Top Gear's big road test: the Jaguar F-Pace

Jag reckons the F-Pace can be rugged and sporty. Montenegro has the right roads to find out...

Montenegro is a curious place. As far as I can tell, the national pastime is fly-tipping, and while the men are mostly surly, thickset and shaven-headed, every woman looks like a potential candidate for Miss World. I am ill-equipped to explain this genetic phenomenon, but if you are a romantically challenged gentleman, may I suggest you move there immediately.

Words: Jack Rix

Photography: Lee Brimble

This feature was originally published in Issue 282 of Top Gear magazine.

Unsure? Don’t be – there are other benefits, such as easy access to rubbish dumps (any roadside will do), excellent local prosciutto (no really, it’s special) and some of the most hauntingly beautiful scenery anywhere in the world. It’s as if, once satisfied with his designs for the white sand and azure waters of the Caribbean and the brutal majesty of the French Alps, God decided to splice the two, just for a laugh. Invariably, where there are towering landscapes, there are memorable roads to navigate them, and Montenegro is more than well endowed. In New Zealand, there are 22 sheep to every human; here the same ratio applies to hairpin turns.

Unfortunately, the quality of the road surface is no match for the topography. In places, there are potholes that can split a wheel in two; in others, they’ll rip it clean off. Venture off the main arteries, and the tarmac is spread thinner than Prince William’s hair and crumbling at the edges, while canyon thoroughfares are sprinkled liberally with rocks the size of footballs. At one point, on one of the country’s busiest roads linking the airport to the town of Budva, the road surface disappeared altogether, leaving us to crawl over dirt and boulders, before the bitumen returned.

Venture off the main arteries, and the tarmac is spread thinner than Prince William’s hair

I’ll wager if we were driving any car from Jaguar’s back catalogue, a catastrophic blowout or suspension failure would have halted our progress within hours, but the F-Pace is a little different. It’s the company’s first SUV or “performance crossover” in Jag-speak, so it should be equipped for the job. OK, so our test car is the range-topping £62,275 First Edition laden with every possible trinket and teetering on 22in wheels developed by the SVR division, but we do have good suspension travel, a 525mm wading depth and 4WD in our favour. Hardly a G4 Challenge Defender, but Jaguar and Land Rover are sister companies that share a pool of technology, so some rugged capability should be baked in.

Let’s start with the nuts and bolts, because most of them we’ve seen before. Beneath Ian Callum’s tightly stretched panels is a development of the largely adaptable Lightweight Aluminium Architecture (or LALAA, as I shall refer to it) already used on the XE and XF, but pulled into a unique set of dimensions. At 4,731mm long, it sits somewhere between the two saloons, as does its 2,874mm wheelbase, but at 1,936mm and 1,652mm respectively, it’s significantly wider and taller than both. Whichever way you measure it, it’s bigger than the Porsche Macan, but thanks to an 80 per cent aluminium structure, the 3.0 supercharged V6 model we drove weighs 1,861kg – 80kg less than the equivalent Porker.

It’s got a bigger boot, too – 650 litres with the rear seats up or 1,740 litres with them folded plays 500/1,500 for the Macan, while Jaguar claims rear legroom is class-leading – roughly equivalent to being a passenger in the XF. None of this is by accident, of course – Jaguar knows that engineering the F-Pace to out-handle the Macan on a racetrack is a futile exercise – what customers want here is comfort, space and something sexy to pick Hugo up from fives practice in. If it can entertain on the weekend, so much the better.

What our photographer Lee and I have planned for the F-Pace is essentially the world’s largest assault course – a series of eye-popping locations spread haphazardly around a country the size of Northern Ireland. A manageable area to cover in three days, you might imagine, but when the main roads are limited to 50mph with speed-gun-wielding policemen lurking in every lay-by and barely a straight between them, getting from one place to another is painfully slow. On the upside, there’s a palpable sense of adventure from the moment we roll out of the airport gates.

Today, we’re heading north, in the opposite direction to our hotel, in a bid to make the most of the three hours of remaining daylight. We peel off the main road onto what appears to be a footpath (although the satnav is confident it’s a bona fide road) and soon encounter our first hurdle – a rope bridge slung across a fast-moving river. As I creep across, contemplating my own mortality and swinging gently in the wind, I send a silent thanks to Jaguar’s engineers for the lightweight properties of LALAA. Before returning to dry land, though, I’m forced to pass between two concrete slabs with an inch to spare either side of our wagon wheel-sized rims.

