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At 12,000 feet over the Continental Divide — the “top of the Rockies” — a gas-powered engine loses 30 percent of its horsepower in the thinning air. That still leaves my supercharged, 340-horsepower Jaguar XE 238 ponies to play with. I spur the roaring beast from turn to turn down the mountain’s face, the sedan’s torque-vectoring all-wheel drive distributing power to all four paws.

Ahhh, it’s good to have the big cat back in the wild.

When I came to Detroit 15 years ago, Jaguar seemed caged in the Ford zoo. The Detroit automaker had saved the storied English brand from certain extinction in 1990, but it seemed out of place among its mainstream brethren – fed the same diet, built on the same skeleton, sharing the same engines. It was a domesticated cat, reduced to chauffeuring Ford executives around as Ford’s pet luxury brand.

Jaguar’s last effort in the entry-luxe market was the 2001 X-Type. Based on the Ford Mondeo, it was ridiculed by Jaguar designer Ian Callum as “designed in Detroit and presented as close as a fait accompli to reluctant (Jaguar) designers and engineers.”

The X-Type went over like Barack Obama at a coal miner’s convention. It limped out of the segment after less than a decade. Eight years, a new owner and an aluminum chassis later, Jaguar is back on a Rocky Mountain high. And, no, I don’t mean it runs on Colorado-legal hemp. But you can get one with a 2-liter turbocharged diesel.

Because a tank of petrol in Europe costs about the same as a monthly car payment here, Europeans have long preferred sippier diesels. With diesels running daily drivers — not just dump trucks — customers demanded they clean up their black soot act and muzzle the annoying wocka-wocka piston thrum. The result? Direct-injection turbo-diesels like that offered in the XE that are quieter than the school library and drink less than a camel across the Sahara. On Jaguar’s Rockies program I caned an XE diesel that returned a remarkable 31.9 miles per gallon.

So do I prefer the diesel to the 340-horsepower supercharged gasoline V-6? Are you high?

It’s not that the 180-horsepower diesel — the first of Jaguar’s much-ballyhooed Ingenium family — was reduced to just 126 horsepower at altitude. Or that four turbocharged cylinders aren’t enough to get the job done (a capable, base turbo-4, left over from the Mondeo days, is also an option). No, it’s that you can’t full appreciate this extraordinary animal’s athleticism unless mated to the car’s most capable engine.

Reborn under Tata, Jaguar has returned to its roots — which is to say, raw performance. The company announced this rebirth with the F-Type sports car. You couldn’t have missed it. When I started up its 495-horsepower V-8 in Detroit last year, it broke every window within a 10-mile radius.

The Porsche-fighting F-Type was a statement that the brand was polishing the heritage built by its LeMans-winning 1950s D-Types and the legendary, howling, hood-out-to-there E-Type (which is stilling taking no prisoners on today’s vintage racing circuit). Sure, Jaguars still wear a three-piece suit, but you’ll see their biceps bulging underneath.

Like the F-Type, XE was born with an all-aluminum chassis and double-wishbone front suspension. Over undulating Rocky Mountain switchbacks, ess-turns, and straightaways, the compact sedan was stitched to the road. It’s the most intuitive compact sedan I have flogged in the segment since the Cadillac ATS. Like the Caddy, the XE sports an all-new lightweight rear-wheel-drive-biased skeleton.

One other nice feature it shares with the ATS: It’s priced at $3,000-$5,000 under comparably equipped BMW 3s and Audi A4s. It offers the royal bloodline without the premium price.

With the V-6’s torquey supercharger on call, I blew past lines of traffic on the breathtaking mountain roads, the eight-speed shifter as smooth as silk. Hard on the binders, the all-wheel drive chassis rotated effortlessly into turns. I could feel little difference between a rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive cat (whereas the front-wheel-biased Audi is much more balanced with all-wheel drive), but I would surely option the all-wheel system if I lived in these mountains or our frozen Detroit tundra.

Jaguar’s renaissance has been helped by Tesla, which slavishly aped designer Callum’s mid-size XF sedan lines for its hot-selling Model S. So iconic is Jaguar that it has luxury groupies.

From its signature nose and predator’s eyes (menacing at night with J-stick LED signature), the hood sweeps backward to a coupe-like cabin pulled over rear wheel arches like — well, a Jaguar ready to spring.

Surprisingly, the interior is a mixed bag. The dashboard is bordered by a sweeping, half-moon arc running from A-pillar to A-pillar, yet the console is undistinguished but for the rotary gear shifter that rises to your hand at ignition.

Happily, Jaguar’s long-lamented infotainment system is in the rear-view mirror. With a 10-inch screen and Intel chip, the new, responsive InControl Touch Pro system is available in Prestige and R-Sport trims. Thanks to touch screen and rotary shifter, the center console is pleasantly uncluttered compared to its German peers.

Athleticism seems to require a cramped back seat as XE suffers from the same small quarters as the ATS. Six-footers will be tapping you on the shoulder to move up the front seat lest their legs and bowed necks convulse in cramps on long drives.

Drivers, on the other hand, will be looking to take the long way as the nimble cat begs to be exercised. A run through the car’s electronic features reveals an unusual, “speed limiter” button, a product of Europe’s Big Brother cameras that sniff out speeders. The complement to Adaptive cruise control will cleverly keep you under the speed limit when you blow into a small Michigan (or Ohio or Colorado) town after a 100-mph, supercharged sprint.

The XE is that much fun. And when you buy it off a Metro Detroit dealer’s lot, you’ll be at 650 feet above sea level. Which means you’ll have all 340 horses at your service.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Jaguar XE

Specifications

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger luxury sedan

Price: $35,895 base ($38,495 XE Premium and $61,385 XE R-Sport as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter turbo-diesel inline 4-cylinder; 3.0-liter supercharged V-6

Power: 240 horsepower, 251 pound-feet torque (gas 4-cyl); 180 horsepower, 318 pound-feet torque (turbo-diesel 4-cyl); 340 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (V-6 AWD R-Sport as tested, manufacturer); top speed: 120 mph (governed)

Weight: 3,320 base (3,795 pounds, V-6 AWD R-Sport as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway/24 mpg combined (gas-turbo 4-cyl); TBA (turbo-diesel 4-cyl); EPA 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (V-6 AWD R-Sport as tested)

Report card

Highs: Cat-like handling; premium looks, affordable price

Lows: Uninspired interior; small back seat

Overall:★★★

Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

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