My summer COVID-19 travel moratorium continues, so I am back to trawling the airport rental lot looking for some more interesting cars to drive. I had just about given up on finding anything interesting on my most recent prowl when this 2019 Jaguar XE caught my eye. I must confess, I’ve never driven a Jaguar and always wanted to, so I plunked down my credit card at the counter and was on my way.
In true rental car fashion, my 2019 XE was a base model with no options. Even the black color is one of only three no extra cost colors. This is the loss leader model that allows Jaguar to advertise a low $39,900 starting price and $369/month lease, but that few people actually end up buying. A quick nationwide search on Jaguar’s website turned up exactly zero $39,900 XE’s for sale (the cheapest model I found still had one option, keyless entry). I guess that makes my rental model unique in that regard.
So what exactly do you get for $39,900? It might be easier to go over what you don’t get: You don’t get heated seats, keyless entry, all-wheel drive, LED headlights, Apple CarPlay, HomeLink, blind spot sensors, parking sensors, or any wood or metal trim inside. You do however get a panoramic moonroof, dual power seats, dual-zone A/C, and a decent 10” widescreen touchscreen infotainment system, so it is not all bad. You also get 5 years/60,000 miles of scheduled maintenance.
Behind the wheel, the Jag comports itself well. It boasts a surprisingly compliant ride (I was taken aback by how soft it was at first), yet gives up no ground in terms of handling. It was noticeably less choppy than my A3 on the same broken roads, no doubt aided by the 7″ longer wheelbase. Steering is suitably quick and body motions are well controlled. The 247 hp 2.0T Ingenium engine, which utilizes Multiair variable valve lift and timing technology licensed from Fiat, is as strong as any two-liter four in this class. The transmission is the highly praised 8-Speed ZF 8HP unit (the same unit used by Audi and BMW), so no issues here. It always seems to be in the right gear and shifts the right amount of gears at exactly the right time.
Dynamically, the XE gives up very little ground to its competitors and quite frankly behaves both as a Jaguar and a luxury sport sedan should. If only this piece were just about driving dynamics, I could finish up right now. Alas, there other issues to address, mainly around the overall Jaguar-ness of the XE.
As I confessed at the opening of this piece, I have never driven a Jaguar before. But based on reading many magazine articles over the decades and observing countless examples at car shows, I have a pretty good idea of what, in my mind, constitutes a Jaguar and what I should therefore reasonably expect.
The first thing I expect from a Jaguar drop-dead gorgeous styling. After all, this is the company that gave us such eye candy as the D-Type, the XK120/140, and of course the E-Type, a car whose styling is so legendary that one is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. They also gave us some sexy sedans, like the Mark 2, and even the slender pillared Series 1 XJ. Even the current XJ, with its sweeping roofline, while not a stunner, it at least distinctive and somewhat attractive. While not a swing and a miss like the Ford Mondeo based X-Type, the XE comes across as a little too generic and bland. If I squint I can see some Jaguar mixed in with some hints of a Volvo S40, Acura TL, and a dash of Mazda 6 (which some think actually pulls off a better Jaguar than Jaguar). But I shouldn’t have to work so hard. A proper Jaguar should be immediately recognizable as such.
Maybe we’ll fare better on the interior, where upon opening the door I had expected to be hit with the odiferous blend of soft Connolly hides and acres of highly polished walnut or maple slathered to the doors, dashboard, and steering wheel. Instead, what I experienced was distinctly more TJ Maxx than Saville Row. For starters, there was not a splinter of wood to be seen anywhere. For an optional upgrade, you can get a tiny square of wood around the shifter on the center console. And that is it. Recall that my 2017 Ford Fusion Platinum had genuine wood trim on the dashboard and all four door panels. This is one area where the X-Type exceeded the XE.
OK, but what about the leather? Yes, the seat faces were covered in a material that appeared to be leather, but it was about on par with what you might find in a Jetta. Other than the steering wheel (and of course the seats), no other surface inside the car was ensconced in leather. Again, I hate to keep going back to my Fusion, but not only did it have leather seats (diamond tufted, no less), but also real leather on the dashboard and all four door panels. My point here is that if Ford can do this kind of wood and leather treatment for $35,000, Jaguar should be able to do it for $40,000. And not just as an optional upgrade, but standard. Every Jaguar buyer, even those of the base model like the one I drove, is entitled to a full wood and leather Jaguar experience. To do otherwise is to betray the name.
The door panels are completely bereft of any wood, metal (beyond the handle), or even plastic contrasting trim, and for all the world look like the injection molded door panels GM was rightly blasted for using in the 1970s. They feel like it too: Other than a very thin vinyl pad applied to the armrest, the materials are rock hard. Once inside, the dashboard seems to sit about an inch lower than the windshield cowl, necessitating an odd filler panel. It is almost as if the interior designer was going for a low and open look, while the exterior designer wanted a high sill and narrow window openings, and they forgot to compare notes.
One my outrage calmed down and I got into the car, things began to look up. The interior was still tight and rattle-free, even after 20,000 undoubtedly hard rental car driven miles. After pairing my phone, the screen represented it with a picture of a British phonebooth, which brought a genuine smile to my face. This is exactly the kind of British charm that the XE could desperately use more of. However, other than some dodgy ergonomics, I couldn’t really point to anything else inside other than that phonebooth picture that felt particularly British. Just spitballing here, but how about a Union Jack wallpaper on the navigation system, or perhaps use British word spelling instead of American on the menus? Really, a small investment in charm here by Jaguar would pay huge dividends in what marketers like to call “Surprise and Delight” moments.
While others online have complained about it, I found the touch-screen infotainment system to be intuitive and responsive. The gesture based navigation is very similar to what you likely already are familiar with on your phone, including swiping between pages and press-and-hold to edit. You can customize the layout of the homepage to your liking, and even select different wallpapers. The standard sound system handled my loud, thumping EDM with aplomb, and quite frankly sounded better than some “Premium” sound systems I’ve experienced (the Ford Sony and Lincoln THX systems both sound worse).
So to sum it up, what are we looking at here? The basic mechanicals (and electronics) of the XE are excellent and solidly executed. Unlike past Jaguars, I can’t think of any major warnings not to buy it. Unfortunately, I can’t really think of any reasons TO buy it, either. What is missing is are the true quintessential characteristic that makes a Jaguar a Jaguar.
As it is, I struggle to see who the intended buyer of the XE is supposed to be. Anglophiles? There isn’t enough Britishness here to appease the tea and crumpets set. Someone looking for an alternative Audi/BMW/Mercedes triumvirate? Perhaps, but these are all excellent cars that few people are seeking alternatives to, and all of these models offer better interiors in their base configuration. Jaguar is trying to carve a niche for itself, but with a vehicle that is not distinctive or bold enough to do so.
Postscript: Jaguar has done a mid-cycle refresh on the XE for 2020 and addressed some of the issues with the 2019 model. Most importantly, they increased the amount of standard equipment (while maintaining the $39,900 base price). Standard equipment now includes LED headlights, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, parking sensors, and ambient interior lighting. The shifter dial has been replaced with a proper lever, and the windows switches on the door have been moved from the weird elevated pod they were on in my rental to the armrest where they belong. None of my other complaints about the interior have been addressed, however.