Owning cats for much of my life has taught me many lessons—perhaps you can relate—and among them is this: The smaller the cat, the sharper the claws. I have no scientific basis for that statement, of course, only some shredded pant legs and a skin graft or two, but as I bombed along the scenic Route Napoléon in Southern France in Jaguar’s refreshed-for-2020 XE compact luxury sport sedan—or saloon, in Brit-speak—I was once again reminded of that apparent truism. With the biggest difference being that when the XE was using its claws, I was smiling.
Having driven the XE numerous times since its arrival in the U.S. as a 2017 model, I have always enjoyed the XE’s frisky handling and handsome, if somewhat conservative, style. The interior could have been better executed, but in general, the XE has been a highly likable, often overlooked car in the crowded sport sedan class. To most Americans, however, the idea of Jaguar building a compact sport sedan that could chase a BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, of Mercedes-Benz C-Class, down any Autobahns in Germany, is not such a given. After all, before 2016, the last (and only) other compact four-door Jaguar ever made was the unloved 2001-2009 X-Type that is chiefly remembered for its matronly styling and new Ford smell. Jaguar’s products have changed dramatically during the last decade or so under the leadership of Indian carmaker Tata Motors, but we’ll forgive anyone whose lingering understanding of Jaguar products is more, shall we say, pipe-and-slippers than gear-and-cross-trainers. Just consider yourself warned that this review may unravel that.
For one thing, it has a stronger, more striking look than before. Squintier full-LED headlamps with “‘J’Blade” light graphics impart more zoom to the snoot while a wider grille contains some internal curvature to add a measure of intrigue to what basically a black hole before. All models also feature sportier rear bumpers with separated chrome exhaust tips and those who opt for the R-Design package add some black mesh in the lower region that matches that of its more aggressive front air intakes on models so equipped. The R-Design package also blackens the exterior trim, adds a rear lip spoiler and brings sportier wheels up to 21 inches in diameter.
Color-wise, I feel the standard XE looks best in grayscale metallic colors while the R-Design’s blackout trim and visual lowering allows it to wear primary colors like bright red and blue like a supermodel wears a bikini.
Something Jaguar sedans have always done well is luxury, though in this core respect, early XEs fell short, earning them some criticism that hamstrung its ability to dazzle the world at launch. Jaguar quickly phased in improved materials, sophisticated screen-based gauges, and a comprehensive—if somewhat slow—infotainment and navigation system already, and for 2020, the XE has risen to the next level. Drivers grasp a new steering wheel with capacitive touch screens in place of buttons on the spokes. Both front occupants sit on more comfortable front seats that flank an ergonomically corrected center console. Materials are upgraded once again throughout; even the door panels have been redesigned. Jaguar’s optional Touch Pro Duo system touch-screenizes what few buttons the XE has left, harmonizing with the recently upgraded infotainment system—even the rotary knobs for the HVAC system have multiple functions and incorporate tiny screens inside them. Techie-sounding as all that is, the interface remains quite intuitive, with most features in the same place as a conventional sport sedan. Only there’s now much more functionality beneath each layer.
Unchanged for 2020 are the XE’s charismatic dynamics. The big V-6 and sluggish diesel engines are gone, leaving two gutsy turbocharged four-cylinders to get the XE up to speed, the newly designated “P250” version making 247 horsepower and the “P300” model pumping out 296 and bringing all-wheel-drive to the party standard (P250 models are rear-drive, with optional all-wheel drive). With the literal core of the XE, its structure, being 75 percent aluminum, it is one of the lightest cars in the class, and that much quicker when it’s time to bare its claws and pounce, a process helped by an eager and intuitive eight speed automatic. R-Design models also offer an adjustable adaptive suspension that irons out bumps in comfort mode or buttons down the body in Dynamic mode, which makes the P300 model in particular a standout performance car, even in a segment full of excellent performance cars. I might even say it is more fun to drive than Jaguar’s larger, V-8-powered saloons. Again, the smaller the cat….
Prices for this little Brit start just under $41K for a base, rear-wheel-drive P250 and rise to about $60K for a well-optioned P300. Both go on sale this summer. Time will tell if customers looking for a car like this will be open-minded enough to consider a Jaguar instead of the BMWs, Lexus, Audi and Benz models that dominate the class. What we know now, however, is that for 2020, it’s finally fully worthy of their consideration.
2020 Jaguar XE
Base price (incl. destination/delivery): P250, $40,895; P300, $47,290
Body style: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Power: 247-hp or 296-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive wheels: rear or all
EPA fuel economy, MPG (city/highway): TBD