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.
On the face of things, JLR’s once troubled Jaguar brand appears to be be on the rise at last. Following massive investments in new product lines, underpinned by an all-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 for 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 about volumes. 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 ropey by now. Because slice it any way you like, it increasingly looks as though XE is somewhat undercooked.
“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 reviled 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.
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 these 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.
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 somewhat different in 2001 when X400 debuted. The market was a good deal stronger, 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.
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