Say what you like about Jaguar controversially entering the off-roader market - especially when it's one half of the Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) group, with the other half known for its long-standing 4x4 prowess - but after this initial taster of the forthcoming F-Pace, it looks like the sporty SUV segment is about to get a new class-leader. This thing is seriously, seriously good.
In the Metal:
Jaguar has still not finalised the F-Pace SUV for production, so the cars we drove in an absolutely drenched South Wales - atypical weather for this part of the world - wore a little light camouflage on their lower portions. Nevertheless, Jaguar has revealed what the car will look like in promotional literature and, let's cut to the chase, it's a damned handsome machine inside and out.
We like the XE-/XF-esque face, albeit it's larger and higher here than it is on the two saloons, we love the F-Type rear light clusters and the swooping design of the passenger compartment gives the F-Pace an elegant profile that masks its high-riding bulk. Although bulk is probably the wrong word to use, as the Jaguar's aluminium construction means it's going to be light (around 1,700kg) by big SUV standards. The interior is gorgeous too, with the large InControl Touch interface and the company's typical TFT dials, while its 'Sports Command' driving position strikes the perfect balance between being low-slung like a Jag sports car and yet high enough to remind you that you've not bought, say, a used XF Sportbrake. So far, so very good indeed.
The Walters Arena outside Neath in Wales is a venue that JLR uses to hone all of its products, not just SUVs, but of course the F-Pace has done a lot of development work here that a rear-wheel drive Jaguar XE probably hasn't. To try out the F-Pace's off-road ability, we had three different disciplines to work through: a 'customer drive', that took in some reasonably fierce slopes and boggy patches; a high-speed loop on broad but slippery, pine needle-strewn tracks, some of which are used by the World Rally Championship; and then some proper hooning on an open patch of ground at the top of the quarry, to show just how sporty the F-Pace can be.
Given the quagmire conditions, the friction coefficient (or Mu) of most of the surfaces the Jaguar SUV dealt with on the day were rated as about 0.1. That's basically 'polished ice', or the lowest possible level you can get; as an indicator, the Mu of dry tarmac is 1.0. Thus, given most global F-Pace owners will never go off-road - while some Russian and 'snow belt' US customers might have to deal with tough, wintry conditions on occasion - this sort of dirt-ridden tomfoolery is going to be well beyond the remit of the vast majority of customers worldwide.
Yet the F-Pace absolutely floored us with its all-terrain ability, all the while giving us some little hints of how mega it is going to be on-road. That awesome twin-turbo V6 diesel engine, churning out a goliath 700Nm, had no issue dragging the big Jag up some faintly ludicrous inclines that were streaming with muddy water, nor getting around the customer drive that was, in some places, visually alarming enough to make us momentarily question our sanity.
Its torque-on-demand four-wheel drive system features some heavy-duty electronic trickery to keep it moving, such as Adaptive Surface Response (AdSR), All-Surface Progress Control (ASPC), Intelligent Driveline Dynamics (IDD) and Low-Friction Launch (LFL), as well as a front differential with a 1,400Nm capacity - making it the largest front diff ever fitted to a Jaguar. All of the above works, without you even having to think about it. Just press a few buttons on the centre console and the F-Pace will keep going regardless of the conditions underfoot.
It then pounded along narrow, terrifyingly slippery, tree-lined tracks at speeds of 80- to 100km/h, slithering around momentarily but always finding some grip and thus feeling remarkably assured and going exactly where you pointed it with the sharp, feelsome steering. Talking of which, where on Earth has Jaguar conjured steering feel from on surfaces with a 0.1 Mu? Whatever black magic was going on here, there was more feedback coming through the Jaguar's wheel throughout our test than there is on some road-only modern 'sports' cars. It's incredible stuff that only bodes well for the relative safety of road driving.
Finally, we took it for some lurid, OTT power slides and even a session of doughnuts around a cluster of four cones. And the F-Pace willingly did both, with merry abandon. So enjoyable was it to sling around on a muddy, rocky plateau that we constantly had to keep reminding ourselves that this was an SUV we were driving around a soaking-wet former quarry, not a sports car on some dry, bespoke race track with loads of nice, comforting run-off. The F-Pace is ridiculously composed and unflustered even when it's way out of its comfort zone, yet - despite all this - it retains Jaguar's reputation for refinement. Even when clogging along the WRC tracks at high speed, the ride was pleasant and the noise in the cabin (considering all the debris being flung up into the chassis) was far less noticeable than it had any right to be.
So no, we can't tell you anything about how the Jaguar will drive on the road. And sure, the F-Pace still won't get you to the sort of inhospitable, remote places that a Land Rover Defender could. But if it can find traction and poise and balance and entertainment and refinement in spades on such rubble-strewn surfaces with the grip levels akin to black ice, just imagine how startlingly good it will be on mildly damp, smooth tarmac. Astonishing.
What you get for your Money:
We're not sure as yet as Irish F-Pace prices have yet to be confirmed. Three engines are likely to be offered in western Europe, starting with the Ingenium 2.0-litre diesel four-pot (available as a manual or automatic), rising to this V6 Diesel and the 3.0-litre supercharged petrol S model, although that will come in both 340- and 380hp outputs. All six-cylinder F-Paces will be automatics.
Jaguar officials on hand at the launch suggested that the price of the F-Pace will be broadly similar to Porsche's Macan, albeit the windscreen sticker will be higher on the British-built car. However, that premium will be offset by its generous standard spec, which means a comparable Porsche will be far costlier. Trim lines for Ireland run Pure, Prestige, Portfolio, R-Sport and S, with a limited First Edition available from launch, although not all engines are available at all levels.
It's dangerous to give an all-new car the highest praise when you've only ever driven it in a situation that is going to be wholly unrepresentative of what 99.9 per cent of owners will do with such a vehicle. But, my, Jaguar has a bonkers good 'un here. Never mind the Big Cat putting Land Rover's nose out of joint, this F-Pace is highly likely to swipe the smug grin off the chops of the Porsche Macan. Even on mud and dirt, it's clearly an SUV that majors on the 'S' over the 'U' first and foremost, but it has some of JLR's off-roading nous thrown in, just for good measure. That it also looks superb inside and out means this is undoubtedly going to be epic when we finally get our paws on the finished article on road. It might only be a few months yet but we simply cannot wait.