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IT’S difficult to believe that the 3 Series has been around for 40 years. The way in which it goes about plying its hard-to-emulate blend of sportiness and sensibility has seen the years fly by and established rivals often shrugged aside with little bother.

But times are changing and the much-loved 335i nameplate – and its great N55 engine – has made way for the 340i and its all-new six-cylinder motor. As if these changes weren’t a challenge enough, Jaguar has also entered the fray with its hard-hitting XE S.

Does the British upstart have what it takes to down the seasoned pro, or will the BMW’s new heart only strengthen its nigh-on-unbeatable virtues?

OUTSIDE AND IN
Although Jaguar’s newcomer has copped criticism for adhering to a styling formula that’s very similar to that of the XF, it doesn’t detract from the fact that XE S is a tastefully executed product.

Much like the M Sport-kitted 340i, the Jaguar’s go-faster treatment is rather demure, with a mere lip of a boot spoiler, deeper skirts, model-specific grille treatment and a smattering of S badges to announce its halo positioning.

The modest exhaust tips through which the supercharged V6 has to voice itself are somewhat underwhelming, but our car’s optional 20-inch propeller-like alloys go a long way to lending it a deal of purposefulness.

Were it not for its M Sport kit, the 340i could be mistaken for pretty much any other member of its range. In typical BMW fashion, the F30’s exterior update is more an ironing out of some crows’ feet than full-on facelift. There are just minor tweaks to the head- and taillamps, a revision to a bumper here and there, and maybe a couple of new paint schemes and alloy wheel choices in the brochure, but it’s understandable that BMW was never going to overly meddle with the formula of its bulk seller.

Instead, the more appreciable changes have taken place inside. Where there were hard, scratchy lower-door plastics in the first iteration of the F30-generation Three, there are now rubberised mouldings, tasteful chrome accents span the facia, and pretty much every element has been subtly worked to impart an air of improved quality that helps keep the cabin within reach of impressive recent rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

The one rival whose fit and material standards it won’t be worried by is the XE S. While there is a greater sense of occasion to the Jaguar’s interior treatment, with its rising gear selector and planes of facia with stitching that sweeps towards chromed outer air vents, the quality is patchy and the plastics and finishes in the Jaguar’s cabin lack the respective perceived density and polish of its rival here.

Irritating B-pillar buzzes and a rubbing noise from the steering wheel boss when turning the wheel were joined by a few other little creaks and rattles that never beset the BMW’s tranquil interior.

The legacy of cramped rear quarters and occasionally awkward packaging that’s been a problematic element of most contemporary Jaguars has unfortunately followed the XE S. The awkward B-pillar placement impinges slightly on rear three-quarter visibility and egress and rear legroom is a miserly 639 mm, more than 100 mm astray of the BMW’s. Boot space is a similar story, with BMW’s 328 dm3 versus the Jaguar’s 240 dm3, although the British car’s split-folding rear seats do free up 800 dm3 of utility space.

The Jaguar claws back some points with a sporty, low-slung driving position in well-bolstered seats that are more laterally supportive than the BMWs rather shapeless items and a vastly improved, crisp-screened infotainment system. The BMW’s iDrive media hub has also been updated to run smoother and respond quicker to inputs than it did before.

UNDER THE BONNET
The BMW 340i’s new B58 power-plant will doubtlessly come under the microscope, especially given the huge N55-sized shoes it has to fill. Featuring an all-aluminium block, the 3,0-litre turbocharged unit is the fruit of BMW’s recent modular engine architecture and can, to some extent, be likened to a brace of the company’s three-cylinder 1,5-litre turbopetrols laced together.

While the new engine’s outputs represent increases of 15 kW and 50 N.m over those of the N55, its more free-revving nature and the wonderful dollop of torque that billows between 1 380 and 5 500 r/min make it feel both markedly sharper and more flexible.

