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F-Pace, Jaguar's first-ever SUV is ready to play dirty with BMW, Audi and Porsche


All right, you can stop gnashing your teeth. Yes, yet another fabled luxury brand has succumbed to car buyers' seemingly unquenchable desire for luxury SUVs. But after driving the 2017 F-Pace, I can happily confirm that Jaguar hasn't brokered a deal with the devil, nor is it suffering through some sort of existential crisis. Upscale car companies -- even those best-known for sporting cars -- can offer an SUV without losing their souls in the bargain.

In fact, they'd better. Reading today's market, modern luxury automakers almost don't seem to have a prayer of long-term profitability if they lack a high-rider or three in their portfolio. Jaguar knows this all too well. It's completely reinvented itself over the last eight years, and despite building some utterly beguiling cars, disappointingly few buyers have been paying attention. Last year, Jaguar sales actually slipped by eight percent in a white-hot market that climbed six percent. Across all model lines, Jag sold just 14,466 vehicles in North America in 2015. Meanwhile, its all-SUV, all-the-time sibling, Land Rover, saw sales skyrocket by 37 percent, selling over 70,500 units.

Jaguar may not yearn to be all things to all people like some of its European contemporaries, but clearly it needs the F-Pace rather badly.

Good thing it looks so stylish, right? The F-Pace crossover has adopted the upright, rounded rectangular grille, fast roofline and piercing horizontal light fixtures of Jag's F-Type and its all-new XE and XF sedans, all of which are very fine things indeed. Those individual bits and the English marque's overall styling language actually lend themselves beautifully to a taller, two-box SUV format (certainly better than Porsche's did when it grafted the nose of a 911 onto its ungainly first-generation Cayenne). In the metal, the F-Pace looks taut, handsome and more than a little snarly.

Jaguar officials tell me their new baby is "closest in personality" to BMW's X4 and Porsche's Macan, but its 186.3-inch length, 76.2-inch width and 113.1-inch wheelbase means it's slightly longer and wider than those vehicles. With its larger-than-average interior, the F-Pace arguably straddles crossover segments, and its performance matches up surprisingly well with lower-end examples of bigger, costlier SUVs like the Porsche Cayenne and even the Maserati Levante.

At launch, five primary trim levels will be available, with three engine choices sprinkled among them: Base, Premium, Prestige, R-Sport and S. The latter arrives with a 380-horsepower, 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, and models below the S snug either Jag's 180-hp, 2.0-liter Ingenium diesel four-cylinder or a slightly detuned, 340-hp version of the 3.0-liter gas engine between their front fenders. In addition, a special First Edition model will be available in the early going. Just 275 examples are headed to the States, so it's a good bet that all of them are spoken for.

Unexpectedly, the F-Pace's headline-grabbing $41,985 base price actually belongs to the diesel. It may seem like this unusual strategy risks putting off buyers looking to get into a Leaping Cat on the (relative) cheap, only for them to come into the showroom and realize they're not interested in diesel. However, Jag officials say they expect Ingenium-equipped models to command only around 10 percent of sales volumes, and stepping up to the 340-hp gas V6 is a reasonable $1,400 premium on a vehicle where few cars are likely to be base models, anyway.

To be fair, the First Edition I drove, essentially an all-boxes-checked S, is much dearer at $69,700, but Jag officials expect the 340-hp gas Prestige model will be the most popular combination. That suggests average transaction prices should hover at around $45k-$50k, which is perfectly reasonable for this segment. Regardless of which trim is selected, all US-bound F-Paces feature standard rear-biased all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

Having never been to Montenegro, I had no idea what to expect in terms of topography, roads and traffic. Sharing borders with Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania, this small coastal country is nestled across the Adriatic Sea from the heel of Italy's boot. Over the course of a couple of days behind the wheel, the former Yugoslav nation would prove to be a gorgeous marvel, with challenging, narrow mountain roads made all the more so by liberal amounts of falling rock and brazen drivers in machinery ranging from tired Yugos to brand-new Mercedes S-Class sedans.

Checking on my route using the F-Pace's new Incontrol Touch Pro infotainment system, the 10.2-inch touchscreen's map displayed asphalt roads zig-zagging in Richter-scale-like patterns, their movements dictated by the geological unrest that created the mountains beneath them. Jaguar certainly wasn't soft-pedalling the F-Pace's sporting ambitions with our drive route -- this was going to be a challenge.

The F-Pace would quickly prove up for it all, tackling both roads and ancient dirt and stone pathways with a genuine zeal that surprised even me. Despite riding on mammoth 22-inch alloy wheels and Pirelli P-Zero rubber, the First Edition's ride was remarkably poised, and its handling predictable. The Jag rarely felt too big for the region's hemmed-in roads, even through countless switchback sequences, whether rising to summits literally above the low-hanging clouds, or slaloming back down to sea level.

In fact, on paved roads, the F-Pace acquitted itself an awful lot like a tallish sport sedan -- one with thwacking-great midrange torque (332 pound-feet), a memorable exhaust note and a much more planted feeling than one might expect from something with 8.4 inches of ground clearance. It should come as no surprise that the F-Pace's aluminum-intensive chassis isn't shared with any Land Rover. Instead, it derives a great deal of its structural underthings from the XE and XF sedans.

