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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.

CORSICA – If Jaguar’s predictions are astute, the SUV on these pages will soon be its bestselling car globally, usurping the F-Pace – it’s first-ever SUV – by drawing in 80% new buyers to the British brand. No wonder, then, that the mood at the global launch of the new E-Pace on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica was notably buoyant. The designers espoused the thrill of penning the E-Pace and the engineers spoke enthusiastically about its new Active Driveline AWD system, backing up their bravado with stints along the drive route on gravel and sand where the setup displayed its traction advantages (and occasional tail-happy countenance).

But, before we find out whether the E-Pace lives up to the hype, some context.

Is there an E-Pace for me?

Launching here in March 2018 in a range comprising a whopping 38 derivatives across five engine variants – D150, D180, D240, P250 and P300, with the letter denoting the fuel type and the numbers representing the power output in PS – four trim levels – standard, S, SE and HSE (plus a First Edition for the first year) – and an additional R-Dynamic package available across all four main grades, Jaguar South Africa certainly appears bullish that it has a model for every need. Pricing spans R601 579 to R901 856, which naturally begs the question: which vehicles would count as E-Pace rivals? (Need more info on the range, including full pricing? Read our news story here.)

The Jaguar’s size and pricing allows us to draw some comparisons. At a whisker short of 4,4 metres, it will go head to head with the BMW X2, as well as the upcoming Volvo XC40, the next-generation Mercedes-Benz GLA and Audi Q3, and even such leftfield options as the bigger Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Lexus NX. Perhaps even the F-Pace? I’m sure Jaguar wouldn’t want us to entertain the idea…

Attractive on the outside ... and the inside

All the test vehicles waiting for us in the unseasonably pleasant winter weather when we touched down in Corsica were D240 and P300 models in S grade, with a smattering of R-Dynamic packages in the mix. Especially resplendent in Caesium Blue pictured here, the E-Pace looks expensive, taut and compact. The F-Type headlamps do wonders to distinguish it from the F-Pace (their rear-ends, however, are quite similar in execution) and the optional 20-inch rims on the launch vehicles fill the arches to the brim. Would standard models on 17-inch items look as lavish? Probably not, but there are a variety of wheel designs to tick on the options sheet.

Jump aboard and what strikes you first is the grab handle that bisects the facia and angles the controls towards the driver (there’s that F-Type effect again), then you notice the absence of Jaguar’s rotary transmission controller, here replaced with a traditional pistol shifter, all before the 12,3-inch TFT instrument screen piques your interest. The latter one is optional on most models, mind, but a 10-inch Touch Pro infotainment system is standard across the range (with sat-nav incorporated from S models up).

The standard of fit and finish is as good as anything in this class – after a period of interiors that did not fully convince (XE and XF), Jaguar appears to have judged the balance just right on the E-Pace. There are sturdy plastics at the bottom of the doors that are easy to wipe clean when soiled, and slush-moulded surfaces on the facia and door tops with neat lines of stitching here and there. Only the large swathe of ungrained plastic shrouding the steering column and extending onto the facia detracts from the quality feel.

Overall, there’s just enough room for four adults to get comfy (if five squeeze in, they’ll each find a USB port), with sufficient legroom and scalp clearance, and comfortable seats that are more supportive than is the norm for a second-row bench.

The same can’t quite be said for the front seats, however. Both my driving partner and I failed to get completely comfortable. I struggled with the firmness of the backrest, despite deflating the lumbar-support pockets, while she had issues reaching the pedals. Visibility from the driver’s seat is acceptable, but the heavily slanted A-pillars do obstruct your view at roundabouts and the like.

Does it drive like a Jaguar, though?

I had a chance to sample both the P300 and D240 Ingenium four-cylinder engines, and would unreservedly recommend the latter. There’s nothing notably amiss with the petrol, but because the E-Pace is built on the older Land Rover Discovery Sport platform and not the lighter one that underpins the F-Pace, the E-Pace isn’t exactly a featherweight. At nearly 1,9 tonnes – JLR should really do better with kerbing the mass of its vehicles – the P300’s engine occasionally feels reedy when a swift overtaking manoeuvre is required. It also taxes the nine-speed transmission, which is prone to becoming flummoxed.

The D240, on the other hand, may not match the P300’s overall refinement levels, but its additional 100 N.m of torque is just what’s required to shoot the E-Pace forward with more gusto.

And you might just want to drive the E-Pace with gusto. Despite its arguably outdated platform that’s tasked with striking a balance between on-road prowess and off-road ability, the vehicle is a pleasure to thread along twisting mountain passes (of which Corsica has an embarrassment of riches; if you have the means, pay a visit and rent a car to experience the Tour de Corse tarmac route).

Like all Jaguars, the E-Pace is the product of chief vehicle engineer and chassis god, Mike Cross, and features the company’s Configurable Dynamics drivetrain-management system with four settings – normal; dynamic; eco; and rain, ice and snow. And like most of these systems, I couldn’t really detect a difference in the E-Pace’s responses. So I left it in comfort and revelled in the firm but superbly damped ride on 20-inch wheels; the oily, direct steering that made it simple to place on narrow village streets; and the chassis’ ability to remain relatively flat through fast corners despite the relatively high centre of gravity. Eventual understeer is its main cornering attitude, but that can be countered thanks to the new Active Driveline system that distributes torque between the two rear wheels through two independent, electronically controlled wet-plate clutches. At a steady-state cruise, meanwhile, torque heads forward to kerb parasitic drivetrain losses, aiding fuel consumption in the process.

The result is that the E-Pace looks, feels and drives like a Jaguar. And that’s no mean feat when the product in question is a compact SUV from a manufacturer most known for its elegant, large saloons and sporty two-doors. What this strong brand DNA also suggests is that the E-Pace will be a formidable competitor in the segment for premium midsize SUVs, where brand cachet counts for a lot and exciting design wins admirers. I foresee no reason why the newest addition to the Jaguar stable won’t quickly overtake the F-Pace as its bestseller globally.

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