We Need to Talk About XE

As Jaguar 2016 sales hit unprecedented heights, we take an unflinching look at XE’s school report. History appears to be a particularly weak subject.

Image: Motor Trend
Image: Motor Trend

On the face of things, JLR’s once troubled Jaguar brand seems to be on the rise at last. Following massive investments in new product lines, underpinned by an entirely new aluminium-intensive modular platform and new diesel engines, the marque has posted global sales of 148,730 vehicles last year, up 77% on 2015 figures. And while brand Jaguar accounts for only 25.4% of JLR’s total volume, it represents the bulk of the overall percentage gain for the business as a whole during 2016.

This growth has been driven by new offerings in sectors of the market previously unrepresented by the brand and offer an encouraging picture not only for a nameplate that has consistently underperformed but also for JLR management’s policies. But once you begin to drill below the headline figures, some troubling questions arise.

When JLR launched XE, executives wisely avoided making lavish claims. In autumn 2015, their European head, Bob Grace told journalists, “I don’t think there will be substantial growth. We just want to carve out a niche for ourselves.” Viewed in those terms, XE has been a moderate success, posting worldwide sales of 44,095 cars last year. Of those, 24,461 were sold across Europe, 7,014 in North America (May-Dec figures) and the remainder across the Far East and Australia. These are not big numbers and frankly, for a model beginning its third full year on sale, it could be argued that XE isn’t appealing to a broad enough swathe of the market.

Fortunately, the IQ modular body architecture also supports the latest XF saloon (itself stalling in Europe) and the F-Pace crossover, which has proved a runaway sales success and will be joined later this year by an even more profitable Range-Rover derivation. But without these compensatory bolsterings, JLR’s investment would be looking pretty shaky by now. Because slice it any way you like, it increasingly looks as though XE is somewhat undercooked.

Image: JLR
Must try harder. Image: JLR

“The more I thought about the XE, the more I realised that its talents do an outstanding job of effectively covering up its shortcomings. And when I balanced the pros against the cons, its list of limitations is significantly longer than its set of skills. Which, given all the time, resources and top-drawer rivals Jaguar had on hand to make this car an absolute nailed-on class-leader, was pretty damned disappointing.”

These are the words of Car Magazine’s Ben Whitworth; perhaps the first of the UK press corps to break ranks and suggest JLR’s vaunted 3-Series competitor is not all it’s cracked up to be. In his report, Whitworth criticises the XE’s accommodation, boot capacity, interior ambience and material quality, infotainment and audio system, and damningly, the Ingenium engine’s ‘coarse and vocal soundtrack’. How did they get it so wrong?

Perhaps for a start they could have paid more attention to the lessons of History Repeating©. Prior to XE’s announcement, the ‘much loved’ X-Type was posited as a prime example of what not to do: Don’t make it off a front-drive platform. Don’t use Ford hardware. Don’t offer an insufficient engine choice. Don’t offer only one bodystyle. Don’t neglect to offer a halo model. Don’t get the styling wrong. Don’t misjudge the market. JLR seem to have managed to have taken heed of the first two but otherwise appear to have hit every branch on the way down.

The XE's aluminium body structure. Image: Autocar
The XE’s aluminium body structure. Image: Autocar

Much has been made about JLR’s investment in aluminium body structures, but the body in white accounts for a very small fraction of a car’s overall weight. Of far greater significance is the weight of wheels, tyres and brakes, to say nothing of engines and gearboxes. And these are not getting any smaller or lighter. Another consequence of an aluminium body structure is that it necessitates stronger, thicker box sections especially in structurally critical areas like body pillars. However, the net effect is to reduce outward visibility to levels that would have been deemed unacceptable only a few years ago. Given these complications, there appears to be very little to be gained from such a move.

A further consequence of XE’s sweeping roofline and aluminium structure is the lack of interior space – robbed by smaller door apertures, thicker pillars and intrusive bolstering required to provide torsional strength. Hence, rear passenger space and luggage capacity has been compromised. There was a time when customers were prepared to put up with such privations, but now that SUV and crossovers are seen as the aspirational and sporting choice, customers, especially those with families are voting with their feet. An XE would make a terrible family car, which is probably why few would even consider one. That’s a big chunk of the market you’re dismissing, especially when you’ve no plans to make an estate.

