Sport, not the aluminum-intensive architecture that supports the F-Pace and other Jaguar models. To shed pounds, the E-Pace does get an aluminum hood, roof, front fenders and tailgate, along with a cast magnesium beam that spans the instrument panel. But as with so many diets, the results are disappointing. The E-Pace R-Dynamic plops down at 4,175 pounds on the scales; standard versions weigh in at 4,035. Yes, this E Pace actually weighs more than the one-size-larger, aluminum-chassis F Pace. It’s also heaviest-in-class by a wide margin. A BMW X1 weighs from 3,550 to 3,700 pounds, about 500 fewer than the Jag.
Fortunately, this chubby cubby gets solid motivation from the brand’s new, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, in two strengths: The E-Pace brings 246 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, while R-Dynamic versions pile on 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet. The engine is part of the Ingenium family, which includes the 2.0-liter turbodiesel that showed me up to 42 highway mpg in the F-Pace. Unfortunately, that thrifty diesel won’t come to America on the E-Pace. But the premium-unleaded-fueled E-Pace R-Dynamic runs from 0-60 mph in a zippy 5.9 seconds, just 0.2 seconds behind an F-Pace 30t with the identical engine. The standard E-Pace nips 60 mph in a satisfactory 6.6 seconds.
And this gasoline engine – including a twin-scroll turbo and variable valve timing and lift—emits a surprisingly husky rasp for a small four-banger. We drove R-Dynamic models exclusively, which start at an eye-watering $48,245—about $11,000 more than a BMW X1 xDrive. A range-topping R-Dynamic HSE starts even higher, from $54,095. The standard E-Pace begins at a more-palatable $39,595.
Before we head deep into the island’s interior, the Jaguar climbs a few rocky hills and rutted trails, just to prove it can. On steep grades, including a climb from a maybe-20-inch-deep stream, the AWD system duly shifts torque rearward to help the Jaguar clamber up. All-Surface Progress Control helps with traction in low-speed, low-traction conditions. Drivers can toggle through four operating modes, including a Dynamic Setting. For R-Dynamic models, there’s an optional, two-position adaptive damping system. In steady-state driving, the E-Pace operates exclusively in front-wheel-drive to save fuel. But the carmaker makes much of its “Active Driveline” AWD system, which includes a pair of electronically controlled wet-plate clutches at the rear. Jaguar engineers say the system can send 100 percent of torque to either rear wheel, including powering the outside rear wheel to quell understeer and help the E-Pace scamper through corners. Brake-based torque vectoring can also operate on either the front or the rear wheels. Jaguar even claims the system will allow power-oversteer drifting in low-traction situations, though it’s hard to imagine owners throwing up rooster-tails of dirt.
The E-Pace’s steering is pleasingly familiar, with a good dose of the F-Pace’s fast, eager response. But while this cute-ute gamely tackles Corsica’s ridiculous roads, it never stops feeling like the tall, nose-heavy, front-drive-based SUV it is. The harder I push, the more the Jaguar understeers, its front tires washing out wide before finally howling and crying “uncle.” Jaguar claims the E-Pace’s AWD system can make its torque-divvying moves in milliseconds, but there’s a definite bobble and delay before I feel the rear wheels come into play. The Jaguar’s understeering ways are driven home, numbingly, by those endless tight turns on our route. Trust me as a former Mazda owner: Even a Miata driver would get tired of this many freaking turns after hours of nothing-but-hairpins. So it seems unfair to excessively ding the Jaguar—a sporty luxury crossover, but in no way a sports car—exclusively for its performance on roads so knotted that virtually no owner will ever see their kind. No SUV, not even a Porsche Macan Turbo, would be in its element here.
After descending from the mountains to Porto Vecchio, I take a personal detour into this stylish port town. Moored yachts bob in the marina, even in the low season. For the first time in hours, I feel like I can stop my own queasy swaying and find my land legs again. And on the Route de Piccovagia that skirts the ocean—the kind of scenic, normal-curvy road you might find on the Pacific coast—the Jaguar suddenly feels plenty quick and capable. The verdict? This Jaguar outperforms its Land Rover Evoque cousin, but it’s not as sprightly as the class-benchmark BMW X1, the larger Porsche Macan, or its F-Pace stablemate. Versus the BMW, the Jaguar’s 500-pound weight penalty alone—the equivalent of three adult male passengers—explains a lot.
That beefier F-Pace found just less than 19,000 buyers in America in 2017, making it by far the most popular Jaguar. Those aren't huge sales by Mercedes or BMW standards, but considering that the entire Jaguar lineup used to move about annual 12,000 units here, 19,000 sales for a single model is a resounding success. I’ll make an early wager: Jaguar is going to sell a lot of these E-Paces, even on style alone. This baby should do its part to sustain the brand as a going concern. I’m already picturing successful types—young and old, men and women, from Los Angeles to Miami—who’ll take one look at this E-Pace and say, “You had me at ‘hello’.” They won’t drive the wheels off it on death-wish mountain roads. They won’t chuck it through rushing streams. They’ll just cruise happily, in a car that’s essentially the modern evolution of the hatchbacks that nerdy journalists always insisted people should give a try. Sure, a VW Golf or Ford Focus never weighed two tons, even in today’s AWD versions, but the basic idea is the same. I recommend the glass-half-full approach: Americans decided long ago that four doors, a tailgate, and AWD is the template for the car they want. Now they’re discovering that this layout works even in smaller sizes, especially compared with the Hummers and Excursions of old. It may not be perfection, but I call that progress.
Whatever your feelings toward the E-Pace, or SUVs in general, a healthy Jaguar is a good thing for anyone who cares about cars and their history—as it was for Porsche and its own once-controversial sport-utilities. Perhaps the story will be similar for Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Maserati, and other brands that are looking to ensure survival via SUV-based expansion. For a large percentage of buyers, the E-Pace will be their first-ever Jaguar, their introduction to the brand whose XKs and D-Types and E-Types represent some of the high points of automotive design in the 20th (and now 21st) Century. For those newbies, repeat after me: JAG-u-AR. Three syllables, with the hint of a British accent.
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. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.