In this game of ours we can't help forming an opinion of a car before we've driven it. We do that based on how it looks, how the spec shapes up, and even, to a degree, the opinions of some trusted friends and journalists. All of whom have raved about the new Jaguar XE and its star qualities.

The XE is up on a pedestal from the off, then. But there's also that age-old saying: never meet your heroes. They'll always disappoint you. Is the same true with cars? We wonder whether the new Jaguar XE could be a case-in-point, or are the raving critics right?

We had a week to find out with the Jaguar XE, but in its go-faster R-sport trim, mixed with the lower power output 2.0 diesel engine.

A good test of a car today is its ability to make you feel at home; for it to be intuitive to use and give you confidence behind the wheel despite any unfamiliarity.

Pocket-lintJaguar XE - 21 copy

With that in mind we collected the XE while out at another event, some 200 miles from home and, therefore, with about 4 hours for it to make a good first impression.

It got off to a good start. There's little worse than rush hour London traffic. But with the satnav fired up, a full tank of diesel and an 8-speed automatic gearbox the XE is the sort of car that should make a decent fist of tedious stop-start traffic.

We're sat on jet black leather chairs, too, which in this test car were both heated/cooled and power-adjustable.

The hour we (predictably) spend getting out of central London does little to help us form a driving impression, but provides useful time to drink in the XE's interior and get to know its new infotainment system.

Following the Land Rover Discovery Sport, the XE was the first car in JLR's range to receive the company's new InControl multimedia system. This comes in two versions: InControl Touch (as tested here) with an 8-inch touch screen and a largely analogue gauge cluster; and InControl Touch Pro, with a 10-inch touch screen and, oh, the same cluster.

Pocket-lintJaguar XE - 30 copy

On the XF and F-Pace go with the Pro option and you get a digital, customisable cluster. But the XE's denied that and sticks with the analogue setup regardless of what screen size you choose.

Given that we've repeatedly lambasted JLR's old touchscreen interface, we were looking forward to trying InControl. And it's fair to say it's a massive step forward.

It's mostly easy-to-use and we like the use of colour within the user interface, which helps when moving between satnav, phone, media and car. On most screens the buttons are much bigger and easier to hit than before and it's quicker to respond than before and feels more accurate, partly because the screen is capacitive, multitouch technology. The navigation system is easy to enter full UK postcodes into, and you can control most things from the steering wheel.

The display has an 800x480 pixel resolution, which is about the standard for this class now, but move up to InControl Touch Pro and you jump to a decent 1280 x 542 (besting the Audi A4's MMI Navigation Plus, which runs 1024 x 480px).

With the £500 optional Meridian stereo system fitted to our car, media and radio played out crisply and with very decent bass to a high volume.

Nags? The processor on this lower-level system must be quite low-spec as there's definite lag when moving between screen menus. And on some screens the graphics get a bit busy and child-like which doesn't fit the premium vibe. There's no Google Streetview or Earth overview (hello Audi), or CarPlay/Android Auto to test out, at least on our test car — thought it is coming. The information display in the cluster is still limited in what it shows, and bears the graphics that JLR has had for a long time, so feels like it's from a different era to the main screen.

Overall, however, the new InControl system is a big and welcome step forward. More importantly, the system from our test car comes as standard. For speed, clarity and premium feel, both BMW's Pro Media system and Audi's MMI+ best it and work via a rotary controller which we think is safer and preferable to touchscreen when on the move. But these two competitors cost you at least a grand. (Caveat: On the R Sport model adding InControl Pro is a £1,100 option, bundled with the £500 Meridian Hi-fi upgrade, totalling £1,600).

Pocket-lintJaguar XE - 33 copy

One option our test car came with, which we'd suggest you skip, is the head-up display (HUD). This is a new, laser-based system which projects direct onto the windscreen (rather than a secondary pop-up screen). However, we found the display quality mediocre, and the data — it shows speed, speed limit, gear and sat-nav turn-by-turns — too crammed together. Most annoyingly, we found when driving swiftly that the nav turn arrow — which progressively fills itself in as you approach the actual turn — just didn't keep up with our real-world turns. It's a really nice UI idea, it just doesn't quite work yet.

Having spent half an hour mostly fiddling with InControl Touch — establishing it paired our iPhone 6 easily and made calls faultlessly — we were still crawling in traffic and our attention turned to the XE's interior.

Our car was in an all-black colour scheme, which in our view doesn't do it huge favours. If you're after airiness, throw some cream or red leather colourways at the XE (£0 cost option) to offer yourself a little in the way of light relief.

Pocket-lintJaguar XE - 3 copy

Despite not sitting as low in the driver's seat as you feel you do in a BMW 3-Series or Audi A4, there's a greater sense of being ensconced in the Jag, because the XE has a high waistline accentuated by a tide-line design feature which wraps around the base of the windscreen and onto the doors. The core volume of the dashboard sits below it. What this creates is a sense you're in quite a small, tight cockpit environment. Which is really nice when you're on your own or in the mood for a bit of fun driving. There's plenty of space for 6ft 5 bodies in the driver's chair and the whole thing makes the car shrink around you.

But it is true this cabin — considered beyond the driver's seat at least — is smaller than the competition. The relentless black doesn't help. The plastics and fixtures, with the exception of the chunky aluminium air-vent surrounds in the end of the dash, are a bit low rent, too.

Perhaps the biggest issue for many buyers will be the fact that the boot's smaller than the German competition. Jaguar has recently said it's not going to do an estate version of the XE either, so if you need extra family space and want a Jag, for now you might need to look upmarket to the F-Pace.

