When a car is universally declared to be 'important', it usually means one thing; economics. The motor industry is not a charity and although automotive design and innovation is pitched at the common good - cleaner air, faster traffic, better safety, more beauty and comfort - all the design and engineering skills in the world are for nothing if cars aren't selling. Jaguar knows this more than most manufacturers. For decades, the historic British marque has traded on a twin-pronged heritage of technical brilliance and era-defining elegance, using design to deftly evoke either or both.
In the modern era, this approach alone is not enough and the past decade has seen Jaguar undergo a thorough reinvention. Now part of Jaguar Land Rover, the company has the funds and the skills to create cars like the XJ, XF and most recently the F-Type, proving that it's possible to keep a steady eye on a storied past without losing your path to the future. For all their brilliance, however, Jaguar is waylaid within a market niche of prestigious sports cars and saloons, a place where big sales numbers are highly elusive.
This is a long-winded way of saying that the all-new XE has to do two things; it must carry Jaguar's romantic flame aloft and it must sell in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. To achieve the latter, the XE will square up to the big sellers in the business car park, BMW's 3-Series, Audi's A4 and Mercedes' C-Class. The Bavarian machine traditionally leads this particular power trio, offering a desirable mix of brand cachet with technology and dynamic excellence that makes it the chariot of choice for besuited warriors who must travel for a living.
Happily for everyone, except perhaps the Germans, the XE is more than up to the challenge. For a totally 'clean sheet' car - a rarity in the industry - it follows the established template a little too closely, but the target market isn't known for its radicalism. The big innovations are an aluminium structure (saves weight), brand new 'Ingenium' engines (saves fuel), and far better integration between smartphone and car with must-have extras like head-up displays and 'active driver assistance' to keep you on the straight and narrow.
All of this is cloaked in a discretely elegant skin. The modern Jaguar has evolved into a car that's handsome, not showy. Design director Ian Callum and his team eschew busy surfacing, opting instead for straightforward proportions and neat detailing. In base form the XE might not turn heads but it repays a closer look.
The XE is available with seven engine choices, 24 styling options and 160 accessories, spearheaded by the ferocious XE-S (a blatant subliminal association if ever we saw one), which his powered by the F-Type's supercharged V6 and can tear up a race-track just as deftly as its M-powered BMW or AMG Mercedes rivals. On the road, it's usually unnecessary to harness so much power, unless you live in down a long winding road in Spain's Navarra region, the beautifully empty, switchback-filled landscape where Jaguar chose to launch the car.
Jaguar expects 90% of all XE buyers to be new to the brand ('conquests', in the heroic language of sales). The company's numbers will undoubtedly rise and much has been made of this being 'Jaguar's most important car ever.' The XE is a hugely welcome addition to a sector that's felt jury-rigged for decades. Yet the prancing cat might be making even bigger sales leaps when the F-Pace SUV arrives next year.