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Jaguar takes a typically sporting approach with the F-Pace, but it isn't quite enough to better its sibling, the Land Rover Discovery Sport

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A wary toe. That’s how the introductory line suggests Jaguar is entering the SUV arena, and the reasoning is sound enough: were Jaguar more confident it could sell an SUV, it would have tried it years ago.

There are reasons why it hasn’t, of course. This is a company that – although written large on the radar of UK car buyers and enthusiasts – is a minnow alongside the German firms that its cars rival. Their products sell by the hundreds of thousands and contribute to sales of more than a million a year for each company. Jaguar sells fewer than 100,000 cars a year in total. Or has, until now.

The Jaguar F-Pace first made its appearance as the C-X17 concept at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show

The F-Pace is the car that’s meant to change that. It’s a car that puts the future of Jaguar estates under threat but it’s also one that, frankly, no executive car maker can be without – even one that has a separate arm dealing entirely in executive SUVs.

There’s an argument that this is one of the reasons for Jaguar’s SUV tardiness. Will a Jaguar 4x4 nick sales from a Range Rover 4x4? It’s a possibility but, as the VW Group does with Volkswagen and Audi (and Skoda and Seat too), it’s a chance you take. And seemingly those at JLR have viewed the risk in the same vein, with the smaller Jaguar E-Pace joining the range to take the fight to the BMW X1 and Audi Q3, and an electric-powered i-Pace to rival electric SUVs like Tesla's Model X.

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At least you get the profit either way, rather than somebody else. And the F-Pace’s ethos is wilfully different, on paper and in the drives we’ve had so far, from anything else that rolls out of a Jaguar Land Rover facility. It’s a Jaguar, which means it’s a sporting SUV, we’re told – as much as one is possible.

It’s a tall car with a modicum of off-road ability, but for those who like driving. That’s always a slight contradiction, but ever since BMW launched the X5 in the late 1990s, it’s one we’ve managed to get our head around.

We’ve tried most F-Pace engine variants so far in one way or another, including the F-Pace S in both petrol and diesel variants, but the one tested here counts most: the 2.0-litre diesel that will constitute the biggest number of sales.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Jaguar F-Pace  2016 road test review rear

Choose an SUV from a German car maker and there’s a good chance it’ll be underpinned by a platform or architecture shared with another SUV from a related German car maker.

Jaguar has resisted that temptation; JLR makes plenty of 4x4s, but to stick a leaping cat on one might have undermined a Land Rover or Range Rover and not given Jaguar the dynamism it craved.

Jaguar’s C-X17 concept was created by the same design team that finished the F-Pace

So the F-Pace is based on the same architecture as the Jaguar XE and Jaguar XF, which means it’s largely aluminium – 80 percent of the body.

There’s magnesium in there, too; the cross chassis rail is made of it and, where mounted high, magnesium’s lesser weight helps to lower the centre of gravity compared with what it would be if steel or aluminium were used.

A steel boot floor helps there, too, and shifts the weight distribution towards the back, because Jaguar’s dynamicists wanted that to be as near as possible to 50/50.

The F-Pace has double wishbones at the front and an integral link rear suspension system. Engines are mounted longitudinally at the front and drive through either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission, depending on the specification.

There’s a choice of six engines to choose from - three diesel and three petrol: a trio of 2.0-litre four-cylinder oilburners producing 161bhp, 178bhp and 238bhp, as tested here, repsectively, and completed by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 diesel the same as the XF S. The petrol range starts with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder Ingenium unit punching out 248bhp, and topped by a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 producing 375bhp and 331lb ft of peak twist.

Four-wheel drive will be a mainstay of the range, but the 161bhp 2.0-litre diesel can also be had with rear-wheel drive only. In RWD guise, it drives exclusively through a six-speed manual gearbox, while only the AWD 178bhp version can be had as a manual too.

The four-wheel drive system fitted here is related to the one that made its debut in the Jaguar F-Type, which means it’s mostly rear biased.

In normal driving, in fact, it’s entirely rear driven, but as soon as there’s slip, it starts to divert up to 50 percent of the power towards the front. Which, all in, makes the F-Pace sound like it’s an SUV with a lot of S.

INTERIOR

Jaguar F-Pace interior

Would a Jaguar still feel like a Jaguar if you sat in it bent-legged and meerkat-like at the wheel – as many SUV drivers are used to doing? For now, the question remains unanswered, because the F-Pace’s driving position is entirely unlike that.

Although the car’s hip point is quite high, you board it very conveniently rather than dropping down into the seat and your view out is good.

Jaguar says the optional InControl Touch Pro infotainment is the best in the world – it certainly makes the 8.0in system feel antiquated

But you sit with arms and legs outstretched, surrounded by high-rising door cards and fascia, a relatively high transmission tunnel console, slanting A-pillars and a fairly slim glasshouse. So the F-Pace doesn’t seem like an SUV at all.

Neither has Jaguar strayed very far from its established conventions with the interior design. The sweeping arc of the dashboard and the swooping, free-form shapes of its features will be familiar to anyone transferring from an Jaguar XE or an Jaguar XF.