Zero-to-60 for the most-powerful engine is stated at 5.1 seconds, yet it feels slightly more rapid still, with the transmission pinching off smooth shift after smooth shift. Between the smartly weighted, nicely metered steering and the adjustable front double-wishbone and rear integral-link suspension, even on rough roads, it was easy to plant the tires exactly where I wanted them, and it was similarly easy to get back on the power earlier than expected.

And this high-stepping kitty isn't just up for asphalt duty. Clearly no threat to its Land Rover kin, the F-Pace is nevertheless capable of significantly more off-roading than you'd think. While there's no air suspension or heavy-duty skid plates in the F-Pace's arsenal, there's over 20 inches of fording depth on offer, along with Adaptive Surface Response, which is basically a hill-descent and -ascent control system with driver-variable speed. It's a trick bit of tech borrowed from Land Rover that allows the driver to carefully work their way up or down a steep slope at a steady clip with their feet off the pedals. Suffice it to say, the F-Pace will happily perform more off-road feats than its owners will ever request.

I also sampled the 2.0-liter Ingenium diesel at length, and it's a torquey little thing, with 318 pound-feet of the stuff balanced by 180 horsepower. It's a smooth and characterful engine, but there's no disguising that it's a diesel -- you'll know right from the moment you start it up, and the engine will subtly remind you of its fuel type when you lay into the pedal or when the stop/start function kicks in to save fuel. It's significantly slower on paper -- 0-60 mph happens in 8.2 seconds -- but once you get out of the hole, it doesn't feel at all sluggish. Even so, unless the EPA fuel economy estimates turn out to be otherworldly (no figures have been released) my recommendation is to stick with the 3.0-liter gas engines, which feel more in tune with the athletic character of the chassis.

Speaking of that sporty demeanor, the F-Pace's development was greatly influenced by that of the Porsche Macan. It's actually significantly larger inside than the smaller crossover from Stuttgart (especially in the back seat and the cargo hold, where Jag is claiming class-leading space), and it has solid ride quality, so it's likely more livable everyday. However, it's also not quite as powerful or rapid as some Macan models, but mercifully, it's also a lot less costly.

In fact, the F-Pace is surprisingly strong value play versus rivals when matched kit-for-kit. Jag isn't traditionally known for value, but for 2016, the company has revisited the pricing, equipment and warranty positioning of all of its models to make them more attractive to buyers who might otherwise think a Jag is beyond their reach. With the F-Pace, it appears to have nailed the numbers right out of the gate.

That's not to say that the F-Pace feels like the richest vehicle in its segment -- at least not on the inside. Even in the high-zoot First Edition, the dashboard and doors feel a bit plainspoken, leavened only by some subtle contrast stitching and a subtle houndstooth theme repeated on the leather and door trim. There are occasionally discount-feeling bits, too, notably the gauge binnacle hood. Such minor cabin sins are acceptable at the lower end of the F-Pace's model spectrum, but they become harder to overlook in costlier variants.

Of course, this dullness can be mitigated somewhat by choosing a bolder leather color, but it's almost as if recent Jag cabins have been working a little too hard to distance themselves from the warm, heavily wooded interiors of their past. As it is, there's only small slivers of timber on the doors and around the rotary shift dial, and even then, it's optional. Automakers like Audi do a wonderful job offering a wider variety of modern finishes, including open-pore and layered wood veneers, as well as carbon-fiber and aluminum trims, and Jag could definitely stand to make more such materials available on the F-Pace.

To keep things feeling max lux, if you're at all tech savvy, it's important to splurge for InControl Touch Pro infotainment, as the standard Incontrol Touch system can feel a bit behind the times in terms of features, responsiveness and, well, screen size. Selecting ICTP brings with it a 12.3-inch TFT instrument cluster (analog gauges are standard), the aforementioned 10.2-inch touchscreen with SSD-based navigation (the base ICT system relies on an eight-inch display), and a 17-speaker, 825-watt Meridian audio system. It also bundles in Wi-Fi, but it costs a hefty $3,200, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility is not yet part of the program.

One other interesting option, dubbed Activity Key, is an RFID-based wearable that allows you to leave your keys securely locked in your car at all times (as you might want when going to the beach). To lock or unlock the vehicle, the Fitbit-like wristband is tapped against the "J" in the "Jaguar" script on the F-Pace's tailgate. After that, you can simply enter the vehicle, thumb the start button, and get on with it. Even if someone breaks into your car with the key fob inside, the vehicle won't start without tapping the Activity Key against the J script, so thieves won't be able to make off with your ride. The band is even waterproof and doesn't require batteries. Nifty.

Like Montenegro itself, the 2017 F-Pace is a bit off the radar, a bit outside the norm compared to its more obvious European rivals. While your neighbors' knee-jerk reaction may be to park something from BMW, Audi or Porsche in their driveways, the F-Pace is a tasty and surprisingly affordable alternative to other Continental destinations. Like Montenegro, it's also too pretty to stay a secret for much longer. No, the F-Pace isn't perfect, but it might just offer the most virtuous balance of grace, pace and space in the segment.