The notion of a sporting estate car occupies a peculiar part of the automotive psyche. Once dismissed as the bland workhorses of a manufacturer's line-up, estate cars were functional, not aspirational. For a tiny minority of sporting-minded enthusiasts, however, the idea of hauling a load at speed was innately appealing. The 'brake' was born, a fusion of simple styling cues - an elongated rear deck and large tailgate - and subtle signifiers that ensured these cars remained best of breed; being coachbuilt in tiny numbers, for one.
In recent years, the term has crept back into popular usage, mainly as a way of ladling glamour on to a car type that's losing ground in the market to SUVs. It helps too that really, truly fast estate cars are now a mainstay of the big manufacturers' ranges; Audi's RS6 Avant, the Mercedes E63 Estate, even the Vauxhall VXR8 Tourer all qualify as proper sports cars. So when Jaguar announced the XF Sportbrake last year the expectation was for a marriage of style and speed.
The former has certainly been exceeded. We prefer the estate to the standard XF saloon, with the long rear glasshouse setting up a perfect proportional balance with the deep sides of the body. Although the basic XF form is now getting rather old in automotive terms - it's six and a half years since the original concept was shown - it's worn well, enhanced by a comprehensive mid-life makeover and the fundamental rightness of the shape.
We were slightly underwhelmed by the 'Sport' component, however. Our test car was the range's entry model, a super frugal diesel that offered just over half the power of the top model. Emissions and fuel consumption were pleasingly low, but the XF is not a small car, and as a result it felt ever so slightly underpowered. In the real world this barely mattered, but we couldn't help but feel that Jaguar's much-vaunted sporting DNA was being sold slightly short by this particular model.
Don't get us wrong, the Sportbrake was mostly magnificent on the open road, especially on the motorway where the automatic cruise control could keep it perfectly placed in fast moving traffic. The interior is also nothing short of excellent, with plenty of room, straightforward controls and just enough leather and wood to evoke those vital heritage memories without tipping into pastiche. It just wasn't a sports car, and in an age when a brand's core message is its global calling card, the dilution of long-held ideals is fraught with peril. If you truly want to hark back to the glory days of the sporting estate, you'll need a far bigger engine. This XF might look the part but in terms of sound and shove it's simply a very elegant load carrier, nothing more.