Despite the inexorable advance of the SUV, the compact executive saloon sector is still huge for the manufacturers involved - see how many 3 Series, C-Classes and A4s are sharing the outside lane with you for proof of that. Some have succeeded in muscling in on the Teutonic trio - Alfa Romeo most notably, with the Giulia - while other adversaries have been left floundering. Nominate your own contenders there...
The Jaguar XE has, since its launch in 2015, rather felt like a contender with unfulfilled potential. Parts of the car were superb; other parts were, well, slightly less than superb. Now it's mid-life facelift time, a perfect opportunity to regroup, tackle those qualms head on and properly take it to the established class leaders. Goodness knows the car needs to be good, what with the brand new 3 Series just launched and an A4 refresh just around the corner.
By now you'll probably be aware of what the facelift comprises, though it's worth reiterating a few points. There's a new look that Ian Callum sums up as "slightly meaner and more assertive" (but definitely not aggressive), a simplified range - 180hp diesel, 250hp or 300hp petrol, S, SE or HSE spec, all autos - a significant interior overhaul and some new equipment. Par for the facelift course, essentially.
What hasn't been touched - certainly not sufficiently so to warrant any inclusion in the press material - is the chassis. And that's absolutely fine, because the way the XE drives remains the very best facet of its character. By a margin. James Bond will always be debonair and elusive and, well, James Bond, regardless of the actor carousel; let's hope an XE always remains this good to drive no matter what else is altered.
All variants are available with rear- or all-wheel drive, passive or adaptively damped suspension, plus a variety of wheel sizes from 18- to 20-inches. And while there wasn't opportunity on the launch drive to test cars without Jaguar's Adaptive Dynamics option that brings the fancier dampers, spec seemingly makes precious little difference to the drive: there are distinct traits, sure, but all XEs exhibit that rare blend of dynamic poise, flow and engagement that apparently eludes rivals. That they always have, granted, but it's definitely a point worth stressing.
Hand on heart, the rear-wheel drive 250 petrol tested was probably preferable to the equivalent 180 diesel, feeling a little fleeter of foot, keener to turn and a tad more supple. Yet both proved more than agreeable company on the - admittedly quite flattering - roads of southern France, and experience suggests the outcome will not change back in the UK. The XE's trick is located in it being satisfying, precise and direct to drive briskly, while never losing sight of that overarching executive saloon remit. So it does supportive, cosseting and refined as well, aided by the kind of beautifully calibrated control weights that make the business of pointing an XE down the road seem like a genuine pleasure.
Sound familiar? It is. But whereas previously all this loveliness was used as the cherry-topping for an inconsistent sundae, now, suddenly, you find yourself in an interior worth savouring too. Ian Callum himself conceded that the cabin left the car a bit short before, but that's no longer the case. Now it feels like it's fair to say that your immediate surroundings are befitting of the rest of the XE.
Borrowing technology and bits from the I-Pace - most notably the steering wheel with new controls, optional Touch Pro Duo infotainment and digital dash - immediately makes the environment feel more modern (as well as logical), while the reduction in hard plastics (and commensurate increase in soft, squishy, expensive ones) has made the XE interior feel more premium - loath though we are to use the phrase. There's a sense of occasion now, parts like the metal gearshift paddles, knurled dials and more vivid displays lending some much-needed theatre that simply wasn't there before. Of course the rear quarters are still a bit cramped for human adults, though no longer is this is a cabin to make excuses for. The XE is a car customers could now conceivably buy because of the interior, not in spite of it as may once have been the case.
With the bar admittedly set high, it's a little more difficult to heap quite so much praise on the Ingenium powertrains. With memory of the old supercharged V6 still fresh, the four-cylinder turbo will never quite match it for emotional appeal and swiftness of response, leave alone outright performance. Even leaving that aside, the P250 2.0-litre is not remarkable among its direct rivals, lacking the verve of Alfa's competitor four-cylinder or the sharpest calibration of ZF automatic. Broadly speaking it's very good - but if it were as good as the rest of the car, it would be markedly better than it is.
Without much experience of diesel execs, it's challenging to state anything too definitive on the D180 XE, although for what it's worth the car never felt quite as strong as 317lb ft would suggest - and maybe not as hushed as you'd hope for in a Jaguar saloon. Again it seems decent enough, although certainly nothing about half a day in its company suggests that it's preferable to either of the petrol-burning units.
Even allowing for merely competitive (rather than class-leading) engines, this is patently the most desirable XE yet thanks to those interior and technology upgrades. For all the good reasons you'd like to think of, it feels like more of a Jaguar than it ever has. The problem? The problem, to put it bluntly, is that the XE still finds itself where it started - in arguably the most competitive market segment there is, surrounded by rivals who have all conspired to hit a rich vein of form at about the same time.
While it is unequivocally back in contention for class honours, where precisely the Jag ranks among them is impossible to know for certain on the basis of this first drive. But by retaining what made the XE so good before while addressing much of what was less desirable, Jaguar has certainly created a more complete, more appealing and simply more likeable junior executive car. Given the high perch that it already occupied, that's a fine achievement.
SPECIFICATION - JAGUAR XE P250
Engine: 1,997cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 250@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 269@1,300-4,500rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 'from 1,611kg
MPG: 'up to 42.2'
CO2: 'from 154g/km'
SPECIFICATION - JAGUAR XE D180
Engine: 1,999cc, four-cyl diesel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 180@4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 317@1,750-2,000rpm
Top speed: 142mph
Weight: 'from 1,640kg'
MPG: 'up to 57.6'
CO2: 'from 130g/km'