(Pocket-lint) - Ten years ago, the concept of a Jaguar SUV would have been laughable. Since the brand twinned with Land Rover there was logic in the argument that Jag did the pretty saloons and coupes, while Land Rover did the off-road practical stuff. But the SUV market is the fastest growing in the car world, so big that for Jaguar to thrive it needs SUVs. Its answer? The F-Pace.
We drove the car on the roads of the Balkans at its launch, but there's no substitute for getting under the skin of a car than spending time with it closer to home, and putting it through its paces on UK roads.
Jaguar F-Pace review: Design
Jaguar's design has undergone a significant overhaul under the direction of Ian Callum, the man who led the teams that developed the F-Type, XE and XF. It's a quiet, elegant and very refined design language and, if anything, Jaguar's DNA transfers to an SUV better than even its biggest fans might have imagined.
The F-Pace is cleverly positioned - it has great road presence, a fabulous stance and looks imposing. It looks big - but in size it's halfway between a Porsche Macan (Audi Q5) and a Cayenne (Audi Q7), and for once splitting the segment size norms seems to work. It's big enough to make sense for a family but not so big that it's difficult to park.
Helped by a great set of proportions (the front wheel is very far forwards), the F-Pace has a neat, menacing application of Jaguar's face graphics and an elegant profile which finishes off with a pert rear that's more of a sporty coupe than stuffy wagon.
It needs the massive optional 22-inch wheels (£1,600) of our test car to really sing though, standard F-Paces on 19- and 20-inch wheels look distinctly under-endowed.
While we're here, we've noteed that locally every F-Pace we see is a demure black, grey or silver - but there are some stand-out colours such as this Italian racing red which really shows-off the body surfacing.
Jaguar F-Pace review: Interior
We don't think Jaguar's new interior design is quite as successful as the exterior though. It's a welcoming, mostly well-designed space when you step on board but it doesn't exactly sing when trimmed in its all-black finish.
Climb into the F-Pace and it has that commanding Land Rover-like feel from the driving seat. Yet the Jaguar dashboard architecture wraps around, rather like it does in the XE and XF. For the simple reason that the dashboard is, bar a few details, the exact same design as you'll find in the XE.
Because Jaguar sticks to a touchscreen interface, the centre console volume pushes some way into the cabin, which makes the driving environment feel quite snug. Some will like this, and it certainly fits with Jag's driver-focused vibe. But others will likely feel the massive width of the centre tunnel diminishes the sense of space inside. Overall, it doesn't feel particularly special in here which is a real shame given the exterior.
Rear seat space is fine - not palatial for a big car, but better than a saloon XE - and the boot space, at 650litres, makes this a very useful family hauler. The boot floor is high, though, and relatively shallow with a spare wheel slung in the under compartment.
Anyone who's spent time in a new Jaguar - the XE particularly - will feel at home in the driver's seat. The wheel, dials, centre screen and rotary gear shift controller are easy enough to operate; the controls finished in a veneer of black gloss plastic with fake-metal bezel edges.
It's not as glitzy as the new Mercs, it's not as modern as the new Audis and the tech doesn't feel as cutting-edge as the new BMWs - but as a blend of all three it's not bad. Only the bizarre placement of the (cheap feeling) window lifters on the top plane of the door occasionally has you grasping at fresh air.
Worth noting is that Jaguar offers some nice alternative leather finishes (cream or red) and door/dash veneers (with a grey-white hound's-tooth design). In concert with a panoramic roof, these options make the cabin feel more modern, spacious and lighter in design - so we recommend a good delve around the options list if you're speccing out an F-Pace (and have the spare cash).
Jaguar F-Pace review: Interface
At launch we tested the F-Pace with Jaguar's higher-level, InControl Touch Pro multimedia system - with a 10.2-inch, widescreen centre display and a digital gauge cluster. That option wasn't fitted to our review car, however, which highlighted why we would recommend you upgrade to the Pro system.
The non-Pro version of InControl Touch, as fitted here, isn't all bad though. It has an 8-inch centre touchscreen display, with physical shortcut buttons flanking the screen. It's relatively easy to use, and with a nice colour graphic design, but it still isn't the fastest acting system and certain functions (scrolling through your contacts book, adjusting the heated seat) still grate on us because they seem needlessly more difficult to operate than with, say, Audi's rotary control MMI system.
