Pedantism aside, there are really only four honest SUVs on the market: the Wrangler, Suzuki Jimny, 70 Series Land Cruiser, and the Pajero, the last through no intentions of its own. It’s just that Mitsubishi’s forgotten that it had designed it in the Eighties, way before the ’99 BMW X5, before SUVs pretended they could corner. I’m also not including the G-Wagen because you can’t even order it with steelies these days.
Car design is all about compromises and a car cannot be good at everything, but modern SUVs sure try, having long-forgotten their primal purpose. If you don’t have an SUV in the line-up today you’re going nowhere. The Beijing show last week put precedent on big boxes on wheels — 40 new SUV models by the world’s major car manufacturers are planned. China alone has gone SUV-crazy, driving sector demand way into double-digit growth figures year-on-year, while the rest of the market slows. Last year, SUV sales were up 50 per cent in the world’s single biggest car market and 2016 will post another record, while saloons drag along in single digits. As a jack of all trades, the SUV represents a century of the automobile finding its feet — it all finally culminated in this, a car that by its very definition of compromise, can’t do any one thing superbly, but tries to do them all well enough. For generations of drivers who find the whole thing a massive chore, an SUV is the perfect generic vehicle ideally suited to their impassive attitude to driving.
No wonder they all look the same, then. There’s no such thing as a beautiful SUV since the concept is all function. An SUV can look satisfying, though, like the cognition of an engineering blueprint, you don’t need to understand what all the lines mean because you can immediately sense order and structure just from the precision of the drawing. If you’re a man, this is calming, like meditation, because logic poses no questions to answer.
Currently the best demonstrator that no matter how much money you throw at an SUV it will still be a box on wheels, is the Bentayga, which looks like a lampooning of the entire luxury SUV segment. I almost expect to see Chevy Chase behind the wheel. It completely lacks flair or imagination and the car’s design is nothing more but a Bentley grille grafted on to a template. Of course they couldn’t leave out the dogleg haunch line at the rear because that implies masculinity or static motion or something like that, or at least it does if you listen to the car’s designer, a Mr Thesaurus Rex.
Of course they can’t make them fast enough. It’s a million dirhams and the first-year run is sold out. Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce are both on the way with their own ‘all-terrain’ vehicles — in a segment where one to two per cent of owners venture off-road — and Maserati’s Levante is in our region by Ramadan. Yes, we love us some SUVs…
Jaguar’s noticed too. It took the manufacturer a while, but all the waiting means Coventry’s first-ever SUV is also the first-ever beautiful SUV. And I didn’t expect much more than a photogenic car, having been fed Jaguar’s F-Pace hype for years prior to finally driving it now, in the tiny Adriatic country of Montenegro of all places. But particularly in this Caesium Blue exclusive to the model, it is plain pretty, good looking first and SUV second, and in that sense the F-Pace almost shuns its 4x4 credentials before we even begin. On our tester’s optional 22in donk wheels, the biggest ever put on a Jag, the F-Pace looks like a styling study. Full marks.
There is a beltline that rises and a roofline that slopes to meet it, and perfect proportions with minimal front overhang and a lot of butt hanging out the back. It is an SUV, and the F-Pace is a calculated design with numbers dictating interior dimension needs, but when you throw in all the Jaguar design cues, it’s an equation that always equals beautiful. (Trivia: Jaguar exterior designer Matt Beaven’s favourite car of all time is the Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto, the last car designed by Battista Pininfarina.)
From inside, the vehicle seems bigger, with plenty of room and massive armrests along the window lines. Space in the back is class-leading with enough room for rear passengers to spend serious road-trip time in behind reclined front occupants. The boot is a metre wide and the tailgate opens up to a large load area.
It’s a classy, subdued interior, and you’re only surrounded by simple lines, and in here the car is coherently an SUV. Jaguar’s latest technologies, from semi-autonomous safety features to many connectivity options, blend away into the intuitive cabin. The relaxing environment does away with barrages of lights, bongs and buttons. A sensitive safety system can throw up warnings prematurely but the car can detect pedestrians, a first for Jaguar, and bring the F-Pace to a complete stop before you knock them down. The radar needed mounting right in the nose of the car and it looks like duct tape is holding up the growling cat badge. Maserati found a clever solution for its Levante SUV and doubled up the bulky Trident badge as the radar housing.
A new InControl operating system, I guess, is a vast step forward from old Jags, and includes a 10.2in touchscreen and a customisable 12.3in driver’s display, plus there is colour laser head-up projection. Jaguar says with a quad-core processor it’s one of the fastest on the market and similarly to the Audi R8, for example, you can display 3D maps in the instrument binnacle. Jaguar built the tech in-house but it seems to us that Audi’s NVidia graphics work more fluidly. The F-Pace also introduces a suite of apps including the option to remotely check vehicle location, fuel status, remotely start the car and adjust climate control.
Entering one of the fastest-growing global premium segments, already worth 1.4 million cars a year, Jaguar’s first SUV will become the company’s bestseller with 90 per cent of F-Pace buyers coming in new to the brand. Conquest sales, they call ’em. Half of F-Pace customers will embrace the crossover lifestyle coming from previous saloon or hatchback ownership. A third will be women. And Jaguar wants to start them young, expecting most F-Pacers to be on average 10 years younger than the regular Jag man.
