Mud, sweat and gears: why Jaguar F-PACE can call itself a luxury SUV
First drive in Swansea, Wales: Jaguar F-PACE
The hard thing to get your head around, initially, is that Jaguar are making an SUV (they've just begun production).
And even when you've absorbed that apparent contradiction, try coming to terms with driving one as an off-roader over a tough, slippy, jolty, mucky, rocky, muddy, challenging course near Swansea in Wales - a 1,600 acre test-fest for car and driver.
Which is what I did in a prototype of the new SUV. When the full-production car gets here in late April/early May prices will start around the €45,100 mark for the 2-litre (180bhp) diesel entry-level rear-wheel drive version. As a partial reference a key competitor, the Audi Q5, starts at €42,730 but that is for the 150bhp version. The 190bhp model is nearer the Jag's 180bhp but has quattro (AWD) and costs from €47,490; the F-PACE's 4WD has an indicative €48,800 tag. And the 3-litre diesel costs from €70,700. It's all a bit academic still because we don't have specific equipment and trim levels but it gives a good insight into pricing strategy.
While it gets to Ireland in late April/early May, it is now being shown at Jaguar retailers around the country.
The engine lineup will be: 2-litre Ingenium diesel (180PS) with rear-wheel-drive and 6spd manual transmission (129g/km, €270 road tax); 2-litre (180PS) with all-wheel-drive manual and 8spd automatic transmission (€280 tax) and a 3-litre (300PS) AWD auto (€570 tax). The latter, which I drove, produces a mega 700Nm of torque.
This is the car/SUV Jaguar believe will challenge the Q5, BMW X3/X4 and Porsche Macan. We'll have to wait for a drive on the tarmac to fully compare and contrast but if my off-road experience is anything to go by, it should be quite something.
While the F-PACE is not based on the F-TYPE sports car they do want it to have its dynamism - hence the rear haunches, fender vents and tail light graphics.
But the body structure (75pc aluminum) is virtually all its own. It also borrows/tweaks engines, transmissions and suspensions, obviously, from others in the Jaguar Land Rover group. And it's no surprise to find front double wishbone and integral rear axle suspension - ideal for sporty driving.
Yet I had to ask the Jaguar engineers at the prototype drive one question. Why in the name of God were they going to such trouble to highlight the F-PACE's off-road ability when most/all of its buyers (200 Irish in a full year) will only travel on tarmac?
Their answer was in two parts. One, even if it only snows or freezes a few days a year where you live, you will not have to worry because this has the technology to cope with really poor conditions.
Two, this is a global car and roads in the US and China, two of Jaguar's biggest markets, can be battered and muddy and slippery. Which is why they want this to be as self-sufficient off-road as on. Plausible answers.
It was impressive off-road. I expected a kitten course but this was serious with some treacherous stretches. I spent a lot of time going from one mode of driving response to another just to feel the effects.
The Driver Control element includes the next generation Land Rover Terrain Response - there's a clue to how seriously they are taking this.
All the responses were, I found, easy to understand and engage through either the touchscreen (new 12.3ins interface screen is more intuitive) or buttons on the steering wheel.
I ended up opting for Adaptive Surface Response most of the time; it automatically decides which mode to pick depending on whether it's slippy, you're in deep sands or on uneven road conditions.
There is also All Surface Progress Control. This worked a treat; it's effectively off-road cruise control (up to 30kmh); all I had to do was pick my speed and let it do the work.
For an off-roader without a 'low' ratio the F-PACE could certainly crawl up and down sharp muddy inclines. Just remember, though, some of these functions are on automatic versions only. That's important.
And we were using ordinary M+S (mud and snow) tyres.
The AWD system is biased towards rear-wheel drive 'feel' but 90pc of the power can be transferred to the front wheels if needed.
What fun I had belting around, ploughing through pools of mud/water, clambouring up hillsides and, best of all, drifting (yes with AWD) on the biggest natural skid pad I've ever had the pleasure on which to be a motoring brat.
Then there was a mad, initially nervy, dash around a slippery track at speeds of up to 80kmh (my co-driver put me to shame - 100km+ ). It was full-blooded but confidence grew by the minute. That says a fair bit about the car. I soon learned that 'idiot mode' (AdSR or Adaptive Surface Response) aid will keep you on the straight and narrow if at all possible.
Bits of the track had been washed away but the 213mm ground clearance meant we crossed ridges with no worries about scraping the underneath.
It was a session and-a-half, especially when I drove with most of the helpful stuff turned off; just showed how much work the hidden technology covers.
To even more practical matters: There's a much, much bigger cabin than I expected. There was lots of knee, leg and headroom at the back especially. Two big adults will sit in great comfort there, three at a little pinch. It is a five-seater. And the boot is huge: 700 litres. Plenty of room for the shopping and the golf bags back in the real world that just won't quite be the same again when a Jaguar SUV hits the road.