Basic InControl Touch (which is standard equipment) also means that besides sat nav, a single USB port and DAB radio you'll get an analogue speedo and rev counter, plus a 5-inch digital display between them to display fuel, engine temp and trip information. Via the steering wheel, this display allows you to configure almost anything on the car, right down to how long you want the courtesy light dim delay to last.
The analogue gauges are clear, but the 5-inch display is a bit of a let-down as it's crammed with info and while the menu entry points give you some lovely graphics, once you delve in it's all a bit wordy and cluttered. We're nit-picking - because this is a £50k car and several competitors do it better. Ultimately it won't ruin your F-Pace experience, but it could be that touch improved.
Nonetheless, the Pro system solves many of these issues with its virtual 12-inch cluster display which you can configure in different ways to let the navigation map dominate, to give you virtual dials and enjoy a lot more customisation. The centre screen is also higher-resolution, you get an extra USB port, a CD/DVD drive along with a 10GB hard drive and (on some models) a 380W Meridian sound system over the 80W one. So we'd suggest the £1,225 premium for Pro is worth your money.
Jaguar F-Pace review: Driving experience
If your idea of an SUV driving experience is a lumbering slug of a thing, Jaguar has managed to concoct a really rather enjoyable driving experience out of what is a fundamentally big and heavy car.
We'll cut to the chase and say that, if you'd like your F-Pace experience in full fat, no compromises format and have a plentiful budget, we strongly recommend the 3.0 diesel engine, as tested here in the S 30D AWD derivative.
Jaguar's Ingenium 20D is the volume seller most will buy though. In automatic, AWD format it's got 180bhp, will do 0-60mph in 8.2-seconds and produces 139g/km of CO2. But it's pulling along a lot of car and in its XE-based form we found the engine noisy and uncouth.
The 3.0 we tried makes 300bhp, does 0-60mph in 5.8-seconds and produces 159g/km of CO2. It's a V6, so sounds nice and has a stealthy speed quality when out on the road. It works perfectly with the 8-speed auto, too. It is, unfortunately, £14K more expensive than the lower-powered car, which is why most will go for the 20D.
It's not the engine that dominates the driving experience of the F-Pace though, more the dynamics. There's accurate, lovely steering and very neutral handling balance even when you really push this car. Wearing those stunning 22-inch wheels, the ride isn't as cosseting as you'd expect in a Jag but nor is it brutal - so if you can live with a bit of stiffness and you don't live in Surrey or Yorkshire where the pot holes resemble craters of the moon, the 22s are the way forward.
What's more, while the F-Pace makes no pretence in having the full-on, go-anywhere Land Rover-like ability off-road, it did cope impressively well with the dumping of snow we got one day during our tenure of it, pulling itself up a snow covered hill with no fluster and little wheel spin. Jaguar has fitted a couple of helpful settings tricks to help here – a snow/rain setting in the drive setup and a low friction surface start function, which you access through the touchscreen.
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Disappointments? Well, the F-Pace never truly shrinks around you like the Porsche SUVs do. It is dynamically very good but it's not as outright fun to drive as the (admittedly smaller) Porsche Macan. And because of where you sit high to the road, and the enveloping quality of the cabin, it never feels that fast - in a slightly threatening-your-license way where you actually always seem to be doing 15mph more than you thought you were. As we said, stealth speed.
Entering the SUV market could have been a tricky task for Jaguar. Not only does an SUV appear an unusual fit for the brand based on its history, but the internal competition from sister Land Rover/Range Rover means there were inherent risks for the parent company.
That the F-Pace works so well, feels so convincing and natural as a Jag is a credit to the designers and the engineering/dynamics team. We think it looks great, we found it easy to live with - it's spacious but not cumbersome - and is nice to drive.
It doesn't have the utile, go-anywhere ruggedness of a Land Rover - which is a good thing - because the Jag has entirely its own vibe. If you live up a track, haul a dog, trailer and three kids, then get a Disco. If you're based in the city or suburbia, like the odd country walk at weekends and do the south of France twice a year, the get the Jag.
This particular F-Pace - in its 3-litre 30D guise - is on the pricey side, so we'd be interested to explore if the F-Pace feels as convincing in a spec and with an engine that's more representative of the much more reasonably priced cars many will buy. But based on what we find here, Jaguar has created a product that feels fresh, demands a look back every time you walk away from it and which is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the German opposition.