They call it the Rally of Ten Thousand Corners. After five minutes I reckon they undersold it. Corsica is a breathtaking island in the Mediterranean that’s been around for 250 million years, a craggy granite mountain poking out of the sea. Everyone’s been at it, the Etruscans, the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Italians, the French. These last two are still bitter about the whole thing. But really, all these millions of years this island has been missing its true calling. Corsica is made for driving, and they finally hit upon this with the Tour de Corse in 1956 for the French round of the World Rally Championship.

I should add that Corsica isn’t made for crossovers. The local forest rangers potter along in old Defenders and you’ll see plenty of proper SUVs and 4x4s around (like Suzuki Jimnys), but Corsica’s crossovers and soft-roaders flock together near the safety of the coast, the smooth highways and holiday resorts and shopping mall car parks providing respite from the jagged peaks inland.

 

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Jaguar sees its latest crossover a bit differently. The Brits aren’t afraid of taking the new E-Pace out of its habitat and onto D268 up to Zonza, a road too narrow for extended side mirrors, or D59 back down to the coast, as taxing as Stelvio or Tennessee’s Tail of the Dragon, with not enough space, time, or nerve to get out of third gear. And, you know, there are six of them still to go in the E-Pace.

As all cars to all people — the F-Pace SUV is the brand’s best-selling model by far, not a traditional saloon — crossovers must be able to handle this kind of stuff although Jaguar may have taken it a bit too seriously. All the testers available in Corsica to drive at the launch are sporty models on 20in wheels, so evidently Jaguar doesn’t mind us criticising the harsh ride quality accepting that inevitability in exchange for praise of the handling.

 

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Yes, the car is impressive on a rally road, but when did you last take Col de Turini to work? Nineteen inch wheels should be your maximum when configuring your Jaguar E-Pace, although you can go up to 21in if you only plan on parking your E-Pace and looking at it.

See, it’s not bad looking. Better in the metal, but with an indistinctive front end that could just as much be a new Kia as a new Jag. The headlamps are almost laid out over the bonnet — like a puppy, the coochie eyes always get us. The thing is the E-Pace doesn’t say Jaguar to me in any distinctive way. I’d still say even the new VW Tiguan looks more purposeful. There are badges saying Jaguar, sure, and design boss Ian Callum says those front fender vents are there to evoke the Jaguar F-Type sportscar.

Nice try… That’s an unvent if I ever saw one, a completely solid piece of nasty plastic that has no place on a Jag, no matter how cheap it is.

 

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And this one isn’t even that cheap. From about Dh250K-Dh300K with the hot engine option, the 2018 E-Pace goes up against rivals from BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti. There’s a lot of fish in a big pond, granted, and if we’re being honest Jaguar’s competition sits right across its own lot. The company made more than 70,000 F-Pace SUVs last year and the E-Pace is supposed to surpass that as the new best-seller. Jaguar expects over 80 per cent of E-Pace buyers to come from other brands, conquest sales, people buying the first new Jag they can afford to finance and live with. Jaguar’s already done 90 per cent of the sales pitch — hey, folks, over here, a kinda cheap Jag!

 

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Cabin gets clean design, impressive kit, and controls that feel premium

Yes, badges sell, and this one’s a Jaguar E-Pace R-Dynamic S P300 AWD. You’re not getting shorted there. It’s got Jaguar Land Rover’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine making 300 horsepower and 400Nm of torque. In Caesium Blue and with the Light Oyster interior, it looks the money and has the kit to warrant entry into the premium compact crossover segment. Full size panoramic roof, head-up display, 12.3in touchscreen, intuitive infotainment system, and nice knobs and aluminium trim bits. Real aluminum trim bits. A bit too much plastic though, and Jaguar still can’t get the new-car smell right. It just smells like a stationary supply store in there. Trim for trim though this seems to me a better bet than the F-Pace. Jaguar will hope it’s not shooting itself in one foot with this car should the E-Pace start cannibalising too many sales off the bigger, more profitable car.

Related to the Range Rover Evoque, but with Jaguar axles and suspension design for on-road bias, the E-Pace drives and steers commendably well, and can even be considered fun to steer. On the downhill blasts you get a tinge of burning brakes in the air, but with all Jaguar’s talk of aluminium panels and lightweight magnesium bulkheads, in this specification we’re still talking about a 1.9-tonne car that’s over 1.6m tall. So considering that bewildering fact (A four-cylinder Golf-sized car that weighs nearly two tonnes? Yeah, it’s 2018 all right.) the E-Pace handled 200-300 kilometers of Corsica remarkably.

 

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I mean, whenever there weren’t potholes for the 20s to knock you back into the realisation that you’re in a family crossover on a rally stage. So you can forgive the 349mm discs that slight. While the dynamics shine — even the electric steering is pleasant — the engine fades away near the red line, and outside of Sport mode the E-Pace P300’s turbo lag is more perceptible with the nine-speed auto happy to sit in a higher gear for the sake of economy.

Economy is very much part of the E-Pace concept altogether - whereas the only slightly bigger F-Pace offers a supercharged V6, in this you get to choose from some four-pots. The 245bhp version starts from Dh161,700, but anything with the R-Dynamic package, which is the one everyone wants, will cost you at least Dh178,000. The 300-horsepower model we have on test is due to arrive later in the year while the entry-level cars are already available in the Middle East region.

 

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Speaking of economy, designers and engineers put a high value on space and efficiency. This for example, is the first transversely-engined front-wheel drive Jag since the hated X-Type of the early 2000s, although of course our GCC-spec cars all get a drive shaft going all the way to a rear differential that can split torque between the axles every 10 milliseconds (up to 100 per cent of the power can go to the rear wheels in extreme situations). The engine sitting in the bay sideways means there isn’t a bulky transmission protruding into the cabin, which in turn frees up space for a massive cubby hole in the centre console that can be rearranged and holds two big bottles neatly. 

With not quite the longest wheelbase in the segment, the E-Pace offers adequate room in the back, and if you fold the rear bench down you get a total of 1,234 litres of cargo capacity. Which, again, isn’t bad. The new BMW X2 is more voluminous, but the Audi Q2 for example trails far behind. So in almost every respect the E-Pace hits pretty much all the right notes, quite conservatively, for the brand’s first foray into the compact crossover segment. It’s not the best car in its class, but crucially, it’s the only Jag in its class.