Factor in an eight-speed ‘box that adapts fluidly to whichever drivetrain mode is selected, and the 340i can instantly go from cruising serenely to snarling and hunting down the horizon with an eye-widening turn of pace when stamping on the accelerator. In the latter role the 340i is a seriously fast car, cracking the 0-100 km sprint
in just 5,39 seconds.

The XE S borrows its supercharged 3,0-litre V6 from the entry-level F-Type. Like the BMW unit, it can tread between cruiser and bruiser, albeit not as smoothly owing to the eight-speed ‘box’s tendency to rush through the gears in normal drive mode. Twirl the selector to sport and they meld wonderfully.

Much like its feline namesake, the British car’s launching procedure has it shimmying its rump before a scrabble of claws digging into the ground and a bounding leap see it broach the 100 km/h-mark in 5,65 seconds. But, while it was a shade slower out of the blocks, the Jaguar felt a mite more assured than the BMW, which exhibited a split second of floatiness about its steering even after finding traction.

Although punchy, the XE’s supercharged engine doesn’t exhibit the BMW’s broad torque band, resulting in noticeable margins between the cars in terms of overtaking acceleration in the 40-to-100 km/h brackets.

ON THE ROAD
The 3 Series traditionally plays the part of comfy compact executive with a sporty edge to a tee; the balanced nature of its powerplant invariably filters through to its road manners.

Simply put, you can tell that BMW has been playing this game for four decades – the 3 Series fits like a glove and does exactly what is asked of it. Revisions to the suspension in the shape of more contact points with the chassis in the rear linkages, and tweaks to the spring and damping rates, result in a ride that’s taut yet impressively comfortable, even on the test unit’s optional 19-inch rims.

The 340i’s suspension setup and body control also deserve plaudits. Powering the car into bends, you can feel exactly what’s going on beneath you; when that plentiful grip is about to expire and what the car’s attitude is at that exact moment all transfer themselves from chassis to rump, to inner ear and synapses.

The only slight disconnect in the circuit is the power steering. The 340i’s electrically assisted helm has a quick rack, but there’s a hint of lightness and artificiality that presents itself around dead-centre and occasionally under spirited cornering that just numbs its edge a touch.

Jaguar’s always had a knack for imbuing its cars with wonderfully fluidic ride and body control, and the XE S is no exception. Despite rolling on 20-inch rims shod with 35-profile rubber, its ride is firm but supple enough in its damping to absorb most surface conditions while still reining in body roll in a controlled but communicative manner, even when the XE S is driven enthusiastically.

Like the BMW, there are wonderfully communicative underpinnings at play here, with grip limits and the body’s behaviour clearly telegraphed to the driver. Where the BMW’s steering took some sparkle out of the experience, the same cannot be said of the Jaguar’s tiller. With a pleasing meatiness to its weighting, good responsiveness and an ability to be communicative without becoming tiresome, it forms part of a dynamic package that gives the BMW a run for its money.

The only areas where the Jaguar concedes ground to the BMW are in highway-speed refinement – those big tyres kick noticeable road noise into the cabin – and braking performance, where the 177 kg heavier British-made sedan ran 0,12 seconds astray in the emergency braking tests.

Both cars have distinct voices: the BMW’s war cry is a smooth-edged rumble with a hint of turbo puff on upshifts, while the Jaguar’s hollow-chested snarl is interspersed with a distant supercharged whine.

YOU PAY YOUR MONEY
And in the Jaguar’s case, you pay dearly. Although it wants for nothing in terms of standard specification, the price gulf of nearly R260 000 between it and the BMW is completely unpalatable. Even specced above and beyond its British rival here, our 340i test unit was still more than R50 000 cheaper.

There’s some consolation for the Jaguar in terms of fuel efficiency, though. While their fuel indices sit far apart and the Jaguar weighs 117 kg more than the BMW, our fuel test saw the contenders return 9,0 and 8,9 L/100 km respectively.

