Payne: Jaguar's E-Pace cub is cute 'n' porky

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Open the compact Jaguar E-Pace at night, and a bright light pools on the ground below the mirrors. A graphic spells out J-A-G-U-A-R, and ... what’s this? A silhouette of a Jaguar followed by its cub.

How appropriate.

Fifty years after Jaguar introduced the achingly gorgeous E-Type sports car and XJ sedan, the Brit brand is birthing a litter of profitable SUVs. The big cat's DNA is evident in its I-Pace, F-Pace and E-Pace children: the brooding eyes, the soft nose, the muscled haunches.

Based on the same, rugged chassis as the Land Rover Sport, the Jaguar E-Pace is actually more fun off-road than on-road with its high ride height and AWD. Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took it for a spin through Michigan farm country.

Driving my Cesium Blue cub through northern Michigan, I got plenty of looks. The landscape is awash in lookalike five-door utes these days, but the little Jag has presence with its slanted eyes, pouncing logo and 20-inch wheels.

Like its cub siblings, the E-Pace only gets some of the Jaguar DNA. It’s an SUV, after all. Don’t expect a thoroughbred race-horse from Secretariat cross-breeding with an ox.

The E-Pace is the first of the SUV litter with a longitudinal front engine. That means it’s not rear-wheel drive like the bigger F-Pace (and the electric I-Pace has no engine at all, but is driven by dual, front-rear electric motors) and therefore shares its architecture with the Range Rover Evoque.

That’s Range Rover as in the off-road truck brand. Like I say, Secretariat flirting with an ox.

In short, you buy the E-Pace for its looks, not for its athleticism. Jaguar engineers seem confused on this point as they assist E-Pace passengers with a console “oh, crap!” handle — but only equip the R-Line performance model with the paddle shifters you would expect on a model descended from F-Type.

Despite 246 ponies under the hood and a smooth-shifting nine-speed auto tranny, the porky 4,280-pound E-Pace strolls from zero-60 in just 7.2 seconds. That's slower than the 236-horse Cadillac XT4 and just half-a-second quicker than the nimble Mazda CX-5. Class-performance leader BMW X1 stomps it by a full second.

The added ponies don’t get you any better audio, either. This is no signature V-8 or V-6 Jaguar mill, but a familiar turbo 4-banger that motivates every small SUV from Chevy Equinox to Audi Q3.

Speaking of Mazda, the Jaguar felt less nimble than the CX-5 and BMW X1 — the best compact utes I’ve driven — through Michigan’s Route 32 twisties. Blame the E’s girth again, as it tips the scales at 600 pounds more than the Japanese model. Heck, it weighs 200 pounds more than the V-6 340-horsepower, aluminum-chassis F-Pace!

When the CX-5 gets its expected upgrade to a 250-plus horsepower turbo-4 next year it will run rings round the Jag. ZOOM ZOOM!

The Jaguar also sits more than 1.5 inches higher than its racy brethren — 8.8-inches versus the BMW’s 7.2, for example — which further penalizes its center of gravity.

At the end of my weekend in Charlevoix County, the E-Pace felt like every other five-door ute out there. Where was the growl? The athleticism? Like a zookeeper feeling sorry for his caged animal, I looked to take the E-Pace off-road into the unpaved wild.

The Jag’s high-riding Range Rover attributes, in fact, made it more fun off-road than on. Unafraid of rocky terrain, I grunted around farm landscapes. Turning the traction-control off, I attacked winding gravel roads, drifting across apexes with the all-wheel drive churning and throttle buried.

My female friends loved the Jag’s high stance for better visibility. Add its blue wardrobe and comfortable interior, and I suspect this cub will be adopted by a lot of women.

It’s also worth noting that the E-Pace — my tester cost $54,565 — is more practical than the other new cat, the all-electric $85,000 I-Pace.

With a 382-mile range on a tank of gas vs. the I-Pace’s 240-mile battery range, the E-Pace can easily make it the 260 miles to Charlevoix. When you get there, the I-Pace will be stuck for hours recharging, whereas the E-Pace can fill up in five minutes anywhere.

When it debuted for the 2017 model year, I pooh-poohed the bigger F-Pace for its subpar interior compared to German competitors. The E-Pace’s quiet cabin is a delightful place to be with stitched leather, wrapped console and options like a digital instrument panel and full moonroof.

Just as the chassis doesn’t live up to the sexy interior, however, so do the interior electronics lag the leather-wrapped luxury.

Engine stop/start — better known as that annoying engine stall at stoplights to satisfy federal mpg nannies — is relatively unobtrusive, but I still found myself turning it off every time I got in the car.

Lane-keep assist comes with a promising, digital instrument display to let you know what the windshield-based camera is seeing. But the camera’s eyesight isn’t 20/20, and the Jaguar winds up bouncing from one side of the lane (when it can see the lane) to the other like a bowling ball. The infotainment screen is often slow, too, and the voice-command navigation system is a chore.

Thankfully, Jaguar has equipped the E-Pace with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto so you can fill that big, beautiful 10-inch screen with Google Maps and get wherever you need to go easily. Blind-spot assist helps overcome rear blind spots bigger than Rhode Island.

The cub’s back seats won’t win any class awards for space, but they fit this 6-foot-5 giraffe more comfortably than rear seats of a Jaguar XE sedan — a big reason hatchback utes dominate sales today.

The bigger — or perhaps smaller — issue with the cub’s tidy, aerodynamic rear design is limited cargo space. E-Pace’s 24.2 cubic feet of storage lags the BMW X1 and Mazda CX-5 by three and six cubic feet, respectively. The better comparison is to the Cadillac XT-4 (pricier) or Audi Q5 SUVs, which offer comparable turbo-4 power and cargo room.

The Audi has sold well in the Age of Ute with its conservative styling and German engineering. The Jaguar is the anti-Audi — a cuddly cub with a sexy British racing lineage that stands out in a crowd.

Never mind that its turbo-4 all-wheel drive innards are unremarkable. What matters is that, 50 years ago, a British cat roamed the highways and byways purring seductively.

The seduction continues today in the unlikeliest of packages, an SUV.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Jaguar E-Pace

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $39,595 base, includes $995 destination fee ($54,190 E-Pace SE as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo inline 4-cylinder

Power: 246 horsepower, 269 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed: 135 mph

Weight: 4,223 pounds 

EPA fuel economy: 21 city/28 highway/24 combined 

Report card

Highs: Cute cub; sure-pawed off-roader

Lows: Lacks Jaguar fun-DNA ; tech quibbles

Overall: 3 stars