Sports car makers once saw SUVs as a necessary evil, a form of brand extension that would do wonders for the bottom line without – hopefully – diluting the qualities that built the brand in the first place. The doubters were out in force but their concerns have been effectively quashed by the colossal success of the genre – the market for luxury SUVs is expected to double by 2020. As industry-watchers are fond of pointing out, in territories where roads and conditions aren't always favourable the advantages of a go-anywhere sports-utility vehicle trump the kudos of a dedicated sports car every single time.
In some respects, the Jaguar F-PACE is late to the SUV party, long after Mercedes, BMW, Bentley and Porsche and others have forged ahead and bent the cast-iron credentials of their brands into new and unexpected forms. Maserati, Rolls-Royce and even Aston Martin and possibly Lamborghini will follow. Their delay has allowed the genre to mature and fragment. Porsche offers two SUVs, the Cayenne and the Macan, and it's this gradation of scale and price that benefits Jaguar most. The F-PACE is not a 'full size' SUV. Instead, it squares up against the 'smaller' Macan, offering sporting road manners and performance with still generous space and the ability to wade fords, lug horseboxes across steep fields of damp grass and descend gracefully down rutted tracks to distant beaches.
These are the lifestyle vignettes that F-PACE ownership is intended to conjure up. But even if you don't tick all the demographic boxes, this car is not a bad place to be. Jaguar has done a good job of translating the lithe, athletic proportions of its saloons and sports cars into the ungainly upright stance of the SUV. The company makes much of the relationship between the F-PACE and the two-seater F-Type, the sports car that currently bears the standard for the Jaguar ethos. Certain cues are repeated, such as the grille, tail lamps and sense of a flowing line that runs nose to tail. It's not sleek, but it is muscular and it certainly has road presence, which is surely one of the primary reasons for stepping up the automotive scale in the first place.
Inside, there's a lot to admire. A new suite of in-car technology makes the F-PACE a credible competitor at a point where car-makers are tripping over each other to inject more and more gadgets and features to lure buyers. The ten-inch infotainment screen is smoother and more tablet like than ever, with integrated 'apps' like a weather service that can tell you conditions on arrival in cahoots with the sat-nav and a flight tracker system that lets you search by flight number or route and can navigate you straight to the arrival airport. There's also an 'Active Band', a wearable water-proof chip that replaces the key so you can live that imaginary life to the full.
Jaguar expects 90 per cent of F-PACE buyers to be new to the brand – 'conquests' in the fighting language of car-selling. That means an effective doubling of the company's sales, making it a more effective partner to its big-selling sister company Land-Rover. In some respects, Land-Rover is the elephant in the room, for what does the F-PACE offer that Land-Rovers and Range Rovers haven't had for decades? The Jaguar team is tight-lipped about these potential internal conflicts, preferring to let their product speak for itself. We suspect the sales cannibalisation won't impact Land-Rover too much, for Jaguar still bears an urbane, sophisticated image (although the company hopes more and more women will be F-PACE customers) in contrast to the rugged luxury of Land-Rover's offerings. In fact, based on our experience of the F-PACE around the tight hairpins of Montenegro's steep slopes, it's other brands that should be worried. Jaguar's dynamic skills make their newest car a very credible all-rounder, more than just the aesthetic leader of the pack.