Everything looks and feels appealing enough. Material quality is good rather than outstanding, just as we found with the XE and XF. Fit and finish standards are likewise, with some trim pieces feeling just a little bit wobbly when subjected to scrutiny.

You get useful convenience features: big door bins, a sizeable centre cubby, good-sized twin cupholders and upright storage cubbies in the sides of the centre console that are designed especially to take your smartphone.

The farther rearwards your attention turns, the more the car resembles a conventional SUV in terms of space and versatility. The rear seats are wide enough for three smallish occupants and comfortable for two large adults, and there’s more leg room than in a Mercedes-Benz GLC.

At the back you’ll find seatbacks that fold 40/20/40 for maximum through-loading flexibility, a storage bay that’s wide and deep, a reversible floor with a wipe-clean, non-slip coating on the flip side, and space under the floor to stow the load bay cover when you need to take it out.

Although the Jaguar’s cabin can’t match the integrity and material largesse of some German rivals, it’s certainly the most versatile and well thought out of any of its cars.

There are four trim levels split into two catergories - Luxury and Sport. Luxury-trimmed Prestige models come with 18in alloy wheels, satin chrome roof rails, chrome exterior detailings, a powered tailgate, a leather upholstery and ambient interior lighting as standard. Opting for the Portfolio trim adds 19in alloy wheels, a panoramic roof, xenon headlights, auto-dimming and power-folding wing mirrors, Windsor leather upholstery, 10-way electrically adjustable front seats, keyless entry, a rear-view camera and a 380W Meridian sound system.

R-Sport trim heads up the Sport range, kitting the F-Pace out in 19in alloys, a sporty bodykit, satin black exterior details, gloss black roof rails, xenon headlights, sports seats and satin chrome paddle shifters. The range-topping S model, which is only available with the 3.0-litre V6 engine, gets 20in alloy wheels, adaptive suspension, bigger front brake discs, red brake calipers, heated front screen and washer jets, 10-way electrically adjustable seats, keyless entry, rear view camera and a 380W Meridian sound system.

Dominating the centre of the dashboard is Jaguar's InControl infotainment system, which comes with an 8.0in touchscreen display surrounded by traditional physical shortcut keys, DAB radio, sat nav, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, smartphone integration and a wi-fi hotspot. Upgrade to the InControl Pro system and you'll get a 10.2in touchscreen system complete with a more advanced sat nav system, a Meridian sound system, 10GB of on-board storage, various Jaguar online services and a customisable 12.3in digital instrument cluster.

However, this system is an optional extra and will set you back £1780 on Prestige and R-Sport trimmed F-Paces, or £1250 on Portfolio and S models. Our road test car didn’t have it but instead used the standard 8.0in touchscreen system — and it felt all the poorer for the omission. The screen is slow to react to fingertip prompts and renders navigation mapping with the graphical sophistication of an aftermarket system.

The Bluetooth phone connection is reliable enough and call audio quality decent. Audio quality from the standard-fit 80-watt audio system, meanwhile, isn’t much to write home about.

The upgraded Meridian hi-fi systems start at £600 and probably improves on the standard audio system’s range and clarity by more than enough to justify that outlay.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre Jaguar F-Pace diesel engine

Jaguar’s four-cylinder Ingenium diesel engine has already been under our gaze when powering the Jaguar XE and Jaguar XF, as well as the Range Rover Evoque and Land Rover Discovery Sport – but the F-Pace may represent its toughest gig yet.

This is supposed to be the most sporting SUV in its class, lest we forget – as well as one that’s right on the money for fuel economy and CO2 emissions. And while it may be true that its emissions statistics are on the pace, its performance isn’t quite, which may prove a disappointment for prospective buyers.

Jaguar offers lower-trim-level versions of the 3.0d F-Pace in other European markets. Seems a shame especially when the 3.0d is superior to the four-cylinder unit

Where fleet-friendly, premium-brand diesel SUVs are concerned, the Mercedes-Benz GLC 250 d is currently a tough act to beat, sprinting to 60mph in 7.8sec and from 30mph to 70mph through the gears in precisely the same time. The F-Pace needs 9.2sec to reach 60mph and an even less impressive 9.7sec for 30-70mph – big enough shortfalls, in our view, to make a hole in the case for buying one.

The engine doesn’t really operate with much strength or conviction, even in subjective terms. Slightly noisy and coarse under load, it launches the car away from standing responsively enough but soon starts shuffling suspiciously quickly through the ratios of the eight-speed gearbox.

A glance into our archives confirms that the F-Pace is notably shorter geared than an equivalent XF saloon – and you can’t miss that on the road. And despite the short gearing, it feels slower than most of its competitors when overtaking and accelerating hard and, although torquey at low revs, a little unwilling to work hard at higher crank speeds.

Away from the test track, the F-Pace is well capable of making fairly brisk and assured progress on country roads and it hauls along keenly enough on the motorway. The gearbox responds quickly and with a well-chosen ratio when it kicks down, and when driving at a relaxed pace it taps into the engine’s low and mid-range torque reserves very effectively.

That’s fine, of course, provided you haven’t been fed the line that the car you’ve just bought is a sports car among utility workhorses.

