I’ll go ahead and spoil the plot for you. I’ll start off lamenting why people buy performance SUV’s – incapable of off-road excursions, and not boasting any more usefulness than say, a performance station wagon that looks better in any case. Then I’ll introduce you to the Jaguar F-Pace S – the one with the 280kW supercharged V6 engine and beautiful Ian Callum design. After that, I’ll tell you how everything it stands for is wrong, how everything works against it – logic, physics, common sense. And then, well, then I’ll tell you how it’s actually bloody brilliant and that performance SUV’s could actually be quite good if they all copied this. Keen for the unabbreviated version? Read on then…
So no, I well and truly don’t understand the point of performance SUVs. The art of performance is making things low to the ground, for the sake of aerodynamics and a low centre of gravity to aid and improve handling at, and beyond the limit. It’s also, if you buy into Colin Chapman’s way of doing things, the art of making things lighter. Less weight means better power-to-weight, better handling, and more of that addictive stuff called speed.
Performance SUVs go against both of those principles vehemently. More than that, they take a perfectly capable off-roader (OK, I know most of them can barely mount a street kerb, but bare with me) and slap big wheels on with super low profile tyres on one side and sports suspension on the other – making them incapable of looking at a kerb without buckling, or without sending you to a chiropractor whose rates are determined by the price of your car – in this case, he charges in the R1million+ category.
You could get the same practicality – the standard justification for performance SUVs – with vastly superior handling dynamics, less weight, and better looks in a performance wagon – an RS6 Avant, E63 S wagon, or M5 Touring (build it, BMW, please!) The world needs more wagons, but people don’t buy them when there are SUVs around.
That brings me to this, the Jaguar F-Pace S – stupid name, yes – and it’s a performance SUV. More than that, this competes in a new motoring segment of ‘Sports SUVs’ – if my eyes could roll any farther back, they’d have done a back-flip by now. This is the range topper – complete with supercharged petrol V6, the same one from the F-Type and XE S, boasting 280kW and 450Nm. That engine drives all 4 22-inch (yes, twenty-two inch, shod in 265/40 Pirelli P-Zero rubber) wheels in a rear-biased AWD system. Acceleration – try 0-100km/h in a claimed 5.5 seconds.
The Jaguar F-Pace looks absolutely beautiful. Drop dead, drool all over your shirt, trouser-tighteningly beautiful. It’s not just those 22-inch alloys filling up lightly flared wheel arches that does it – no, it’s the overall proportions that work so well, the curves in all the right places, the broad haunches, wide air intakes, and clean lines, all drawn together by arrestingly gorgeous paint tones that just highlight the beauty. You’d be hard pressed to believe this is the first SUV ever penned by Ian Callum – the man behind the Jaguar XE and F-Type – and yet his first effort is tremendous.
Looks aside – I can’t discredit those – the Jaguar F-Pace S makes no sense. In spite of the power and performance figures, it weighs 1861kg. Remember weight being the enemy of performance? It has a ground clearance of 213mm and sits at 1652mm tall – an Audi RS6 Avant, 114mm and 1461mm respectively. Sure, the Jaguar F-Pace has space, but it’s fat and all the weight sits too high. How can it expect to handle when it’s logically too top heavy to turn with any sort of prowess? The Jaguar F-Pace is, for all intents and purposes, pointless and utterly useless.
Except it isn’t.
By some form of sorcery, voodoo, black magic, divine blessing, or all of the above, the Jaguar F-Pace is simply stellar. I should hate it for its very existence, despise it on principle, let alone sheer physics, and yet I can’t help but love it.
Perhaps it’s the ego-trip, manhandling a 1.9-tonne SUV like a sports car – but that alone would lead to disappointment when it can’t behave as such. So perhaps it’s the fact that this nigh 1.9-tonne SUV actually does behave like a sports car. OK, not quite a Mazda MX-5 or Alfa Romeo 4C, but at the very least a sporting sedan, and a rear wheel driven one at that.
It’s largely to do with the trick AWD system equipped to the Jaguar F-Pace S. Unlike most permanent split or front bias Haldex-type systems, the Jaguar uses a rear-biased system. The standard distribution of torque flows rearwards in its entirety, until either slippage occurs or heavier throttle loads dictate front-wheel pulling power.
