Jaguar’s XE enters a fiercely contested segment of the market with a point to prove. The last ‘small’ Jag to be sold, the X-type, didn’t exactly set the world on fire and since then the Germans, Lexus and now Alfa Romeo have all moved the compact executive game on a long way. Further hurdles for the XE to overcome are ambitious cars trying to muscle into this sector from the one below, such as Volkswagen’s latest Passat and the fifth-generation Ford Mondeo.

A range re-shuffle has kicked out our previous favourite variant, the supercharged V6 XE S, but the existing range of petrol and diesels (and the hilariously potent XE Project 8) offer competitive, if not overly inspiring performance.

And that kind of sums up the XE. Its chassis is probably at the top of the class, but elsewhere it doesn’t offer any great advantage over the competition, even if it’s not really off the pace in any particular area either. It’s a very good car but one lacking that final element of sparkle that you’d hope a brand like Jaguar could offer, particularly at a time when German equivalents aren’t perhaps as desirable for drivers as they once were.

Engine, gearbox and technical specs

If you’re a fan of variety there’s not much joy to be found in the XE’s engine lineup. Aside from the loopy supercharged V8 of the Project 8, the XE’s range comprises just 2-litre four-cylinder petrol and diesel units, from an entry-level 121kW diesel to a 220kW petrol. The previous 242kW 3-litre supercharged petrol V6, once found in the XE S, is no more, a victim of changes made for WLTP regulations.

What’s left falls under Jaguar’s “Ingenium” tag and are broadly competitive with rivals in terms of output, torque, fuel economy and CO2 emissions, while a selection of power outputs means customers do have some choice when it comes to price, performance and frugality, even if they don’t have much choice when it comes to refinement or driver appeal.

The 121kW diesel develops its peak output at 4000rpm, and puts 380Nm to the rear wheels from 1750rpm. Next up is a 131kW variant of the same (still at 4000rpm) with a greater 430Nm at 1750rpm, and above this is a 176kW option with a useful 500Nm produced even lower at 1500rpm. The latter is available only with all-wheel drive, while the 132kW model has a choice of rear- and four-wheel drive.

Jaguar had boasted that instead of the normal diesel clatter, the Ingenium diesel sounds more typical of the Coventry brand, with a ‘mellow growl’ at low revs, changing to an ‘edgy growl’ when you put your foot down. Sadly, that is far from the reality and the engines, no matter what the power output, are coarse and make a typical diesel rattle throughout the rev range.

The basic petrol model develops 146kW at 5500rpm and 320Nm of torque from just 1200rpm, putting its power down through the rear wheels alone. The 184kW (at 5500rpm) model is also rear-wheel drive only, and makes 364Nm at 1200rpm. Move up to the 220kW Ingenium unit (the same output as that of the four-cylinder F-type) and the XE is now four-wheel drive, sharing 400Nm from 1200rpm among its four wheels.

Like the diesel, it’s far from a classic example of a four-cylinder, though refinement is improving over time. The XE range is really hurting for something like the old V6 though – all its German rivals have at least six-cylinder options available in their lineups.

Jaguar still offers a manual transmission with the XE, but only in the 121kW and 131kW diesels. Those also get an eight-speed ZF automatic option, which is otherwise standard across the entire XE range.

The manual isn’t particularly pleasant; the action is clunky and rubbery while the gate is obtrusive. So, uncharacteristically for evo, we’d choose the auto option. However, there is one benefit of the manual transmission, it does offer a greater sense of connection to the drivetrain that the auto simply can’t.

The auto’s mapping has improved over time though, hunting less than it used to and offering crisp changes and fairly consistent responses to flicks of the gearchange paddles. Left to its own devices it’s also smooth and seems to work well with the petrol engine in particular.

One of Jaguar’s current USPs is its aluminium architecture, and in the XE it’s claimed to be the brand’s stiffest sedan structure yet. The use of aluminium hasn’t had a great effect on reducing weight – at its lightest the 1450kg diesel XE is still 20kg more than a steel-bodied Audi A4 TDI – but the structure does feel admirably solid.

Front suspension is a theoretically ideal double-wishbone setup based on that of the F-type, and the rear is what Jaguar describes as an “integral link” setup. This variation of a multi-link suspension separates lateral and longitudinal forces, theoretically allowing the directional stiffness required for a precise chassis with compliance in the other plane for a smooth ride. Steering is electrically assisted.

