Johannesburg - The seemingly instatiable demand for SUVs and Crossovers continues unabated, and into this highly-competitive segment Jaguar recently launched a smaller stablemate to its F-Pace.

Called the E-Pace, the 4.4 metre long British SUV takes on popular premium compacts like the Audi Q3 and BMW X2 and went on sale here last month at a starting price of R608 156 to undercut the cheapest F-Pace by R177 000.

While the F-Pace and other Jaguars are built of lightweight aluminium, the E-Pace body is based on the Range Rover Evoque and combines steel and aluminium to save costs, and at 1.9 tons it’s still quite a heavyweight vehicle.

While the E-Pace is also available in front-wheel-drive derivatives overseas, all South African models get all-wheel-drive and there’s a choice of three diesel engines with outputs of 110kW, 132kW and 177kW, and two petrol engines producing 183kW and 221kW respectively.

All five engine variants are paired with a nine-speed automatic gearbox.

Our test vehicle was the most powerful 177kW/500Nm diesel version, badged the 240 to denote the output in old-fashioned horsepower. It’s a strong performer with healthy acceleration and minimal turbo lag, and the nine-speed auto keeps it happily in the power band when the transmission’s set to Sport mode (the downshifts are a little lazy in normal mode but it saves fuel).

Jaguar quotes a 224km/h top speed and 0-100km/h in 7.4 seconds, which is satisfyingly brisk.

The test vehicle slurped a not-too-expensive 9.8 litres per 100km - impressively economical for the power on hand.

The E-Pace isn’t necessarily intended for hardcore offroading, but just in case a customer gets a hankering to be a Dakar Rally-style hero the vehicle is able to handle some rough stuff without requiring a tow from a passing Land Rover Defender.

The all-wheel drive and decent 204mm ride height give it the traction and ground clearance for rough turf, and the diesel engine’s gutsy lowdown grunt makes molehills out of mountains. An Active Driveline acts like a rear diff lock for the more technical offroad sections, and a low traction launch system prevents wheelspin when moving off on slippery surfaces like wet grass.

All Surface Progress Control (ASPC) is a low-speed cruise control that enables you to set and maintain a steady speed between 3.6km/* and 30km/h in challenging offroad conditions without having to touch the throttle.

On the road this Jaguar is a very accomplished all-weather vehicle with plenty of grip, thanks to the intelligent AWD system feeding drive torque between the front and rear depending on road conditions, while stability control provides additional traction.

With fully independent suspension and a multi-link rear design the E-Pace corners quite sharply for an SUV and doesn’t feel especially top heavy, while a torque vectoring system applies controlled braking of the individual inside front and rear wheels to reduce understeer. The E-Pace is capable of nipping through turns with good pace, though the electric power steering isn’t particularly good at conveying feel.

The ride quality is pretty good, even on its low-profile 20-inch tyres.

At the press of a button drivers can change the throttle and steering characteristics from mild-mannered to sporty, upon which the instrument panel also takes on a red glow.

Optionally, you can spec your E-Pace with the Adaptive Dynamics feature which changes the suspension stiffness for ride comfort or sharper handling on demand.

All E-Pace models come standard with Jaguar’s 25cm touchscreen pinch-and-zoom tablet-style infotainment system, and buyers can opt for a range of up to five USB ports and four 12-volt charging points to cater for the most connected families.

The infotainment is generally user friendly, but an ergonomic boo-boo is that the touchscreen is tilted upwards so that the sun often shines on it making the icons almost invisible.

The cabin gets the typically upmarket Jaguar look and feel, and adding to the ambience is mood lighting (though this is a little bright and distracting in places).

A playful bit of lighting theatre, however, is the puddle light that shines onto the floor outside the car when you unlock the doors; depicting a Jaguar walking across the wilderness followed by its cub.

Standard features across the range include dual-zone climate control, push-button start, a front and rear parking aid (with rear camera), voice control and auto headlights and wipers.

In the most luxurious R Dynamic HSE version we tested, selling for R858 213, there are several more toys including rain sensing wipers, headlamps that automatically dip the main beam for oncoming traffic, a powered tailgate that can be opened by wiggling your foot under the bumper, navigation, a 380W Meridian sound system, and electric front seats with memory.

For extra money there are options galore, including an Activity Key wrist band transponder that allows you to lock the main key inside the vehicle when pursuing hobbies like cycling or scuba diving.

The R-Dynamic package also perks up the looks with a sportier body kit and some fancier cabin materials, and deeper-bolstered front seats.

This might be Jaguar’s ‘compact’ SUV but it’s a big vehicle with a roomy cabin that comfortably seats four or five adults, and has a family-sized 577 litre boot which expands to a cavernous 1234 litres with flip-down rear seats.

There’s plenty of oddments space and some clever ergonomic touches, such as a smartphone holder between the cupholders so occupants can charge a phone while still using the cupholders.

Standard driver assistance features on all versions include Lane Keep Assist and Emergency Brake Assist. The inflatable safey comprises six interior airbags plus a pedestrian airbag that pops up from under the bonnet.

The flagship HSE version in addition gets a Drive Pack consisting of Adaptive Cruise Control, High-speed Emergency Braking and Blind Spot Assist.

VERDICT

Jaguar’s first-time entry into the highly competitive compact SUV segment is a classy package with good space, technology and safety, with gutsy and economical power. Solid offroad performance too.

Just a pity about the sun shining on that touchscreen.

FACTS

Jaguar E-Pace D240 AWD HSE

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl, turbodiesel
Gearbox: 9-speed automatic
Power: 177kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 1500rpm
0-100km/h (claimed):7.4 seconds
Top speed (claimed):224km/h
Price: R858 213
Warranty: 3-year/100 000km
Service plan: 5-year/100 000km

Drive360