TEST SUMMARY

Much as we found when testing its 2,0-litre sibling for the October issue, the XE S proved an especially frustrating test unit. Had the Jaguar been diabolically bad, or bereft of character and ability, it would've softened the blow somewhat, but that wasn't the case.

It's definitely possessed of character, managing to micro-nise Jaguar's perennial dynamic virtues and even edging the 340i ever so slightly in the driver-involvement stakes. But, in this segment, being merely 'good' simply isn't good enough.

The XE S's combination of compromised cabin packaging, subpar fit and finish, and a prohibitively steep asking price dealt it a dizzying combination of knocks in this comparison.

The death blow, however, manifested in the 340i's deft balance of refinement and athleticism that reflects the fact that BMW has been doing the sporty compact-executive sedan thing for 40 years. Throw in an engine that's a worthy smooth and punchy successor to the stalwart N55, and a sticker price that looks like a comparative bargain, and in this engagement Coventry's latest cat is unfortunately grabbed by the scruff of the neck and shown the door.

REMEMBER the much-maligned X-Type? Launched in 2001, it was an amalgam of Jaguar bits and Ford bobs, sharing its underpinnings with the Mondeo. It was the product of an era when the company was part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group and left to flounder as the American giant’s attentions were focused elsewhere. But, following Tata Motors’ purchase of the beloved British brand in 2008, the products have been steadily improving and today the Jaguar brand is stronger than ever.

The XF kicked off the renaissance, followed by the XJ and F-Type. But those are premium products that operate in relatively small segments. Jaguar needed a new entry-level vehicle that was so good that it was guaranteed to ultimately erase the memory of the X-Type and provide buyers with a worthy alternative to the A4, 3 Series and C-Class.

Cue the XE. Constructed on a brand-new, aluminium-intensive and scalable platform set to underpin the new XF and upcoming F-Pace compact SUV, its body consists almost exclusively of the light metal, while hidden behind the front wheels is a sophisticated double wishbone suspension setup. There is a brand-new diesel engine with headline-grabbing emissions figures, a box-fresh infotainment system and one of the longest wheelbases in its class that promises to address the legroom shortfall displayed by Coventry products of yore.
It appears Jaguar has done its homework…

Why then does it look so bland? As subjective as an appreciation for design is, and as much as the XE is an elegant vehicle, there can be no denying that, from some angles, it appears derivative.

The front-end, especially, bears an uncanny resemblance to the outgoing – and incoming – XF. There’s the same rounded rectangle for the main grille, familiar xenon-equipped headlamps and centrally placed engine bulge.

Viewed in profile, the boot section looks a touch too truncated, interrupting the sleek cab-back impression created by the elongated bonnet. The rear-end, meanwhile, has its fans and detractors in equal measure. Some CAR staffers like the Audi A4-esque taillamps; others question why Jaguar chose to install two puny tail-pipe ends instead of finishing them off in chunky chrome (that feature is reserved for the V6 S; the diesel, meanwhile, has a pair of pipes placed to the left-hand side which looks much better). The Prestige rides as standard on 17-inch wheels; the 18-inch items fitted to this test vehicle are optional.

Tug one of the substantial door handles, squeeze past the obtrusive B-pillar and you’re greeted by a cockpit that came under fire from a number of CAR testers. Let’s first look at the positives: for many years, we’ve been criticising Jaguar Land Rover products’ infotainment systems that were outdated in appearance and clunky to use. The new InControl interface addresses our concerns in one fell swoop. The menu system is logical and the design is modern and clear. Jaguar’s designers have been wise enough to leave eight hard buttons around the screen as shortcuts to various sub-menus. Below the screen sits a climate control section that’s tidily designed and simple to use.

Further good points include comfortable, though manually adjustable, front seats with long squabs for sufficient under-thigh support and an inch-perfect driving position that places the reach-and-rake adjustable steering wheel close to the pilot.

