CAR magazine editor Steve Smith samples the new Jaguar E-Pace P250 AWD First Edition at its local launch around Johannesburg...

A Jaguar E-pace driving impression. Hang on, haven’t you guys done one already?

We have indeed – I see someone’s a CARmag.co.za fan, then. Yes, we were lucky enough to attend the E-Pace’s international launch in Corsica a few months back, where our deputy editor Terence Steenkamp drove the P300 and D240 derivatives. Read his take here and you’ll know he was impressed by Jag’s new baby SUV/crossover. I was at the local launch and the brand also had the P250 for us to drive, which is what I’ll focus on for this driving impression.

Got it. I’ll have a look at that Corsica review in a minute, but give me a brief rundown on this latest vehicle, in what’s clearly a growing segment.

Of course. And you’re right, small boutique crossovers are coming thick and fast these days and I’m expecting it to be the fastest-growing segment in the next five years. We’ve already driven the new BMW X2 and Volvo XC40 – both of which have imminent local launches – while the new Mini Countryman competes here too, as will the next-generation Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA, and upcoming Lexus UX.

We’re getting five turbocharged engine derivatives in SA – three diesel (110 kW, 132 kW and 177 kW) and two petrol (183 kW and 221 kW) – and the one here is the lesser-powered turbopetrol. There are four specification packs (Standard, S, SE and HSE) as as well as two body styles in core or R-Dynamic.

And this is called a “First Edition” because... ?

Because it's a limited-edition launch spec. In other words, as standard, it comes in Caldera Red (the only derivative to get this colour), model-specific 20-inch alloys, the Black Pack exterior details and a fixed panoramic roof. Inside, you get exclusive Ebony Windsor leather with Flame Red contrast stitching, suedecloth headlining, special mats and branded metal treadplates. The head-up display system also comes standard.

The P250 First Edition will cost you R901 856, whereas as a standard P250 in HSE spec goes for R844 356. In other words, this First Edition does come with some nice fancy bits as standard ... but you pay for the privilege.

Okay, just read Terence’s take. On the whole, it was pretty positive. I got a sense that he preferred the diesel to the petrol though?

He did. And so did I. Knowing we’d already written about the 177 kW D240 diesel and 211 kW P300 petrol, I took the opportunity to try the more affordable 183 kW P250 and pretty much picked up on the same two characteristics noted by Mr Steenkamp. One, the nine-speed auto tends to get a little flustered, taking too long to decide which gear is best suited to the engine speed; and two, the E-Pace is not the lightest vehicle out there.

Although it was a little more responsive in dynamic mode (there are three other drivetrain management modes: normal, eco and rain/snow/ice), when accelerating in normal mode, the ZF-sourced auto often felt like it was taking a deep breath before selecting a ratio. It’s by no means problematic, but compared with rivals such as the BMW X2 I drove earlier this year, it’s not quite as slick.

Interestingly, after lunch I had a go in the D240 and, despite having the same gearbox, the turbodiesel felt far better suited to this transmission, with the latter clearly much more at home with the diesel’s low-down torque.

You said it felt a little heavy, too?

With a mass of around 1,9 tonnes, it weighs the same as its bigger sibling, the F-Pace. And you can feel it. The E-Pace is based on the same platform as the Range Rover Evoque and Land Rover Discovery Sport – an older and more steel-intensive platform than the newer, lighter fancy-pants aluminium chassis that underpins the XE/XF saloons, as well as the F-Pace and Range Rover Velar. To lighten the E-Pace, however, aluminium has been used for its bonnet, front wings, tailgate and roof.

That’s not to say the E-Pace feels unwieldy – Jaguar’s engineers have done a splendid job in fettling the suspension to hide its bulk. In comfort mode, it’s superbly damped with a lovely pliant ride, and in dynamic mode, Jaguar’s DNA is certainly there ... it firms up nicely. Big 20-inch wheels certainly help with grip and work well with a superb steering setup that feels sufficiently weighty despite its electric assistance. Where that bulk does become apparent, however, is during hard acceleration and braking, where the nose does raise and dip a little more than one might expect.

What about the rest of the car? What do you think of the styling … and the interior?

I won’t go into too much detail – again, you can read more in Terence’s review – but in the flesh it’s even more compact and muscular than these photographs suggest. I’ve always felt Jaguar could’ve made the nose sharper and a little more aggressive a la F-Pace, but I do see the sense in being a tad softer … in this guise, the E-Pace is aimed at and will appeal to both a male and female target market.

Inside, the E-Pace plays it safe, too. No complaints in terms of perceived quality here; it all looks and feels very premium. The seats felt a little firm at first, but provided plenty of support and were comfortable enough through an entire day of driving. Rear passenger space felt well within the parameters of the segment – that’s to say “there’s enough” rather than “it’s roomy” – and with a claimed 577 litres of boot space and 1 234 litres of utility space, there’s a decent amount of loading room. By way of comparison, for the X2 BMW claims 470 litres of boot space, but slightly more utility space with 1 355 litres.

I’ve heard it has Jaguar’s latest-generation Touch Pro infotainment system with a 10-inch touchscreen. What did you think?

It’s one I found particularly intuitive to operate, and it handily features a customisable home screen on which one can create shortcuts to regularly used features. There was one mildly annoying issue, though: the angle of the screen meant that in sunlight, it was either difficult or altogether impossible to see any displayed information.

Jaguar does offer further driver-display options in a 12,3-inch full-colour digital TFT instrument panel, as well as a head-up display that includes such essentials as speed and navigation information, as well as engine speed data, adaptive cruise control details, lane departure and blind spot warnings, and your selected chosen entertainment media.

Final thoughts, then?

What this isn’t, is a baby F-Pace. Both in looks and handling, it’s a softer proposition. There are, I suspect, two main reasons for that: one, it’s aimed more at female drivers than the bigger F-Pace (50:50 male/female split is what Jaguar SA is aiming at with the new model); and two, the steel-intensive platform makes it a relatively heavy car for its size.

The E-Pace does, however, make a compelling case in what is turning out to be a very competitive segment. It’s an excellent vehicle, unmistakably imbued with Jaguar's DNA, both in its exterior and interior design, as well as its ride and dynamics. In terms of powertrain refinement, the nine-speed 'box works far better with the turbodiesel than with the petrol engines, and the 177 kW D240 would be my recommendation. I look forward to sampling the 110 kW turbodiesel to see if it offers a similar advantage.