There’s a point to all this, of course, because the F-Pace is a seriously wide car. Wider than the XF, wider than a Mercedes-Benz GLS (the big one formerly known as GL), wider even than a Lamborghini Huracán. Short overhangs and generous hips are key to its energetic proportions and spacious interior, but if your commute involves a rope bridge and severe concrete width-restrictors, you might want to go for the cheaper wheels.

If your commute involves a rope bridge and severe concrete width-restrictors, you might want to go for the cheaper wheels

Twenty-twos intact, we plough on towards the Ostrog monastery, not for enlightenment but for the road that winds up towards it, sliced into the rock face with 50-mile views back down the valley. It’s not a wide piece of tarmac, with rusty Armco the only safety net between us and a faster-than-planned descent, but it does provide our first opportunity to load the F-Pace up and see how it responds. The electric steering is variable-ratio as standard (the ratio increases the more you turn the wheel) and faster than most SUVs, but stops short of feeling twitchy. I wouldn’t say there’s any meaningful feedback, but the way it weights up is certainly consistent, allowing you to pick a line early and confidently stick to it.

On corners as acute as these, though, there is a fair bit of body roll. Lurch the wheel around, and you’ll soon be aware of the car’s size and weight, followed by a need to puke, but dial back your binary inputs and drive briskly, not manically, and it responds with slick, balanced movements. The dilemma is when and where to deploy Dynamic mode (sharper throttle response, more weight to the steering, firmer two-stage dampers and more aggressive mapping for the 8spd auto), given that the surface imperfections demand softer damping, while around hairpins you want all the body control you can get. In the end, the firmer setting is the one, because although busy over small bumps and cracks (everywhere in Montenegro, then), the ride on 22s isn’t nearly as bad as you’d think – we can thank the extra suspension travel for that.

Before I’m reacquainted with my lunch, we plot a new course that takes in a Roman bridge – easily the longest straight we’ve encountered so far – and a ford flowing over the road. Using the age-old explorer’s technique of peering through the water and shrugging your shoulders, we decide it’s no match for JLR’s latest SUV and roll slowly in while the river laps somewhere around the top of the wheels. It’s an odd sensation this, in a Jaguar. I picture an E-type being swept mercilessly downstream in the same situation, but the F-Pace holds firm and delivers us safely to the other side, deep-pile carpets still dry as a bone.

By this point, the light is beginning to fade, and we’re three times further from our hotel than when we started – TopGear maths at its finest. Still, it’s never too late to take the car off-piste and down a rocky path to visit the world’s creepiest abandoned railway tunnel. Manned only by a confused horse lashed to a tree and a pack of wild dogs with milky eyes, I note that despite the ancient beauty of the arch, it’s also a hang-out for the local relapsed AA group, judging by the number of whisky bottles piled up around the entrance – one possible explanation for what happens next.

Jaguar had warned us not to do any strenuous off-roading on our 22in wheels, but so far so good – we’ve crossed rope bridges, explored tunnels and parried all manner of potholes, and the F-Pace is still purring along. It’s a complete surprise, then, when on the way home, a small vibration quickly becomes thunderous shockwaves, and we grind to a halt – the front left dead flat. Still, when you have a Jaguar mechanic 20 minutes away who can change a wheel in five, there’s no need to be overly concerned. That’s a real-world rescue situation, right?

Day two begins with the simplest of strategies: to hammer 200km north from the hotel – a three-and-a-half-hour schlep, according to Google – in search of Europe’s deepest canyon and, presumably, quite a bit of danger. But like all well-laid plans, ours are scuppered, this time by the splendour of the landscape on the way there. Lee just can’t control himself and demands to be let out the car on one particularly impressive mountain pass to capture the “sexy mist” clinging to the valley below. He’s not wrong – there’s a magnificence to the vistas we’re encountering around every corner that’s unlike anywhere I can recall, and it’s a little bit scary at the same time. Think Mordor but with nicer beaches.

