First drive: Jaguar XE 2.0d 180 Portfolio

Jaguar XE

Upmarket compact saloons have gone from being a niche option for well-heeled motorists to the vehicle of choice for everyone from company car drivers to families that want to impress their neighbours. And the sharp styling of the new Jaguar XE looks set to continue this trend.

Jaguar may have sold the X-Type up until 2010 but the company is very keen to distance its new executive saloon from its dated predecessor, describing it as a completely clean sheet design that makes it the driver's choice in its class - beating the BMW 3 Series at its own game.

Jaguar appears keen to win the hearts of many company car users too, with the most frugal diesel model emitting just 99g/km of CO2 - meaning low company car tax rates - and offering claimed fuel economy of 75.0mpg. Despite its green credentials, this is no tardy budget model, sprinting to 62mph in a brisk 8.2 seconds.

What is it?

Slotting into the Solihull marque's range as its smallest and most affordable model, Jaguar claims that the XE offers the best blend of sharp handling and comfort in the class, while providing a luxurious interior and efficient engines.

With prices starting from £26,995 - and an eight-inch touchscreen media system with sat nav standard on all models - the XE makes entry to the Jaguar brand much more affordable, with strong economy and low emissions slashing running costs.

Despite this, the XE is very much a premium option, gunning for German rivals from BMW, Mercedes and Audi. With power being sent to the rear wheels, however - typically a BMW trademark - Jaguar clearly has its sights aimed at one brand in particular.

What's under the bonnet?

The XE is offered with five engines. New motors include two 2.0-litre diesels with 163bhp and 178bhp - the less powerful model is capable of 75.0mpg and returns low enough CO2 emissions to warrant free car tax - and two new turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol motors with 197bhp and 237bhp, which put more emphasis on performance than economy.

A range-topping supercharged 3.0-litre V6 is also available and is capable of sprinting to 62mph in a scant 5.1 seconds, courtesy of its muscular 335bhp output.

Buyers can choose between six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic gearboxes for the diesel models, while all petrols come as standard with Jaguar's smooth-shifting eight-speed auto.

What's the spec like?

Entry-level SE models include sat nav, a digital radio, cruise control and 17-inch alloy wheels as standard. Stepping up to Prestige trim adds leather upholstery with heated front seats and blue ambient cabin lighting.

Next in line is racy R-Sport trim, which includes leather sports seats - heated for the front passengers - sports suspension, aluminium trim inside, unique body styling outside, two-tone alloy wheels and powerful xenon headlights.

Topping the range is Portfolio trim, which boasts perforated leather seats - with electric adjustment for the front passengers - dual-colour instruments and an upgraded sound system.

The powerful 3.0-litre petrol is only available in its own sporty 'S' trim level, which includes heated, perforated sports seats, a body kit with 19-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded audio system and keyless entry.

First drive: Jaguar XE

First drive: Jaguar XE

Any rivals?

The Jaguar XE competes directly against the BMW 3 Series, the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4, which all blend high quality interiors with punchy but economical engines.

Closest in spirit to the XE is the BMW, which prioritises driving enjoyment above ultimate comfort, unlike the Mercedes and Audi, which put the onus on opulence and technology respectively.

What's it like to drive?

Despite Jaguar billing it as a sports saloon, the initial impression of the XE - with the comfort suspension on our model at least - is one of ease of driving. With light steering - whichever driving mode you select - a brake pedal that requires plenty of pressure before slowing the car and a mostly smooth ride, the XE feels particularly comfort-oriented, more so than an equivalent BMW.

Refinement levels are high, making the XE a good long distance cruiser, though the ride could iron out rough surfaces a little better. The engine was also relatively refined and smooth, while offering more than enough power for most buyers.

The manual gearbox in our car was slick enough too, though the steering - Jaguar's first electric system - doesn't provide much feedback, discouraging faster driving. The XE does, however, offer plenty of grip around corners, though the seats could do with more lateral support.

We also drove a sports suspension-equipped diesel version, kitted out with the automatic gearbox. In this guise the XE offers much more meaty steering and slightly firmer suspension and tauter handling, giving keener drivers a significantly more satisfying driving experience. The gearbox offered smooth changes, though the engine does sound a little gruff when worked hard.

AOL Cars Verdict

The Jaguar XE is bound to be a big success in the UK - with both private and company car users - due to its sharp styling, powerful and efficient engines and low emissions.

With everything from affordable and cheap to run diesels to sprightly petrols and the rapid, supercharged S model on offer, many buyers will be seduced by the XE. However, models equipped with the comfort suspension setup do not live up to Jaguar's billing as being the best driver's car in the class, thanks to their lifeless steering.

The sports setup does improve the XE significantly, though it still isn't the sports car Jaguar would have you believe - not surprising, when you consider its four-door format. The trim quality of our test cars was also a little below par, with materials that aren't as plush as you might expect around the cabin, though it is possible Jaguar will address this on UK cars.

Despite a few niggles, however, the XE is a very appealing option to buyers after an upmarket but cheap to run saloon, which is capable on the motorway, but also offers reasonably engaging handling. Expect to see them everywhere when deliveries start later this year.

The knowledge

Model: Jaguar XE 2.0d 180 Portfolio
Price: £33,675
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel
Power: 178bhp
Max Speed: 140mph
0-62mph: 7.8 seconds
MPG: 67.3mpg (combined)
Emissions: 109g/km CO2