It’s clear that XE has been carefully costed – profitability being marginal at best at this end of the market. Nevertheless, its upmarket German and Japanese rivals have contrived a better, more convincing veneer of material quality at a similar price point. Most reports have criticised the XE’s material finish as being below the standard of its rivals and that’s before we address the issue of interior style and ambience. JLR opted for a ‘sports car’ interior to position XE as the drivers choice, but what they’ve ended up with is something that looks downmarket and lacks showroom appeal.

Unremittingly drab. XE interior. Image Sunday Times
Unremittingly drab. XE interior. Image Sunday Times

We’ve been hearing about JLR’s Ingenium engine family for some time now and since XE’s announcement, we’ve been told a petrol version is imminent. But entering year three of Ingenium production there’s still no release date. However, while it’s possible to order an XE in petrol form, this breaks yet another History Repeating© taboo. It’s a Ford Ecoboost unit, traceable back to the Mondeo. This shouldn’t matter of course, but in the light of all the rubbishing of the previous car, it smacks of expediency stretched gossamer thin.

Another elephant in the room is the fact that the disgraced X-Type has so far proven a greater sales success than its purpose made rear wheel drive all aluminium successor. Now before we get too carried away it’s worth reminding ourselves that the motoring landscape was a good deal different in 2001 when X400 debuted. The market was bigger, the German trio had less of a stranglehold and Jaguar had the benefit of the doubt. Now, this segment is under unprecedented attack from the crossover contagion, Jaguar are fighting amongst the minnows and competition is fierce.

Another of the mystifying decisions made during the XE’s conception relate to the car’s body style. Because if you are going to satisfy yourself with these sort of volumes, taking such a staunchly conservative styling theme strikes this observer as bewilderingly ill-judged. Commentators at the time of the car’s launch defended JLR, stating the market demanded a conservative shape. But it’s actually the worst of both worlds, neither seductive enough to appeal to those who want a leftfield choice yet not practical enough for those who simply want a template car yet don’t want a default German marque. You just end up being someone’s second or third choice in a user-chooser list.

A rear end some would like to see the back of. Image: geeky-gadgets
A rear end some would like to see the back of. Image: geeky-gadgets

Ben Whitworth concludes his report in Car by saying, “I’ve realised the XE does a pretty good job of pulling the wool over your eyes. Its strengths make you think it’s a straight A car, a benchmark maker and a risk taker. But go granular and the reality is that its year-end report reads B+ and no more. This first gen XE doesn’t feel like it’s reached its full potential. I don’t expect its replacement to make the same mistake.”

To be frank, JLR would be best served abandoning all ambitions of taking a chunk of the 3-Series market and reposition XE as a compact four door coupé and go hunting the 4-Series and its ilk instead. That way the smaller volumes can be justified by a higher price point while volume and amortisement can be provided by F-Pace and its derivations. Of course it’s entirely possible (and I’ve posited this in the past) that JLR view XE as a necessary loss leader; a condition of entry in order to be taken seriously by the big boys.

One final observation. Later this year JLR will announce another Jaguar branded crossover, dubbed E-Pace. This is said to be based on heavily revised elements of the Freelander 2 ‘EUCD architecture’; originally a Ford-Mondeo platform, also used for the X-Type. So in true History Repeating© fashion, the forthcoming E-Pace will have buried deep within, some minute traces of X400 DNA.

Car sales data: JLR/Car Sales Base/Good Car Bad Car

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

17 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About XE”

  1. I agree completely, the press coverage of the XE has been decidedly “Emperors New Clothes” and it’s a mediocre entry into a market where the competition is fierce. Say what you will about the X-Type at least the exterior styling and interior ambience offered something unique, the XE is totally generic.

  2. As a designer I never enjoyed either the X or S Types. Yet I still came close to buying an secondhand X Type estate (only the stupidity of the dealer caused me to walk) and I have even asked myself whether I couldn’t tolerate the S Type’s exterior once I was snug inside.

    Blandly competent though the XE and XF appear, just looking in makes me feel claustrophobic, so it’s not even worth me getting in to look out. Also, I think that being lauded as a ‘driver’s car’ is a diminishing accolade these days for anything this side of an Elise. Families are wise to that.

