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Gone Too Soon -
The Jaguar XE 3.5t R-Sport

by Guy Pickrell

The best small sports sedan Jaguar has ever made, and one of the best of its generation deserved more.

A close friend of my father owned a stunning lemon-yellow E-Type Jaguar, and even to a six-year-old, there was something magnetic about the flowing lines. Uncle Jack had asked me if I should like to join him for  "A spin in the Jag." By 'spin' he meant a hair-raising blast along the narrow lanes of Warwickshire. My older brother jumped in the front seat, and so I was relegated to the bench in the back, where cushioning appeared to be an option.

I remember the growl resonating from the 4.2-liter straight-six, which became a roar, as I was simultaneously pasted to the back of the church pew masquerading as a rear seat. I could see the endless sculptured expanse of lemon-yellow beyond the windshield, rear up, then dive into each corner, and rise again as Jack blasted us from the exits. It was like watching the bow of a ship on a rolling sea. I could hear the screech from the skinny tires as the smell of burnt rubber mingled with the heady aroma of petroleum spirit and engine grease. I was used to my dad’s spirited driving, but this was a roller-coaster ride long before I ever experienced the real thing.

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Jack's Series 1 Jaguar E-Type

That first true taste of speed left a deep impression, and the Jaguar marque would be forever branded upon my imagination. So, when four decades later I found a bargain Jaguar XE 3.5t R-Sport for sale, I fairly snapped it up. A decision I count among my best – and for the cynical among you, that's after owning it for over four years.

Genesis of the XE

Ford had bought Jaguar in 1990, but by the end of that decade, the famed British marque was stuck in a revisionist design rut, struggling to redefine itself in the modern era and producing some of the worst looking cars in its history – remember the S-type of the 90s? Fate would play its role, and in 1999 Ford would rehire Ian Callum, the genius behind the legendary RS200 and Escort RS Cosworth rally cars. Callum set about designing a new lineup, and his first offerings included the fabulous F-Type and the XE sedan. The new cars combined strikingly modern design aspects: a large, flat-nosed grille and deep body section under a sweeping, low-profile roof while maintaining the archetypal flowing lines that had made the E-Type an all-time classic.

The F-Type and XE were also the first Jaguars to utilize a thoroughly modern aluminum monocoque, benefitted from a double-wishbone front suspension setup and Jaguar's unique Integral Link multilink at the rear, with adaptive damping for the R-Sport models. Less appealing, the equally modern fly-by-wire power steering robed drivers of feel, although it was good enough that in 2015, Road and Track reviewed it as: “easily among the best electric setups to date.” The XE also came fitted with all the gadgetry expected in its class, featuring a top-notch infotainment system, lane management, adaptive cruise control, and even the first laser HUD as an option. Sadly, Jaguar did not produce the V6 version with an optional manual gearbox. Nevertheless, should owners decide they want one, I’m told the gearbox fitted to the manual F-Type V6 and V8 bolts right on. However, not many will since the excellent and now ubiquitous, automatic ZF 8-speed transmission also featured in the new Jags and was tuned to perfection.

Some of Ian Callum's
Most Iconic Designs

I have owned various cars in the class, such as the BMW 3 Series, an Audi A4 (V6), and driven many others, including M3s, a C-Class, and the Cadillac CTS. They are all great cars with broad appeal, but the two that stood out were the BMW M3, for its performance, and the Audi A4, for its refinement and comfort, despite the unforgiving seats. The Jaguar XE 3.5t R-Sport was (and still is) outstanding because it combined M3 levels of performance and handling with A4 and C-Class levels of refinement, and if that weren't enough, the XE was a more handsome design than any of them.

Driving the XE R-Sport

The driving position in the XE is unmistakably sporty. A low seat and sloping windshield feel much more akin to a coupé than a sedan, which tends to overemphasize the long hood, evoking memories of Jack’s E-Type. In the default driving mode, the XE R-Sport will comfortably waft around country roads quietly soaking up the bumps, like the best of the big GTs. While on the highway, a dab on the accelerator will whip the 340 horses lolloping under the long hood into frenzied action, providing a pleasing snarl from the twin exhausts and all the acceleration you need to whistle past the traffic. The XE is a car that has you looking for excuses to take a long road trip.

Then, there are those days when I find myself blissfully alone in the Jag with the option to take a twisty mountain road instead of the highway home - joy of joys. Switch the 8-speed to Sport, select Dynamic mode, and suddenly I’m driving a very different beast, with faster gear shifts, sharper throttle response, firmer damping, and increased steering weight. With the gas pedal pinned to the floor, I'll be doing 60 mph in just under five seconds. But more impressive, the XE R-Sport, unlike its tail-happy sister F-Type, lays down its power with a precision that is borderline boring, despite relying on electronic wizardry rather than an LSD to distribute torque. While the peak numbers of 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque are good, they aren't breathtaking but keep in mind, the same engine puts out 395 horsepower in the F-Type 400 Sport, with seemingly nothing more than a larger pulley to drive the supercharges and a more aggressive engine map.

When you push the XE R-Sport in the turns, the rear-end has a habit of giving just enough to help rotate the car before reliably snapping into line as you exit the corner. Further adding to the visceral experience is a suitably raucous soundtrack, which combines the whine of the twin screws and the roar of the 3-liter, supercharged V6. Even with the traction control set to “Trac” mode, thus reducing its interference, the XE persistently refuses to misbehave. There is slightly more body roll than you get from the granite springs suspending an M3. The Jag feels less stiff, but the superb suspension can handle anything you throw at it allowing the R-Sport to feel planted like an oak in the switchbacks, but supple like a willow when you want to waft along the lanes.

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The XE Axed
 

Jaguar has stopped selling the XE in North America in any of its configurations, and even in Europe, the (admittedly thirsty) supercharged V6 is no longer an option, leaving only a 300-hp four-cylinder as the sportiest version available. Inexcusable to Jaguar enthusiasts, perhaps, but SUVs outsold sedans for the first time in the US back in 2015. By 2019, SUVs were outselling sedans two to one, and being a niche brand, I’m guessing Jaguar had to make some difficult choices. Reputation also played a part, and here in the US, Jaguar has never been able to shake off its association with unreliability stemming from the 60s and 70s. It didn’t help that the XEs also experienced some early issues, mostly relating to the infotainment system and some of the electronic gizmos - issues that plagued my own Jag, until it got a software update. Then, of course, there is the EV revolution. As emissions laws get ever tighter and we gradually leave the age of combustion engines in the dust it seems likely the XE R-Sport is just one of many sporty Sedans that will cease to exist.

Today’s youngsters can climb into the cushioned seats of an airconditioned Tesla Plaid and experience gravitational forces that, in the age of Jack’s E-Type, would have required a pilot’s license. Jaguar is right to set its sights on the future and have declared their commitment to shifting away from ICEs, but I for one can’t help but lament the loss. The XE 3.5t R-Sport deserved a greater following and a longer legacy.