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So is this the new X-Type?

Ssshh, don’t mention the X-word. I made that mistake. I’d been about two hours with the Jaguar XE and the people who made it, and accidentally referred to the XE as the X-Type. It was a verbal slip, but not, I swear, a Freudian one. This car is a far more committed and forward-looking than Jaguar’s previous attempt to get into the vast but treacherously fought market for compact premium saloons.

How so?

The V6 engine with a supercharger and direct petrol injection, and the eight-speed ZF transmission, come out of the Jaguar F-Type sports car. The XE’s bodyshell is an all-new architecture, 75 per cent aluminium. Much of which is high-strength grades, using pressings, extrusions and elegant thin-wall castings. The steel is mostly for the door skins and at the rear of the car, to balance up the weight distribution.

The suspension is also aluminium, and a complex design at both ends of the car in the name of reconciling handling precision to an absorbent ride. The lion lying down with the lamb. So it’s double wishbones at the front, an integral link design at the rear.

Even so, overall weight isn’t much different from a C-Class (which is half-aluminium anyway), because all of this is future-proofed for several bigger cars. Within a year it’ll be used, with different dimensions, in the next XF and the F-Pace crossover.

It doesn’t look all that radical though, does it?

Certainly the XE stops well short of eccentricity, because this market doesn’t want anything wilfully oddball. But when you see it in the metal, it’s taut, clean and also far from being just a shrunken XF. The nose and roof-line are especially strong. The tail-lights and the little chromed wing vents carry a squirt of F-Type sports-car sauce.

And inside? Have they banished the awful graphics of JLR’s standard dash screen and navigation?

Indeed. The new system has higher resolution, a quicker brain and graphics that harmonise with the rest of the dials and switches. Plus it hooks into some useful iOS and Android apps in service of your travel, news and social needs. Oh and just to remind you that your car wasn’t developed in southern Germany, the phone icon on the home screen is a photo of a red Gilbert Scott phone box.

Does it feel… premium?

Yup, it’s a confidently drawn cabin, with precise fits, sharply turned-out jewellery and finger-friendly surfaces. But premium isn’t just about how lush the dash looks and feels when you first jump in. All the controls are well-judged, the bodyshell feels stiff, and there’s highly effective suppression of suspension and wind noise. The seats support you well and the driving position is fine.

By the way, though the brash signwriting on the doors says ‘prototype’, there was almost nothing in this car that wasn’t finished, and it felt thoroughly complete too. Deliveries start in May.

How’s the petrol V6?

Borrowed from the F-Type, and a lovely thing. At 340bhp from 3.0 litres, it’s slightly more powerful than a 335i, and slightly less efficient in the official fuel cycle, while paper performance is no better. But even so, the Jag’s is a hugely enjoyable motor.

Thanks to the supercharger, its quick initial reactions make even BMW’s clever turbo motor seem a bit dull of wit. In the mid rpms its sound is a woofly hard-edged baritone amusingly redolent of Jaguar’s old straight-six XK engine on SU carburettors. The eight-speed ZF transmission’s shift strategies are deft, and if you paddle your own shifts they arrive promptly and smoothly.

Can the rest of the car cope with 340bhp?

No-one much in Britain will buy an XE with this engine - the diesel will be the big seller. But it’s worth testing this supercharged S model because if the shell and chassis can work under that sort of duress, things look good for the four-cylinder versions. Not to mention the head-banger 186mph V8 supercharged XE R that will arrive later.

So can it cope?

With ease. The XE has electric assistance for its steering, and yes, you might crave a little more raw feel. But you can’t argue with the precision and progression. It carves neatly into bends of all shapes, following your intentions with fine precision and agility.

Give it more hurry-up and you can feel the natural balance, or you can ladle out a dollop more power and feel the rear tyres start to take some extra exercise. One of the most impressive things is the way the XE will steam down a bumpy, cambered straight road holding its line with amazing composure.

You can switch to a sport mode to the adaptive dampers and it sharpens things up a little more, but it brings a ride penalty.

Sport mode excepted, does it ride well?

It does. Really well. In the dampers’ normal mode, the suspension has a lovely pliancy over small bumps, and fusslessly rounds the hard edges off bigger ones. The relatively firm springs give the primary ride a well-controlled tautness. And the audible thumping and tyre roar are extremely well muffled. The handling doesn’t kill the ride.

Jaguar obviously knows that a sports saloon that concentrates on the ‘sports’ part of its CV to the exclusion of all else would be a dead end. So the XE serves up long-distance quietness, stable cruising, and a pliant city ride. Probably better than a 3-Series in those areas, point of fact. And people want style, luxury and the sense of premium. Consider that box ticked too.

But what about the left-brain hygiene factors?

You’ll find a full suite of sensors - cameras and radar - to deliver the expected panoply of driver-support and active safety aids. The XE’s running costs have also been carefully benchmarked against the opposition, though the supercharger’s fuel figures are bettered by a 335i. The boot and back seat are (just) big enough for contention.

Will it tempt people away from Germany?

Interesting - and vital - question. The XE is certainly good enough, a properly thorough effort. The only question is whether it’s actually different enough from the German competition to give people a good reason to shift. We would.

For more on the new Jaguar XE, pick up the February issue of Top Gear magazine, on sale Thursday 29 January in print and digital form

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