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The 2020 Jaguar XE.

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As we mix it up with the predictable hordes of Renault, Citroen and Peugeot econoboxes in southern France, our car-guy eyes occasionally spot some mundane, elderly and intriguingly out-of-place British cars: a couple of Rover 75s, a Jaguar X-Type, even an MG station wagon (who knew there ever was such a thing?)

Seeing these aging oddities still on the road confirms that even in France – and, as it happens, on the very day Britain had been scheduled to crash out of the European Union – some drivers are still moved by the eccentric charm of British cars.

Rover and MG are long gone now; ditto the widely dissed (unfairly, if you ask me) X-Type. But Jaguar itself still thrives, Brexit has been postponed again and we’re feeling very much at home in the latest version of Jaguar’s entry-level saloon.

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After Jaguar euthanized the X-Type in 2009, the brand was MIA in the compact sport-luxury sedan market for seven years. Its comeback came in the form of the 2017 XE, a terrific little sports sedan that arguably, however, launched into a category that increasingly diluted the sport part of the formula. Gearhead critics mostly loved it, but buyers were harder to convince. Last year, XE sales in Canada totalled 571, versus 6,190 copies of the once segment-defining (but of late, increasingly softer) BMW.

Now, a new 3 Series has reportedly reclaimed its sporting mojo, and Genesis and Kia have put up new challenges in a league that also includes a redesigned 2019 Volvo S60. Sporty is back.

Given the overlapping cadence of car life cycles, it’s too soon for an all-new XE (the current design is only three model years in), so what we have here is a thoughtful refresh for 2020.

Like many Jaguars, the proportions of the XE look just right.

Jeremy Sinek

Design has always been a Jaguar cornerstone, and in the case of the XE it’s a case of “don’t mess with success.” Designer Adam Hatton says Jaguar incorporates the principle of the “golden ratio” into its shapes, which results in timeless proportions that just look right.

“Great artists and architects used it in their designs,” he explains. “If you apply that to a car, people will know the car looks correct even though they don’t know why.”

Subtle revisions for 2020 include shallower headlamps, with standard LED running lights and headlights, and a wider but shallower grille, all to accentuate the car’s width, and deliver what Hatton calls “that lovely Jaguar assertiveness look.”

In this era when the competitive arena is defined more by electronic technology than mechanical, the 2020 XE raises its game. A 12.3-inch screen provides a configurable virtual gauge cluster facing the driver (a concept that Jaguar used as long ago as 2010 on the XJ sedan), the 10-inch centre-dash display is user-friendlier and HVAC is now controlled by large, round, actual knobs. A toggle shift lever replaces the previous rotary dial.

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The climate-control system has actual physical knobs, instead of being built into a touchscreen.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Along with all this, Jaguar Canada has greatly simplified the XE “grade walk” from 11 grades to just two, SE P250 and SE P300 R-Dynamic, propelled by 247- or 296-horsepower versions of the gasoline 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged Ingenium engine. Both drive all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Notably absent in Canada are the former 2.0L diesel and supercharged 3.0L V6. With prime rivals offering 350- to 400-hp sixes, what is Jaguar thinking? The official line is that the market is skewing toward efficiency, and globally the V6 take rate no longer justifies its existence.

Here’s my theory. Jaguar Land Rover recently introduced a straight-six Ingenium engine on the Range Rover Sport. It’s known, too, that the modular Ingenium can also be configured as an in-line five. Ergo, stand by for five- or six-cylinder inline engine options for the XE. They’re just not ready to go public yet.

But that is speculation and this is now. Four-cylinder engines are the heart of this segment, and you can build your own four-cylinder XE online now at jaguar.ca. When it arrives, you won’t be getting the roomiest car in its class, or (quite) the most refined, but it looks right and drives great. Even if Brexit is a bad idea, the Jaguar XE is a good one – a best-of-British, go-your-own-way rejection of the generic German alternatives.

Tech specs

  • Price: From $49,900
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 247 or 296 hp
  • Transmission/Drive: Eight-speed automatic/AWD
  • Fuel consumption (L/100 km): TBA
  • Alternatives: Acura TLX, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Genesis G70, Infiniti Q50, Kia Stinger, Lexus IS, Mercedes C-Class, Volvo S60

Looks

As designer Adam Hatton claims, the XE’s proportions just look right, with no need for rivals’ extra ornamentation or sculpting. The shape is subtle but the effect is compelling. Declaring himself passionate about aerodynamics – which are improved for 2020 – designer Hatton adds, “I love the way we designed the car using the air.”

Interior

The redesigned seats have 12-way power adjustment.

The basic forms of the dashboard carry over – including the trim that sweeps across the top in one unbroken curve – but plusher soft-touch materials displace previous hard plastic, and new door panels greatly increase storage. Below the main 10-inch “landscape” display, a new HVAC panel features actual knobs for temperature, fan speed and seat-heating. Redesigned seats (with standard leather) provide fine comfort plus a 12-way range of power adjustment that let my medium frame tailor a just-so, car-and-driver-as-one posture at the wheel. Too bad front-seat heaters cost extra.

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Performance

The P300’s 296hp max out XE performance at zero-100 kilometres an hour in a claimed 5.7 seconds – comparable with its four-cylinder peers – while the P250 claims 6.5 seconds. The powertrain is agreeably refined in go-with-the-flow driving, although some rivals spin more sweetly when the hammer’s down, and we encountered occasional transmission shunts in Dynamic mode – more calibration needed? The XE’s chassis team, on the other hand, can take a bow: The cushioned ride; taut, athletic cornering and crisp, clean, natural steering feel check all our car-guy boxes.

Technology

Connectivity and infotainment assets include Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Navi, 4G LTE Wi-Fi and a slew of apps, live-info and remote-control features. Wireless charging, head-up display and camera-image rear-view mirror are available. Standard driver aids include driver-drowsiness and rear-traffic monitoring, lane-keep assist, semi-autonomous park assist (you do the pedals and gears, the car steers), auto high-beam assist and emergency braking. A Drive Pack option adds adaptive cruise, blind-spot assist and high-speed emergency braking.

Cargo

The trunk is small, but its box-like shape is helpful.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

The trunk contains just 10 cu. ft. by EPA measurements. That’s small. But at least it’s a handy, box-like shape, and the 40:20:40 folding-seats option is more usable than most.

The verdict: 8.0

Scientists in white coats carrying clipboards might not score the XE top of class, but keen drivers and contrarian individualists will find much to like here.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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