The further north we go, the thinner the traffic and more sporadic the radar guns become, giving us a chance to extend the currently most powerful engine in the range. The 375bhp 3.0-litre supercharged V6 that’s a snarling animal in the F-Type is far tamer here. A 0–62mph time of 5.5 seconds isn’t slow for something this size, but when you’re familiar with its bark and bite in an F-Type, it feels wrapped in cotton wool here. Throttle response is sharp, but could be crisper; take hold of the paddles, and gear shifts are smart enough but laboured by comparison with the F-Type’s, and unless you really cling onto a cog and let it build to a gnashing climax, it sounds gagged. But that doesn’t matter a jot – it’s how an SUV should be – and perfectly judged by Jaguar. The problem is the engine itself isn’t a great fit for the car. I suspect, day to day, the torquey 3.0-litre V6 diesel will show the F-Pace in its best light, although the 178bhp four-cylinder diesel, emitting just 129g/km of CO2 in its manual, RWD guise, will appeal to the majority.

Montenegro’s most famous bridge, built in 1937 and towering 172 metres above the Tara river, played a crucial role in World War II when one of its engineers, Lazar Jauković, helped to explode the middle arch and halt the progress of the occupying Italian forces. And, boy, has our visit been worth the wheel time. Spanning a gorge that makes me feel tipsy just looking down, it’s proof that concrete needn’t be ugly. Lee picks this moment to inform me that he has a form of vertigo, one that gives him the urge to jump from high structures, although he has no desire to die. I take that as my cue to lock the doors, close the windows and leave as quickly as possible, distracting him with snacks.

We head down the Morača Canyon road, running parallel to the Tara river, and spend most of the time weaving between fallen rocks while gawping at the turquoise water to our left. I consider for a second whether Jaguar has kicked the stones onto the road – an enforced slalom forcing us to call upon the F-Pace’s agility, then remember that our 22in Double Helix wheels are a £1,600 option on all but the fully loaded First Edition, so that would be daft.

Tonight, we take a different route back to our digs, one that includes Montenegro’s only well-paved A-road, and with the radio pumping out Montenegro’s eclectic top ten, the F-Pace comes into its own. Swift, ultra-refined and stable, this is where it belongs – gobbling up big mileages in supreme comfort. A large part of that credit has to go to the simplified interior (albeit a bit too similar in structure and switchgear to the XE) and more technology than Jag has ever thrown at one of its cars. Entry-level versions come with the 8in InControl Touch system, but we went straight for the spangly InControl Touch Pro system that adds a wonderful 10.2in touchscreen with razor-sharp graphics, does away with buttons all together and operates as intuitively as an iPad. Why Jag doesn’t just charge a thousand pounds more across the board and fit this to every model in the range is beyond me.

And there’s more, because behind the wheel is a fully digital 12.3in instrument cluster that can be configured with a variety of themes or set to full widescreen navigation, which feels unnervingly like a computer game but is remarkably stress-free on your eyes. There’s also an app that lets you start the engine, preheat the car and check its vital statistics, plus a waterproof bracelet that lets you do wet, outdoorsy things while your key fob is locked safely in the car – essential for all those professional windsurfers out there.

Onto day three, and our time is limited, but we’ve saved the best for last. The Kotor hairpins clamber their way up a near-vertical slope overlooking the magnificent Bay of Kotor, and form what’s widely regarded as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. With barely enough room for one F-Pace, let alone an F-Pace and a Dacia Logan driven by an aggressive local, it’s flanked by a rock face on one side and knee-high concrete barriers on the other.

Clawing our way around endless hairpins, the part-time 4WD system, which sends everything to the rears in normal driving but can transfer up to 50 per cent to the front as required, proves its worth. There’s a hint of RWD agility on the way in, and then the fronts are called in to haul you up and over the hump.

After three days of driving, and occasionally nursing, the F-Pace around Montenegro, it’s mission accomplished for Jaguar. Clearly, it’s no Land Rover, but there’s enough off-road ability for reaching your country bolthole in bad weather or mounting the kerb outside a coffee shop. It steers with composure and fluidity at sane speeds, rides with refinement even on rapper-spec 22s, and it’s spacious, not just for a Jaguar, but spacious full stop. Perhaps most importantly, it looks fantastic, like it’s been designed with love, and who isn’t a sucker for good looks? That reminds me, I’m moving to Montenegro. 

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