There was no choice but for the carmaker to hedge all its bets, and I mean all, on the F-Pace. It’s the third model created on Jaguar’s billion-dollar modular architecture, in a new purpose-built $730m (Dh2.7b) production line prepared alongside the company’s sportscars and saloons. Some $175m were spent on, amongst other tooling, 70 new robots in the body shop alone, specific to working the F-Pace’s extensive aluminium architecture.
More than 80 per cent of the structure is aluminium and although they share platforms, the SUV is 81 per cent unique compared to the XE and XF — for example, the entire front subframe and suspension are specifically designed for the F-Pace. Aluminium ensures a light but also stiff body, and Jaguar claims its car is 50 per cent more laterally stiff than the Porsche Macan, the model Jaguar’s development team most closely benchmarked.
James Matthews, head of vehicle dynamics, was particularly impressed with the Macan, which motivated him to chase higher targets for his car — since the Macan came in late into the Jag’s development, Matthews and his team rethought the suspension tuning on the F-Pace to more closely compete with the Porsche before rolling it out. My take from the road session is that numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Jaguar also claims the F-Pace is the most aluminium-intensive car in class, and a third of the light alloy used is recycled. The goal is to increase that to 75 per cent recycled aluminium per vehicle by 2020 since it requires 95 per cent less energy to produce. From all the aluminium Jaguar already recycles a year, you would have enough material to build four Eiffel Towers.
Everywhere else the focus is as intense, including with the aerodynamics. Computers ran for 100,000 hours testing fluid mechanics, or the equivalent of 11 years of non-stop research. The F-Pace’s eventual drag coefficient of 0.34 is equivalent to something like the C6-generation Corvette, or an older Aston Martin DB9. Not bad for a two-metre wide SUV. Compared to the Macan, the Jag is significantly longer, by 40mm, and wider and taller, too, yet up to 75kg lighter in favourable trim.
Risk and reward, Coventry knows it, and the result is 50:50 weight distribution and the biggest tyre footprint in class. And you know what? I’m happier wheeling this than the F-Type.
Dynamically, the F-Type turned out to be one of the weakest cars amongst its tough rivals, but it started on a back foot before Jaguar’s modular architecture was ready. So it’s really the old XK developed in 2005. Even with a centre of gravity somewhere around an F-Type driver’s ears, the F-Pace actually feels more assured and balanced than the F-Type, which is often unwieldy and heavy in its controls, making every reaction appear to lag. The F-Pace is more immediate in its responses, but coming to Montenegro off the back of driving the Levante in Italy, it’s apparent the Jag isn’t a sportscar. Of course, there is body roll around these roads, and we won’t pretend to have pushed the SUV’s limits, but the car behaved confidently and securely, handling treacherous conditions in comfort.
It doesn’t belong on Montenegro’s scary mountain passes anyway, and any SUV would feel out of place here — back at base where Jaguar occupied an entire village for this six-week global press launch, a pack of journalists were discussing what car would be best suited for a blast on our day’s route and none of us argued above a Peugeot 106 Rallye. In the end the consensus settled on the original Mini Cooper. And here we were in a 1.9-tonne Jaguar wide enough to barely let a local goat pass the other way.
At least visibility is excellent, rare in modern cars, and the steering is direct. It’s also completely artificial and mute, and Jaguar can still learn a thing or two from its rivals’ use of similar electric steering systems. I suspect 265/40 R22 tyres don’t naturally provide much in the way of feel anyway.
Now with its new architecture, Jaguar can adapt wheelbases and subframes, and move much quicker in the market, to launch three all-new models inside a year. The F-Pace, however, won’t spawn all sorts of coupé-crossovers or seven-seaters (you might see a V8-engined F-Pace, though, and an EV within a couple of years) because Jaguar’s capacity can’t support an SUV line even close to as saturated as Mercedes’ or BMW’s portfolio of niches. If the fruit from the SUV tree ends up being even sweeter than Coventry thought, Jaguar’s engineers and product planners have plenty enough ideas for the segment. For now, you can pick from a 240bhp four-cylinder like in sister brand’s Range Rover Evoque, or this F-Type six-cylinder.
Jaguar still hasn’t adopted the twin-turbocharged route taken by all its German rivals and uses a 3.0-litre supercharged engine. On paper 380 horsepower seems plenty but you have to plan your overtaking moves. The V6 drones in the mid-range where you spend all of your time in real life, and it’s only nearing the red line that the F-Pace starts to sound like a proper Jag. The ZF eight-speed transmission seemingly universal in the industry, and normally great, can’t disguise the underwhelming engine. There’s no pre-boost, anti-lag, turbocharged explosion of torque and without flexibility it’s all about having the right gear. Whenever you call on some power, even when just threading the throttle to try and fool the automatic into holding gear, the car’s mapping still has the ’box hunting for downshifts to get out of the drone-zone.
Lastly, not that you’d care in the GCC, but I had the wipers on for two days solid and their incessant tripping and banging across the windscreen gets pretty annoying pretty quickly. You’d expect a British carmaker to get the windscreen wipers right.
For a first go at an SUV we’ll give Jaguar that one slight. The rest of the F-Pace is very good. Of course, to any prospective F-Pace owners, there is no cross-shopping list to go through, and all this will fall on deaf ears, and any outside opposing view will be filtered through Caesium Blue-tinted glasses. This car will sell on design alone.