Test Drive

2018 Jaguar E-Pace Test Drive: Hello Kitty

The puppy runt of the litter is an impressive entry point into the British luxury brand.

For quite some time, Jaguar executives must have been looking across the hall to their Land Rover colleagues with considerable envy. An entire lineup of SUVs when the market was going crazy for them, while the Jag braintrust sat on a lineup of a handful of sedans that barely registered in the public’s consciousness despite sharp design, advanced platforms and captivating driving dynamics. The outrageously sexy F-Type was worthy of all the lust spilled in ink and pixels, but it barely moved the sales needle being a two-seat coupe.

They caught on pretty fast and looking at Jaguar’s sales charts, you see quite the leap when their planning finally hit the market: beginning in the summer of 2016, the arrival of the F-Pace crossover more than doubled the brand’s monthly volume in every month after its launch for the first year before demand started tapering off. Well, if one crossover is good for the brand, two should be better right? That is indeed Jaguar’s thinking, taking advantage of Land Rover’s Range Rover Evoque compact SUV platform and stripping it down in the freshly launched 2018 E-Pace to a more road-focused crossover. This gives Jaguar buyers two crossovers to choose from in small and medium sizes, with the electric I-Pace crossover arriving imminently.

The decision between the F-Pace and E-pace will likely come down mostly to size preferences, as the E-Pace is not cheap when equipped to bring out the best of its character. The E-Pace starts at what seems a modest $38,600 with $995 destination charge across the board, and the power is there in base trim, with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 246 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque, which is standard fare for this class and plenty for its 4,035-lb curb weight. It’s not stunningly fast at 6.6 seconds to 60 mph, but that is very respectable. It’s also not the most efficient powertrain, even with a nine-speed automatic, returning an estimated 21 mpg in city driving, 28 on the highway and 24 combined according to the EPA.

While it starts off with some nice features like LED headlights, 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system, emergency braking, lane keep assist, backup camera and proximity sensors, the cruise control is conventional, not adaptive, the seats are fabric and manually adjusted, and the navigation system is not activated. Some might also bemoan the fact that the standard alloy wheels are a modest 17 inches. This would benefit the ride characteristics for those not looking to carve corners and extract maximum g-forces at every available opportunity. At $41,500, the S adds leather seating, navigation and Wifi hotspot, 18-inch wheels and 360-degree parking cameras with rear cross-traffic alert.

The $44,300 SE really unlocks the luxury trimmings with 14-way power adjustable memory front seats, power tailgate, upgraded Meridian speakers, and adaptive cruise. However, add some visual trimmings and a couple more options, and you’ll quickly find yourself looking at the wrong end of $50,000 or more. Where it gets really pricey is the R-Dynamic models, which start at $47,250, climbing to $50K for the SE and $53K for HSE, and can be optioned up to north of $60K with visual, technology and performance options. A smart shopper will think long and hard about exactly how much the 296 hp and 295 lb-ft are worth and key in on the features that are most important.

It’s only a smidge faster at 5.9 seconds to 60 mph and the difference in mileage is negligible at 21 mpg city, 27 highway, and 23 combined, and I managed a dismal 18.5 mpg thanks to my lead foot. However, there is no denying that as equipped, the E-Pace R-Dynamic with red paint, 20-inch black wheels, red calipers and black trim, red Windsor leather interior looks pretty spectacular and fits the brand’s sporting image. It drove up to expectations too, with the torque coming on from near idle and power continuing to build all through the rev range. If there was a flaw in this powertrain it was the nine-speed automatic, which was fine for casual driving for the most part, but slow to downshift when you’re looking to pass or just get a bit more speed.

Tapping the shift paddle won’t help if you’re not in the transmission’s Sport mode, which not only enables self-shifting, but also makes the shift pattern more aggressive. In addition to the transmission, the engine, steering and suspension (in cars with adaptive dampers) can be turned up a notch in intensity by flipping the switch to Dynamic Mode. Those adaptive dampers play really well together with the torque-vectoring Active Driveline all-wheel drive. The adaptive dampers (optional on all but the base model) can vary depending on the road condition themselves as well as steering input to firm or soften as needed.

Active Driveline, standard on R-Dynamic models, does the usual shifting of torque between the front and rear axles, but also uses a twin-clutch drive unit on the rear axle to actively send power to either side, while the front wheels get brake-based torque vectoring for optimal traction at every corner. The E-Pace so equipped showed complete composure in any situation, driving like the little hot hatch that it is and never slipping up even when pushed hard. The adaptive dampers work in concert with a high-end integral link rear suspension, front MacPherson struts, and anti-roll bars at either end, so it corners flat, with accurate though somewhat numb steering, and tracks nicely all the way through long curves.

Of course, to gain that level attitude in cornering, it gives up compliance and even with the adaptive dampers in a standard setting, it rides a little to the firm side, especially with 20-inch low profile tires, and because of its short wheelbase large impacts can buck the car a little. Those looking for a more luxurious experience should consider sticking with one of the 18-inch tire options that will take some of the sting out of bumps and potholes. Speaking of luxurious, the interior of our tester was dressed up in red Windsor leather, which was a feast for the eyes and delectable to the touch. It’ll come down to individual tastes whether the cost of the upgrade is worth it.

But after feeling what the competition calls leather in their entry level crossovers recently, it was nice to be surrounded by such quality. Likewise, the digital gauge cluster and 10-inch touchscreen with all the toys and a great sound system worked seamlessly, and made any drive a pleasant, effortless journey. The touchscreen menus were new for me, but just a few minutes poking around and everything seemed as familiar as any well designed setup. However, where Jaguar falls off a bit on quality is some of the plastics and switchgear, which can feel a bit brittle and loose. For example, the HVAC dials wiggled a bit, and when closing the tailgate, the entire spoiler rattled like it was about to fall off, which was quite disconcerting.

Behind that tailgate is some pretty reasonable cargo space, since this little crossover plays at the larger end of its segment with competitors like the Audi Q3, BMW X2, and Mercedes GLA. The trunk is rated at 24.2 cu-ft and grows to 52.7 with the 60/40 split rear seats folded. When in use, the rear seats are comfortable in shape for the two outer position, with decent headroom but tight on legroom. The front seats were completely satisfying, adjustable in 18 ways, including bolsters that can be squeezed around your torso and thighs to keep you more firmly entrenched when flinging it around.

The cabin is also generous with storage space and a couple of the bins were lined with rubber mats featuring jaguar-fur pattern, a nice touch to go along with the puddle lights that display a mama jaguar with a cub following behind (which you can also find in the black trim around the front windshield). Although a slightly tall, short-wheelbase crossover is hardly the ideal starting point for a performance vehicle, the E-Pace can be more than just a fashion accessory for the young and hip urban crowd.

It can get dangerously expensive when fully kitted up, but the R-Dynamic delivers a satisfying and sporty driving experience with luxurious panache in the cabin and all the tech we’ve come to expect from modern luxury vehicles. While it’s not perfect, and not cheap, it is the right mix of qualities for a new point of entry to the Jaguar brand, and the right kind of vehicle that consumers want these days.

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Jaguar E-Pace SUV
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