First drive: 2018 Jaguar E-Pace [Review]

Jag tries its hand at a smaller utility vehicle.

Jaguar is best-known as a purveyor luxury sedans and sexy sports cars, but that well-earned reputation is actually more of a hindrance than an advantage these days. That's because buyers are largely abandoning those kinds of vehicles in favor of high-riding utility vehicles.

Luxury brands like BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and even Volvo had the foresight to introduce SUV models over a decade ago, but Jaguar was extremely late to the party, having launched its first utility model — the F-Pace — only two years ago. But the company isn't wasting any time getting its second SUV to market, with the all-new E-Pace small utility vehicle arriving at dealers nationwide at this very moment.

What is it?The E-Pace is a compact sport utility vehicle based on the underpinnings of the Land Rover Discovery Sport. That means that unlike everything else in Jaguar showrooms, the E-Pace is front-wheel-drive based. However, every E-Pace destined for these shores will be equipped — at least initially — with all-wheel drive to allay any customer concerns.

The E-Pace is powered by Jaguar's Ingenium 2.0L turbo-four. Although the 2.0L is the only engine on offer, buyers can choose between two different specifications — a base 246 horsepower unit and an optional 296 horsepower unit. Both versions of the engine are paired to a nine-speed automatic transmission.

Despite looking like a much bigger vehicle, the E-Pace competes against SUVs like the Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA and BMW X1. At 173.3-inches in length, the E-Pace is shorter than both the GLA and X1 and only half-an-inch longer than the Q3. However, the E-Pace is wider and taller than its competitors, which explains its seemingly larger stature.

StylingThe exterior of the E-Pace is far more sporting that its Discovery Sport counterpart and reminiscent of the larger Jaguar F-Pace. But that's not to say Jaguar designers simply shrunk the F-Pace down to scale and called it a day. The E-Pace has a unique front end that's less aggressive-looking than the F-Pace's thanks to a set of standard LED headlights that sweep back over the SUV's fenders. The E-Pace's hood is also less sinewy than the one found on the F-Pace.

In profile the E-Pace gives away its front-wheel drive architecture with a much longer front overhang than the F-Pace. Jaguar designers mitigated that design shortcoming as much as possible by aggressively rounding off the corners of the E-Pace's front bumper. When seen from a rear three-quarters view, the E-Pace's proportions look much closer to that of a rear-wheel drive vehicle.

Jaguar also tailored the E-Pace's daylight opening to have a much more coupe-like appearance than the F-Pace's. Polished trim accents highlight the E-Pace's up-swept belt line and fast-sloping roof. Our top-trim tester came fitted with sporty-looking 20-inch wheels; shortly after launch Jaguar plans to make available a unique set of 21-inch wheels. The rear of the E-Pace largely mimics the F-Pace with dual exhaust outlets and the same kind of wide taillights that were gleaned from the F-Type sports car.

Inside, however, the E-Pace forges its own path, sharing only its steering wheel, widescreen display and available digital gauge cluster with the F-Pace. The rest of the layout is purely E-Pace.

Jaguar used that clean slate to a create a driver-centric cabin. A distinctive gauge cluster cover and central grab handle clearly define the E-Pace's cockpit area. On well-equipped models like our tester, drivers are further treated to an all-digital gauge display and a head-up display.

The E-Pace's center stack consists of a widescreen display and easy-to-use knobs for the HVAC system. Those dials serve a dual purpose as the outboard temperature knobs also control the E-Pace's heated and ventilated seats — simply push them in and then rotate the dial right for seat heat or left for the cooling function.

In the E-Pace's center console you'll find a few buttons for traction control and the start-stop system, as well as a drive mode toggle switch, which allows you to switch from comfort to sport modes. Next to that is a gawky shift knob that remains in a central position no matter the gear selected. It can be finicky to use and and we'd far prefer Jaguar's typical rotary gear knob.

Interior materials on the whole are quite nice. The E-Pace's leather seats are soft and supple and the vinyl on the dash and upper door cards is a convincing leather stand in. There's also plenty of nice detailing, such as polished metal vent surrounds and paddle shifters with the ‘' and ‘minus' signs actually carved out of them. Some of the plastic used in the center console area isn't quite up to luxury car standards, but the E-Pace's cabin is certainly deserving of the Leaper badge.

