Last week, I flew to Montenegro, a small country on the Balkan Peninsula, to drive Jaguar’s first-ever SUV, the F-PACE.
The medium luxury SUV arrives just as a rash of upscale marques including Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Maserati and Lamborghini prepare to deliver their own take on a family-friendly sport utility vehicle, a staple in American garages, over the next couple of years. Given the growing competition, it’s logical to wonder, will the F-PACE feel like a sports car? Will it stand up against other luxury SUVs?
With those questions in mind, I spent two days driving along Montenegro’s winding roads, rugged mountains and sweeping countryside in what is likely to become Jaguar’s best-selling vehicle. The F-PACE is a bid by the longstanding British sports car maker to enter one of the fastest-growing passenger vehicle segments in the U.S.: luxury SUVs. Jaguar hopes to get the edge over its intended competition, the Porsche Macan and BMW X4, by introducing an athletic yet spacious ride starting at a reasonable $42,390.
Most people may be surprised to learn that the F-PACE marks the upper crust carmaker’s about-face as it makes a value play in the U.S. in time to capture the next generation of buyers. The addition of the five-seater SUV, and the XE compact sedan, to showrooms across the country in May brings Jaguar’s lineup from three cars to five, a breadth that should help it capture a new, younger audience and modify its reputation as a more affordable luxury brand.
“We don’t want to be so premium anymore that we’re pricing ourselves out of the market,” Stuart Schorr, a spokesperson for Jaguar, told a group of reporters assembled in Sveti Stefan, Montenegro. That’s probably a solid strategy for the brand whose sales fell 8% last year despite the overall industry’s nearly 6% growth. Jaguar expects about 90% of F-PACE customers to be first-time Jaguar buyers, evenly split between men and women. The new customer base will lower the age of the brand’s average buyer from 57 to 47.
At first glance, as we reporters trotted to the fleet of F-PACEs waiting for us atop a ferry ready to cross the Bay of Kotor, the SUV looked muscular yet understated, with the most trunk space I have ever seen. Once we alighted the ferry and got behind the wheel, the F-PACE showed that it also handles like a sports car, driven by a 3-liter V6 engine making 380 horsepower and capable of cruising from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 5.1 seconds. (We drove the top-of-the-line S model. The base version, which also comes with a 3-liter V6, makes 340 horsepower. A diesel F-PACE goes on sale in September, starting at $40,990.) The SUV proved its agility throughout the day, easily handling a course of 45-degree descents and nearly-as-steep ascents that Jaguar set up to show off the All Surface Progress Control system that regulates the throttle and brakes. (Though it’s hard to imagine that the average F-PACE buyer would ever have occasion to know that.)
Those stomach-dropping declines seemed sufficient for the car to demonstrate to us its all-wheel drive capabilities and confidence handling any surface, whether grass, rocks or bumpy Montenegrin pavement. But we didn’t put the F-PACE through its true test until the second day of the trip, when we drove a surprisingly harrowing 110-kilometers through a zigzagging succession of narrow one-lane mountain passes. The blind corners from which speeding oncoming traffic suddenly – and frequently – emerged added an extra element of doom. But the route’s most notable feature was that it lacked guardrails. We were horrified to discover that absolutely nothing stood between the car and a fatal dip into the magnificent Adriatic Sea looming below except for the F-PACE’s extreme handling ability, which inspired in me something more than confidence: gratefulness.
Once safely at sea level, we discovered that the guardrail-less mountain pass has been called one of the most dangerous roads in the world. I’m not sure that a lesser SUV would have been up to the challenge. If we found one criticism with the F-PACE, it is the placement of the control panel for its drive modes. It’s located on the center console below the shifter, which requires a driver to take his or her eyes off the road for what feels like an uncomfortably long time. Needless to say, we did not change drive modes on the mountain terrain.
It remains to be seen whether the F-PACE will be as impactful for the brand as Jaguar hopes, but if early sales are an indicator, America is excited to find out: U.S. customers have already placed more than 2,000 pre-orders.