As the western coast of the United States rises up from the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, a 655-mile stretch of the boundary between land and water is marked by a strip of pavement known as California Route 1. Known in various locations as the Pacific Coast Highway or Cabrillo Highway, the road winds, climbs and falls as it seeks purchase along the perimeter of the continent. It’s the ideal road for the kinds of cars built by Jaguar and I recently spent some time there in one of the venerable British brand’s newest products. But rather than a car, I was driving the all-new F-Pace S.
There was a time not so very long ago, when a sport utility vehicle was something capable of traversing almost any terrain, but it generally wasn’t very sophisticated or luxurious. More often than not, you could just hose it out after a trek through a mud-bog. But then something happened and it seemed like everyone wanted an SUV even if the farthest they got from pavement was a gravel driveway. Thus we now have the Bentley Bentayga, Tesla Model X and of course the first Jaguar SUV, the F-Pace.
The roots of the modern luxury SUV actually go back to the beginning of the 1970s when Land Rover introduced the upscale Range Rover. As brands based in the English midlands, Land Rover and Jaguar have a somewhat interwoven history. In 1960s, the British government merged most of what was left of the indigenous automotive industry including Jaguar, Rover, MG, Triumph and other storied brands into British Leyland.
In the 1980s as Conservative governments sought to unwind the efforts of more socialist-leaning predecessors, British Leyland was broken up and sold off piecemeal. In 1989, Ford purchased Jaguar while Rover Group remained independent until 1994 when BMW took over. Seeing most of the business as hopelessly unsalvageable, BMW divested all but the Mini brand in 2000 with Ford adding Land Rover to its stable. As BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche and Lexus all saw success from selling SUVs in the early-2000s, there was discussion of giving Jaguar an SUV based on Range Rover bones but it never came to pass which was probably a good thing. While such a vehicle might have been very capable, it really wouldn’t fit the character of a Jag.
The F-Pace has all of the design details typical of a contemporary Jaguar from the slim front and rear lamps to the rounded rectangle grille. The relatively low greenhouse gives the Jag a more performance-oriented profile than the BMW X5 while retaining most of a more traditional wagon-style roof than the coupe-like X6. The severe forward slope of the tailgate glass provides a nice balance between the two extremes.
While the short side-glass of the F-Pace helps to retain some of the DNA of the F-Type sports car, it does have some downsides. The rake of the windshield and low header means that you need to watch your head while getting in and out, but once you get accustomed to it, it’s not really a problem.
Once inside, the Jaguar design team made an odd choice with the placement of the window switches and seat memory buttons. The window controls sit atop the door by the window while the memory controls are down on the armrest. This is the opposite of what I would expect from a usability standpoint, especially given the high beltline of the F-Pace. The window controls are used much more frequently than the memory switches and the armrest is the more natural location. On more than one occasion, I inadvertently moved my seat when I intended to open a window. Again, with time, this may become more natural.
The rest of the F-Pace cabin is otherwise quite lovely with leather covered seats that provide excellent support for the driver and front passenger and 14-way power adjustment including my personal favorite, the thigh support. The side bolsters are ample enough for excellent support when frequent directional changes are required while still allowing relatively easy egress.
The center console includes a wide-screen, high-resolution 10.2-inch display with Jaguar’s new InTouch infotainment system. In use the system is quite responsive although the navigation does take a while to boot up when you first start the car. Since I was driving in unfamiliar territory, I regularly had to wait to enter a destination before taking off. The display remains clearly visible with polarized sunglasses and while the heads up display is slightly dimmer through these specs, it’s still plenty readable. The navigation prompts are replicated in both the HUD and the leftmost part of the digital instrument cluster.
Unlike SUVs of yore, the F-Pace and its ilk keep the body remarkably parallel to the pavement while hustling through curves. The steering provides good feedback as the lateral acceleration builds. What it doesn’t inherit from older Jaguars is the supple ride quality, but then most contemporary Jaguar cars are a lot stiffer than they used to be as well. Today’s Jaguars are tuned more for the Nurburgring than cobblestone streets.
Once we headed north into San Francisco for my week of conferences on automotive cyber security and autonomous cars, we saw a different side of the F-Pace. That tight ride that served it so well along the coast meant the body was moving around more as it traversed some surprisingly uneven roads in the city. Not that it was terribly uncomfortable mind you, but the Range Rover I drove recently seemed to have more wheel articulation. On the other hand that Range Rover was a lot larger and would be much harder to park and maneuver in a place like San Francisco.