Who doesn’t love a compact sports saloon? It’s a winner on every front: affordable, cheap to run and practical. No wonder the sports saloon, like the supermini, has established itself as an integral part of British culture.
The market is thriving, and any manufacturer who cracks it can live off the profits for years. The BMW 3-Series is a case in point, and so are its rivals from Audi and Mercedes. But there’s a new kid on this particular block: the Jaguar XE, which is the company’s first sports saloon since its Mondeo-based X-Type.
The question is, is it good enough to rob BMW of some of those 3-Series sales? Let’s see…
We won’t beat around the bush: the 3-Series is truly exquisite in this regard. The thrill of its rear-wheel drive platform coupled with a super-agile chassis, supple and compliant suspension, excellent body control and a driving position that’s close to damn well perfect makes the 3-Series the ultimate driving machine. It’s just the car for the super keen driver.
If the larger Jaguar XF is anything to go by then you’d expect the XE to run off and hide at this point, as it XF just couldn’t match its rivals’ driving dynamics. Jaguar has created all-new underpinnings for the XE, giving it a chassis composed of 75 percent aluminum, so it’s not only lighter (which aids efficiency as well as performance), but stiffer, too.
The XE promises an agile chassis, and though it’s probably not as pin-sharp as that on the BMW, the double wishbone front suspension – which it shares with the F-Type – will mean it’s no slouch. Body control is minimumised, the suspension is well damped and very comfortable (probably more so than the BMW) and it’s extremely refined.
Both cars come with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes, with the automatics likely being the better choice in each case.
Compact sports saloons are usually businesslike in their approach. They’re generally conservative but handsome – much like a designer three-piece suit. While that’s true of the 3-Series, it’s not as distinctive as its predecessor and – dare we say it – perhaps a little boring.
We thought much the same of the XE when it was first unveiled. When you see it in the flesh, though, it’s a different story altogether. It’s so good, with a wide front end (enhanced by the J-like LED daytime running lights) and purposeful, predator-esque headlamps. Around the back you’ve got F-Type-inspired tail lights and a posture that looks like it’s squatting down, ready for action. That’s an extra dimension that’s missing from the BMW.
The XE is definitely the more handsome of the two, and it has the potential to pull in a lot of buyers by not looking distinctly German. There’s a sort of innocence to it, which is a nice trait to have.
This is where a compact sports saloon should excel – which is exactly what both of them do. The 3-Series is more of an evolution than a revolution, and it’s distinctly BMW – but that’s no bad thing. You could spend all day in it and not get bored, and there are so many quality materials that you almost feel guilty being there in case you mess it up.
The XE matches the 3-Series in this regard but it has more of a designer feel to it. The wider centre console, for example, is finished in piano black, which lends it a sense of occasion, while the F-Type-inspired dashboard dials make you feel like you’re driving something very expensive.
Apart from these, the only real difference is the onboard display. On the XE this sits in the dashboard itself, it’s eight inches across the diagonal, and touch sensitive. The 3-Series screen sits on top of the dash rather than in it, and it’s controlled using buttons instead of touch. We don’t think that’s a deal-breaker, though, as the BMW implementation is fractionally easier to use.
The XE is better equipped overall, with a wider selection of standard equipment, but do bear in mind that it’s also marginally more expensive.
BMW makes some of the world’s best engines, and the range found in the 3-Series is sublime. It starts with a 1.6-litre petrol and runs up to a full-fat 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 in the M3/M4. Most buyers will opt for the efficient, performance-focused diesels.
The everyman’s 320d (2.0-litre diesel) can return over 60mpg in regular use, while completing a 0-62mph run in 7.5 seconds. That’s a borderline hot-hatch pace for a car that’s almost twice as economical.
The engines in the XE are all 2.0-litre jobs apart from the unit found in the XE S, which is the same 3.0-litre supercharged V6 unit found in the F-Type.
The Jaguar’s petrol engines include a 197hp and 237hp version that can manage high 30s mpg in daily use. The two diesels – one at 161hp and one pushing 178hp – will be the most popular. The more powerful of these can squeeze 67.3 miles out of a gallon of fuel on the combined cycle, emitting 109g/km of CO2. Even the least powerful manages a staggering 75mpg while emitting only 99g/km of CO2, so it’s officially road tax exempt.
Jaguar’s diesels are the more efficient of the two, but those in the BMW are more refined and quieter on the move.
Both cars are practical but available boot space sets them apart, with the 3-Series coming out on top.
The Jaguar XE can hold 455 litres – 25 litres less than the 3-Series and, incidentally, the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class, which each have 480 litres of usable space. The BMW’s boot is more practical, too, with a lower lip and wider opening, and it’s available as an estate, where the Jaguar XE is saloon-only.
The differences are less marked inside the cabin, as there’s plenty of space both front and back in either car. The only gripe – and again it affects them both – is their large transmission tunnels. Anyone sitting in the middle rear seat will have trouble finding space to place their legs and feet.
Which one should I buy?
This sector is all about looks and brands.
The cars themselves are very alike, but the 3-Series has the edge when it comes to driving pleasure. The gap is narrowing, though, with the XE’s new chassis paying dividends. The differences between them at normal cruising speeds are so small that you probably won’t notice.
We’d urge you to test drive both of these fabulous machines, as from where we stand they’re almost perfectly balanced.
Their fate lies in your hands.