Performance and 0-100kmh time

The XE is sporty by nature and, in 131kW trim at least, the 2.0-litre diesel doesn’t let the side down. It is possible in the manual version, with six rather than eight forward gears, to get caught out by the lack of torque below 1900rpm. This lack of low-down oomph makes it tricky to pull away and it’s difficult to judge just how many revs to use. The auto, that requires no input other than pressing the accelerator to pull away, is far easier, naturally. This isn’t reflected in the diesel’s 0-100kmh time though; the manual and auto both achieve the standard dash in 7.4sec.

Once things are spinning and you’re on the move, though, the diesel is capable of a refined push – plenty to enjoy the well-balanced chassis and enough to make overtaking relatively effortless. It’s a shame refinement lags behind that of several rivals though; this isn’t a diesel you’ll feel inclined to extend beyond its punchy mid-range.

Obviously swifter is the 175kW four-cylinder petrol. However, when you start to push on and extend the 2-litre’s performance the drivetrain begins to unravel. The engine note takes on a coarseness that’s totally unexpected after what has been experienced at lower speeds and not typical of a Jaguar.

As the revs increase to the there’s very little in the way of turbocharged surge, the power delivery is very linear but it isn’t especially memorable. The claimed 0-100kmh time of 6.0secs certainly seems plausible, though.

The 220kW petrol is the current pick. Further fettling seems to have smoothed out the Ingenium engine and more insulation has quietened its harssher tones, and there’s even a cultured background warble under acceleration. It’s still not an engine that revels in high revs, but it’s no longer unpleasant, and at 5.7sec to 100kmh it’s quick too.

What it isn’t is a particularly compelling alternative to the now-departed supercharged V6. While that engine wasn’t perfect it at least had some character and the growling exhaust note added an extra dimension that none of the four-cylinders can match.

Ride and handling

With double wishbone front suspension, an ‘integral link’ rear axle that helps separate longitudinal and latitudinal cornering forces, and the latest in electronic power steering software, the XE is a true sports sedan. It’s a car that gets better the harder you drive it and has a wonderful sense of balance.

The three different damper options – the passive suspension in Sport or Comfort spec and the adaptive set-up – all offer a similarly imperious ‘bring it on’ resolve. They manage to balance grip with grace and a fluid economy of motion whatever the road surface or ambition of the driver, however optimistic. In the XE, you can get as down and dirty as you like at the wheel yet the end result will always be poised and pretty which, of course, is very flattering and something few of the German opposition does quite as well.

The XE also manages to serve up a ride quality not dissimilar to the Mercedes C-Class, there’s a controlled suppleness to the way it deals with a road and excellent suppression of tyre noise. In other words, it’s very comfortable and refined.

Where it differs immediately from the Merc is in the acuity of its responses. Darty is the first word that springs to mind, though you quickly relax and adjust and begin to marvel at how little effort is required to get the nose arcing towards the apex.

The steering progressively weights up as you attack a corner, encouraging you to really dig into the chassis’ ample but beautifully balanced reserves of grip. Not bad at all for an electronically assisted power steering system. No, there isn’t much genuine feel and the strong self-centreing action feels a bit artificial but, like the F-type, the XE has turn-in chops most BMWs would kill for and a bias towards mid-corner neutrality that’s hugely gratifying.

First taste of the adaptive dampers came on a diesel and proved perplexing, giving a much busier ride for little obvious payback in handling assets. But later, on the now off-sale 3.0S, the combination felt spot on, the extra pressure applied to the chassis by the 242kW supercharged V6 being met with a still more planted and composed dynamic demeanour combining more tautly controlled body movements with an obviously firmer but still impressively supple ride.

Design

The XE is either another Ian Callum-led masterstroke or an unimaginative amalgamation of its rivals, depending on who you believe. It takes its cues from both historic and existing Jaguar products and a pleasingly taut, clean looking vehicle is the result. There are very vague hints of Audi and BMW to the dead-on and three-quarter rear views, but other than that it is unmistakably a Jag, with that leonine face and cab-rearward profile making for a sporty looking car.

Jaguar is trying to increase its exposure worldwide and so is going for a ‘family theme’ to its sedans; hence the XF looks like a slightly larger XE, with both similar in appearance (at the front, at least) to the XJ. The ‘J-Blade’ daytime running lights are incorporated on the XE but if we have one criticism, it’s that lower-spec models on 18-inch alloys can look slightly under-wheeled at the rear. Otherwise, it’s an attractive three-box design with the aggressive S model the visual champion of the range.