But for every point the Jaguar XE scores, two are deducted. The C-Class has shown what a D-segment interior should look and feel like, qualities next year’s A4 will undoubtedly build on. Unfortunately, the Jaguar does not scale the same lofty heights. From clumsy detailing such as a pixelated display screen between the instruments, electric-window switches that are placed on the wrong tier on the doors (our hands kept falling to the lower-placed mirror switches to adjust the windows) and large, inexpensive-feeling buttons on the steering wheel, it fails to stand comparison with the Germans. What’s more, the satin grey wood trim on this test car was misaligned on the left-hand section of the Riva Hoop that forms a half-moon on top of the dashboard, and the cabin had a few slight squeaks and rattles (also noticed on the test vehicles that were used on the South African launch of the XE).

Move to the back and the news doesn’t improve. A number of CAR testers could not sit comfortably behind the front seat if it was set to their preferred position. Our measurements supported this impression of pinched space. Whereas the XE recorded a rear-legroom figure of 639 mm, we measured a substantially longer 710 mm for the C-Class and 740 mm in the 3 Series. The XE also has 42 mm less headroom than the BMW and the British car’s tastefully trimmed boot is the smallest of the three by some margin. So far, so very average – will one of Jaguar’s traditional strong points, chassis dynamics, redeem the XE?

It’s certainly off to a promising start. That newly developed suspension system performs admirably in most conditions. The team universally praised the XE’s ride, as it has that uncanny ability to be firm enough to check unnecessary body movement without ever feeling harsh. As a result of extensive suspension tuning on Britain’s lumpy, poorly cambered tar by chassis guru and chief engineer of vehicle integrity at Jaguar, Mike Cross, we directly benefit on our own pockmarked roads.

Arrive at a set of corners, however, and the XE comes alive. The electric steering system is a little over-geared, but you soon get used to that and start threading together a set of bends in single, fluid movements of the wheel.

Slightly oversteer-biased – unlike its German rivals, which favour an understeer-led setup –  the XE is progressive in corners, telegraphing grip limits clearly as the body leans lightly on the loaded springs. Is it more fun to drive than a 3 Series? Based on this first test, we’d say possibly, but a final verdict on chassis control will have to wait until we stage a comparative test.

The XE won’t necessarily match the 330i on performance, though. When we tested a 328i in May 2012, it hit 100 km/h in 6,61 seconds. The Jaguar needed 7,26. Perhaps its mass is to blame. Despite the aluminium construction, this 25t weighs 111 kg more than that 328i. Considering that the 330i takes the outgoing model’s engine and ups power to 185 kW, the XE should be left choking on the BMW’s exhaust fumes.

In-gear acceleration is far better, however, and the XE recorded excellent times thanks to masses of low-down torque and a quick-acting eight-speed automatic transmission.

Be aware, however, that Jaguar will introduce its new Ingenium 2,0-litre turbopetrol to replace this long-used motor in the second quarter of 2016. There isn’t much wrong with the current engine in terms of smooth operation or noise levels, but its consumption (we recorded 8,8 litres/100 km on our fuel route) and emissions levels are behind those of the class best.

In our final test, 10 emergency stops from 100 km/h, the Jaguar logged an excellent average of 2,98 seconds and displayed rock-solid stability.

TEST SUMMARY

We had high hopes for the XE, principally because we hold Jaguar's current range in great regard, and because we were sure the carmaker would learn from its mistakes on the X-Type project. Ultimately, however, the XE has failed to live up to our expectations.

There are one too many rough edges that hinder it from contesting for best-in-class honours. And that's before you factor in its price. This Prestige model is the cheapest petrol derivative in the range - which also means it's least well equipped - yet it costs R110 000 more than the BMW 330i. In fact, for an additional R16 000, you can have a 340i and net a creamy inline-six engine. Or you could save almost R80 000 and buy a Mercedes-Benz C300 that wallops the XE on sophistication. Ultimately - and unfortunately for Jaguar - the maths simply don't make sense.

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