We also came away impressed with the E-Pace's overall packaging. Small utility vehicles — particularly from luxury marques — don't typically perform well in this area, but the E-Pace has plenty of cubby spaces for whatever you might need to store. The rear cargo area is also quite generous.

Drive timeOur chariot for our day-long drive around the roads of Corsica, France was was the sportiest E-Pace of the lineup, the P300 R-Dynamic. In addition to the "big” 296 horsepower, 295 lb-ft of torque motor, out test car was also came outfitted with Jaguar's optional Adaptive Dynamics system, which includes adaptive dampers, and a torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system.

Strangely, however, our day started off-road, where few E-Paces are likely to ever venture. We followed a winding two-track through the rocky hillsides of Corsica, covering mostly the kind of dirt roads that wouldn't stump a Honda CR-V. However, there were some more challenging sections, which the E-Pace's all-wheel drive system handled without much fuss. The E-Pace certainly didn't feel at home off the beaten path, but it proved it should be able to handle any of the normal stuff an owner is sure to throw at it.

Those dirt roads eventually turned to pavement and we were finally able to evaluate the E-Pace in its natural environment. Initial impressions were good, but the E-Pace isn't the performance SUV Jaguar wants it to be. Handling is above average for the class, but the E-Pace doesn't feel even remotely as sharp as the larger F-Pace. And that's despite some real effort on Jaguar's part. The E-Pace uses a sophisticated all-wheel drive system that can divvy up power from front to rear as well as from side to side. Torque vectoring is also used to help the E-Pace corner better. The system is intended to make the E-Pace feel like more like a rear-wheel drive car, but there's just no masking its front-wheel drive layout.

Jaguar's 296 horsepower four-cylinder has plenty of pep to pull around the E-Pace's 4,100 pounds, but the ZF-sourced nine-speed auto is the weak link in the chain. Up- and down-shifts are leisurely and can't be coaxed to move any faster with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Just an example of how the nine-speed hurts performance — the E-Pace can go from 0-60 in 5.9 seconds but requires 6.4 seconds to reach 62mph, with a lazy gear change the likely reason for that half-second penalty.

But while the E-Pace hasn't hit the target as a sporty SUV, Jaguar hasn't completely missed the mark. The E-Pace is quiet, comfortable and loaded with most of the latest tech (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are missing due to licensing reasons). In other words, it's exactly the kind of luxury vehicle people have come to expect from the Jaguar name.

PricingDrop-in to a Jaguar dealer and you'll quickly realize that the E-Pace's luxury doesn't come cheap. Pricing for a base E-Pace starts at $38,600. And when we say base, we really mean it. The entry-level E-Pace has 17-inch wheels with smaller front brakes, cloth upholstery, manual seats and a manual rear tailgate. There are just two option available on the standard E-Pace — heated and powered front seats (which includes a rear seat heating package) and satellite radio. That's it. Once you add in a $995 destination charge, an E-Pace with cloth will set you back at least $39,595.

Stepping up to the $41,500 E-Pace S adds more standard features and grants access to others, but Jaguar recommends about $7,000 worth of adds ons. That brings the total price to $49,170, which is between $1,375 and $6,570 more than a comparable vehicle from BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. Opt for the top-spec E-Pace R-Dynamic HSE with all the bells and whistles and you'll be on the hook for more than $63,000.

MG's bottom lineWith the E-Pace, Jaguar has proven that the F-Pace wasn't a one-off fluke — the sedan-maker really can make a stylish and luxurious SUV. However, in the case of the E-Pace, that comes at the expense of the excellent driving dynamics we've come to expect from Jaguar in recent years.

High prices also tarnish what is an otherwise a very good package. If you don't necessarily need the E-Pace's well-packaged interior, you could take home a loaded version of the competition for much less. With SUVs so in demand right now, it'll be interesting to see how the market reacts to Jaguar's new E-Pace.

Photos by Drew Johnson

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