    1. I had an S-Type diesel. I found the 2004 onwards facelift made the exterior just about tolerable, and it really was a lovely thing to drive and I enjoyed the cheesy interior too. Quality was poor though, it cost a fortune to keep running after 100k and was completely clapped out at 8 years old / 150k miles.

      I wouldn’t entertain the idea of the new XE or XF, what is the point in a Jaguar that has no character? Even the hateful squinty eyed X-Type had more character than a 3 series or A4, even if it was a character you didn’t like.

  3. Engine choice matters and offering an estate is a valuable source of extra sales. However, the slight lack of space in the rear is not so important precisely because SUVs and CUVs cover that need. The small “prestige” saloon is really a modern day personal car. I’d be sure that the bum-on-seat hours of a saloon are under 100 in a decade.

  4. Forty-four thousand units a year is pitiful for a globally-sold, generally-well-reviewed car in this segment of the market. I was going to say I was surprised at this number, but on reflection, I shouldn’t be, really. I live and work in Manhattan (i.e. not exactly the sticks) and I have seen literally one, maybe two examples of this car since launch.

  5. I like the XE, but you are right – it is much more a 4 door coupe than a regular saloon. Seen in this light, it makes sense.

    When it was launched, Jaguar said that every future model would be based on an aluminium, rear drive platform. They have abandoned this for the E Pace (a front drive, transverse-engined steel platform) but no one seems to have picked them up on this. It is the X type for our times.

    Clearly, when it comes to SUVs, you can literally get away with anything.

  6. It is hard to make true comparisons with the X Type’s sales figures as the market was different then. SUVs have stolen market share from saloons so the fact that the XE is selling less well has to acknowledge that context. The problem for Jaguar is that expectations were too high and it had to catch up with excellent incumbents in one leap. The result is very good in places and less so in critical areas. Moreover, what you see and touch is not special enough for people to forgive in a way they may have done in the past. at least it is filling out its range, something Alfa Romeo looks increasingly less able to achieve given recent news of the cancellation of a Giulia waggon.

  7. Excellent post. The rose tinted view of the British automotive press around British cars have been starting to grate me for some time. And reading their tests of this runt of a car and reading all the bad things to then see it win the group test “because of its sublime handling…” eh?! You hit the nail on the head on so many of this cars bad points here. Most notably the lack of space and the dire interior quality. A facelift can sort the latter but will never sort the former – so niche this will stay.

  8. Obviously stung into action by the sharp tongued comments from the World’s Least Influential’ at DTW, JLR today announced that F-Pace, XE & XF will now be available, not only with the much promised 2.0 litre Ingenium petrol power unit, but also with a more powerful twin turbo diesel. These form part of a minor spec refresh for the three Jaguar badged models. Frankly, I’d have thought this would have elicited more than the paltry few lines Autocar have devoted, but little acorns I suppose.

  9. It’s worth noting that in the last couple of days I have noticed a renewed ad blitz for this car on American TV, although the ad is rather unfortunate in that it spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the interior, which still looks dismal, irrespective of the trick lighting and every devious trick in the ad man’s book. BMW have also recently started pushing the 3-Series more heavily than usual. One wonders how much of this is intended as a pre-emptive strike in an effort to limit the impact of Alfa’s launch.

    1. Haha… I don’t think BMW even knows Alfa exists, nor cares. It will lose at most 20 sales out of every 5,000 it does to Alfa. The Italians will be niche players for many more decades to come no matter how much the press hypes up their so-so cars. The buying public are not ready to take the leap required to buy an expensive Italian car with associated dismal resale values. Lease costs as a result will make an Alfa and a BMW with the same base price cost substantially different each month. Add to that the possibility of the car spending just a tad less time in the workshop than a Nissan Qashqai and wham – dismal sales.

    2. You forgot to mention: no manual gearbox option (at least in the UK). Criminal.

  10. Of course the template for the XE, and all its competitors, was set last century by the Mercedes w201 (discussed elsewhere in this blog)

    1. I’ll mischievously suggest that the said template was set in 1954, in the very place where the W201, and all its successors, were made.

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