But in Dynamic driving mode, the rear wheels receive torque more readily. That might not make for full on Clarkson-esque slides and smoky drifts, but it does mean the chassis treads the line between balance and oversteer when under duress, erring on the side of the latter when you really chuck it about.
That oversteer isn’t even brought about by the weight heaving outward and risking certain death. It’s controlled, predictable, and enjoyable. The suspension and chassis are where the real magic seems to have been imbued – they support the 1.9-tonne Jaguar F-Pace so sublimely it carries its weight like a trained Olympic gymnast. It feels easily 300kg lighter than the scales read.
Quite simply, it does things no SUV should be physically capable of doing!
The ride quality too is testament to just how good the suspension is. 22-inch wheels smeared in a thin layer of Pirelli P-Zero tyres should be obscenely uncomfortable to ride on, and yet this is genuinely comfortable, even over some seriously dodgy surfaces. Not even vaguely jarring, but rather firm with a pliability that makes it feel like a true grand tourer, a proper Joburg to Cape Town road trip car.
Even the steering has been nailed. The Jaguar XE got the idea of electronic power-assisted steering right in terms of genuine feel and feedback, and the F-Pace works upon that even further. The EPAS system telegraphs fine detail of the road surface and front wheels straight to your fingertips, providing genuine feedback and a sense of control and involvement.
The fact that an SUV gives you this sort of involvement, this much feeling, is phenomenal.
But to add further layers of involvement, there’s theatre here too. From the heartbeat pulse behind the engine start/stop button, to the gear selector rising from the centre console on start-up, there’s a sense of expectation to the Jaguar F-Pace.
It delivers, not just in actual driving attributes, but in noise too. The supercharged V6 engine, potent as it may be, feels underwhelming in such a heavy vehicle. But that doesn’t stop it from making all the right noises. Barks and wails and screams, punctuated by gunshots and snorts. Forget ‘vrr pha’ and the DSG brigade, drive this through a tunnel and expect police call-outs in a matter of minutes in response to the numerous reports of gunshots.
In manual mode, the 8-speed ZF automatic gearbox will hold onto gears and bang into the rev limiter repeatedly. Though not exactly mechanically sympathetic to do so, it yields a glut of automatic rifle fire for the ears.
That gearbox is good for more than just noise though – it’s precisely tuned to give you the most the engine has to offer, holding higher gears when needed and pre-empting shifts to manage power and help balance the chassis. This gearbox is great, but how Jaguar has tuned it for use in this deserves special credit – it’s one of the defining traits that take the F-Pace S from brilliant to epic.
I can’t put my finger on quite what it is that makes the Jaguar F-Pace S as brilliant as it is, but it’s more than the mere sum of its parts. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, there are flawed aspects, yet they’re easy to overlook.
Those flaws lay primarily in the interior, where some cheap plastics and sketchy ergonomics are to be found. The centre console, aping that of the XE, features piano black plastics – cheap and hollow and prone to scratches and finger marks – whilst the electric window controls are mountain high on the actual window sill. Sudden rain makes a bee-line for those exposed controls, and it’s a wonder how that design flaw managed to make its way to production on a vehicle hailing from a country known for its perpetual falling moisture.
But there are gems hidden within the interior too – such as the all digital instrument cluster which can be changed to display the navigation map instead of the gauge cluster. It’s not quite Audi levels of customisation, but it’s pretty great still. I lament the lack of a heads-up display as standard though – an R18 800 option that should be standard fit on a model variant this expensive. Keyless entry is an option too, amongst numerous other things that can push the asking price of a finished Jaguar F-Pace S above the R1.5-million mark.
The Jaguar F-Pace has flaws, though not too many to put me off deeply wanting one. Though the V6 S makes all the right noises, it’s a thirsty companion (15l/100km) and one that lacks enough torque to really make it a menace. Despite the theatre, I think the sweetest spot in the F-Pace range might actually be a slightly cheaper diesel V6 variant – but for sheer thrills and astonishment at its outright ability, the F-Pace S is simply extraordinary.
If this is what performance SUVs can be, I might, just might, be a little less prudish and welcome the next one that lands in my driveway.
Words: Roger Biermann
Photos: Roarke Bouffe