The XE is Jaguar's first mid-sized executive saloon since the X-Type. Thankfully, it's not based on a Ford Mondeo platform like that old car was, but instead JLR's aluminium-intensive rear drive platform.

The big news for XE is the new "Ingenium" four-cylinder engine range. The diesel options, which over 90 per cent of buyers will choose, comes in two guises: low-power 163-horsepower (as tested here), and higher-output 180-horsepower.

Pocket-lintJaguar XE - 12 copy

The new engine is torquey, well-matched to the brilliant ZF 8-speed auto gearbox and hits 60mph in 7.7 seconds, keeping it competitive. It also chucks out just 106g/km in this R-Sport guise, which is better than an equivalent Audi or BMW.

This is all good news if you're a company car XE buyer, as for the first time there's no penalty — actually probably an advantage — tax-wise, in choosing a Jag over a Beemer or Audi.

Sense a "but" coming? Well, it arrives in the form of noise, refinement and some spec-for-spec decisions to no doubt achieve that low CO2 score. Put simply, our biggest issue with the 2.0d engine, and the XE in general as tested here, is noise and lack of refinement.

The engine's clattery at start-up and when the stop-start does its thing it sends a shudder through the cabin. When you rev it, it gets loud and coarse. It reminds us of Merc's much older 220 variant diesel in its noise and slightly old-school approach. Which, overall, is a shame for Jag because otherwise the XE is great to drive, decently refined on the motorway, but the engine remains a constant background thrum throughout the experience. It did give us over 51mpg over 600-miles use though.

And it's all a bit odd, because having tried both the higher-spec 180bhp engine and the Ingenium engine in the XF and Land Rover Discovery Sport, this test XE seemed markedly worse than the others, noise-wise. Potentially just a one-off duff then, but our primary advice would be, if you've the extra cash go for the higher-output 180. This might sound like typical journalist "go faster!" speak — but there's more than just the driving experience at play here.

Firstly, the higher-power engine is rated at the same CO2 level, so there's only the extra list price to add to your tax penalty, and as a private user, none at all in terms of actual car tax. Of course, the 180 is a little faster but it also opens up some choice options, notably bigger alloys. The 17-inch (no cost option) affairs on our R-Sport look decidedly puny compared to BMW's M-Sports which many seem to take in 19-inch, and on the lower-power engine you can't even option 18s, whereas they're standard on the 180bhp R-Sport.

Pocket-lintJaguar XE - 5 copy

So were it our money, that's what we'd do: spend the cash on the bigger engine and wheels, because then you'll have an XE that drives better and looks nicer. The bigger engine is only £700 extra with this particular spec.

It's spec-sensitive then? In terms of looks, we'd say so. Drive wise, however, it's very much about the engine because otherwise the XE is right at the top of its class. Jaguar has consistently produced the best steering cars in their class for a few years now, and the XE is no different. The ride is good too (bear in mind those 17-inch wheels on our car help — but Jag can setup bigger wheel arrangements well, we've found).

Being rear-drive, the Jag level-pegs with the BMW 3-Series in the fun-to-drive stakes. The newly refreshed 3-Series feels slightly keener and with its adaptive dampers and big wheels rides impressively. The Jag steers better, rides well without fancy dampers and is neutral-to-oversteer-led if you prat about with it. Neither have quite the refined, cruiser qualities of an Audi A4, with its amazing sound deadening. Think carefully about the sort of driving you do before picking. But ultimately there's not a dud in this class.

Pocket-lintJaguar XE - 22 copy

Specification-wise, in R-Sport trim the Jag comes well equipped. Even basic SE spec gets you the 8-inch InControl media interface, Navigation and Traffic sign/speed limit recognition, Bluetooth, DAB and rear parking sensors. Prestige spec adds leather and heated front seats; this R-Sport throws in Xenon lamps with the J-blade running lamps, sports suspension and body kit, and (on the higher output engine) the 18-inch wheels.

Options we'd consider? The Meridian sound system at £500 is an excellent buy, although we've no normal system to compare it to — the standard setup might be fine. The panoramic sliding roof at £1,020 is expensive but brings needed light into the cabin, while Jet light Taurus (cream) or red leather (£0 cost options) is something we'd definitely do. A parking pack to add front sensors and a rear camera is £545.

Beyond that list the XE doesn't really need speccing up — with only keyless entry being a real nice-to-have standout on the options list (£515). Note that, especially in R-Sport spec, the XE doesn't feel de-contented in the way a 3-Series or A4 can. Big thumbs up from us for that, Jaguar.

Verdict

Jaguar has been away from this class of car for some time, and over our week with the XE we established it has made a car that's a really decent competitor to the German competition. If you like driving, really want to buy British or have been through a series of Audis, Mercs and BMWs and then this is definitely a car we can recommend without much hesitation.

For us, three points pull it down. Despite its newness, InControl isn't up to the standards set by German infotainment systems and the new tech on this car (like the HUD) doesn't work that well. The XE is also notably less spacious than an Audi A4 (particularly), but also 3-Series or C-Class, and the cabin doesn't have any of the specialness we'd like, nee expect in a Jag — especially in all-black.

But the biggest fly in the ointment is this lower-power diesel engine's refinement, and the small wheels it dictates which spoil the looks. So as tested, the XE makes for a very solid four star car. However, based on other (admittedly brief) experiences, and given that it's just a £700 extra in R-Sport spec, with the higher-output engine the XE would gain a half star extra.

The Jaguar XE R-Sport doesn't quite attain superhero status then, but it can hold its head high, because it mostly level-pegs with the much longer-established German competition.