RIDE & HANDLING

Jaguar F-Pace rear cornering

Time to let in the cold light of day where it really counts. On previous test drives, we’ve driven the F-Pace on its clever optional adaptive dampers, but never with the passively damped suspension that comes as standard with R-Sport trim, which is how a large proportion of F-Pace owners will specify the car.

The optional 20in rims and low-profile tyres of our test car added challenges for the damping and steering systems that they could evidently have done without. But overall, the F-Pace delivers here.

High lateral grip levels and taut body control allow you to tighten your line mid-way through corners

It’s simply a keener, more poised and more precise car in which to take a bit of enjoyment from your journey than any other SUV in the class.

Which, of course, it cannot be without also imposing a bit of compromise. The suspension does feel firm and makes for a ride quality that’s a bit un-Jaguar-like at times: jittery, bouncy and underdamped through sudden undulations and – on those 20in rims, at least – a bit clunky and abrupt over broken surfaces. Other SUVs are notably more comfortable.

But we mustn’t castigate Jaguar here for not having made just another Discovery Sport or Mercedes-Benz GLC, and we won’t. Because when you sweep the F-Pace into a corner, it turns more immediately than all of its rivals, grips harder, pivots its hips a bit and has a neutral cornering balance about it.

It does almost everything it needs to in order to distinguish itself as a true driver’s car. However, the F-Pace deserves slightly qualified praise as a driver’s car for several reasons. The first you’ll have read about in the preceding section. Secondly, the steering is evidently a work in progress. The ZF electromechanical rack must be working harder here than when we encountered it in the sublime-handling Jaguar XF, and you can tell.

There’s much less contact patch feel available than in the XF, a slight sense of elasticity, friction and fuzziness to its response off-centre and a disappointing shortage of centre feel that can make the car a tiny bit wayward on the motorway. The steering needs greater development, in other words – and, from Jaguar, you can rest assured that it’ll get as much.

It’s only when you start to really throw the F-Pace around that you appreciate what it inherits from the Jaguar F-Type sports car.

The car’s DSC system is fully switchable, as it is in all Jaguars, and its grip is balanced in order to allow some lateral slip from the rear axle. So where most 4x4s are a bit soft and steadfastly stable, always and in every circumstance running out of adhesion at the front wheels first, the F-Pace’s chassis will respond with a fairly languid outward sweep of its rear wheels when you deliberately unload the mass from them on turn-in.

After that comes the torque vectoring, something we’ve come to expect from supercars but not from jacked-up diesel station wagons. Firing the brakes busily, it allows the car to edge into neutrality and keep its mass on its outside rear wheel if you keep the throttle pinned, without flirting with oversteer. And that’s probably about as sporting as most people will want their high-sided SUV to be.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Jaguar F-Pace 2.0d R-Sport 2016 road test review

You may very well look at the prices of the F-Pace’s rivals and conclude that Jaguar has been somewhat bullish with the car’s showroom price.

As tested here, it’s the second most expensive option in our class top five. The cheapest four-wheel-drive version of the F-Pace is more than £2000 more expensive than the equivalent BMW X3 and £3000 more than a like-for-like Audi Q5 or Volvo XC60.

CAP expects strong, if not exceptional, residuals for the F-Pace, which will see it better a BMW X3 but not a Mercedes-Benz GLC

And yet you can tell that Jaguar’s blooming sales success is beginning to manifest itself in a gathering confidence to price ambitiously – and perhaps not unreasonably.

With this in mind, we would opt for the F-Pace in the R-Sport trim, unless you particularly crave a comfy car. We would add Jaguar’s Adaptive Dynamics Pack, which is a must if you have the bigger alloys, and don’t forget to add a spacesaver too.

That 2.0-litre diesel engine, which failed to pull up many trees earlier on, failed similarly to set any economy records for our True MPG testers.

The 36.7mpg it returned was poorer than any result we’ve seen from a car in this class since the identically engined Discovery Sport – and most of the rivals bettering it also did so with four-wheel drive.

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VERDICT

4 star Jaguar F-Pace

The F-Pace may not be the most complete or capable family 4x4.

It may rely a little too heavily on the skill of Jaguar’s chassis tuners to conjure its sporting appeal and it may deserve a more distinguished diesel engine, although the recent additions of petrol engines may lift this burden off the oilburner's shoulders.

By and large — and engine apart — it’s the Jaguar SUV we hoped it would be

But it has enough SUV convenience, utility, ruggedness and refinement, combined with outstanding handling, to earn a fulsome recommendation.

For our money, it’s rounded and rewarding enough to deserve a berth at the sharp end of its class – and wider test experience suggests that it’s even better to drive in different chassis specifications.

Our preference for a Land Rover Discovery Sport, with its enormous breadth of ability, neatly sums up how little notional space there was for this car to flourish in – because even the perfect F-Pace could probably never be the complete SUV.

Nonetheless, this one makes a very refreshing, modern and engaging fist of things – and it will only get better. As a result it, the F-Pace betters the Volvo XC60 and Mercedes-Benz GLC to come in third behind Land Rover’s Discovery Sport and the BMW X3.

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Jaguar F-Pace First drives