2018 Jaguar XF Sportbrake first drive: All we love (and don't) about the XF sedan, made more useful
So you think the station wagon is dead. If “alive” means nearly a million sales a year and 25 or 30 options to choose from, as it was from the late 1960s through the mid-‘70s, then, yeah, the wagon is probably dead. At the very least we’re four decades beyond peak wagon.
Yet if alive means a small but stable chunk of automobile sales, then the wagon ain’t dead yet. Residents of the United States will buy roughly 200,000 station wagons in 2017, counting crossover things like the Subaru Outback, VW Golf Alltrack and Audi A4 Allroad. The station wagon remains a potentially profitable niche, and Jaguar wants in.
Witness the 2018 XF Sportbrake. The Sportbrake is the second XF estate, as our friends in the U.K. like to call them, but the first offered in North America. It’s built from the mid-size XF sedan, which was overhauled for 2016 if you hadn’t noticed, and the Sportbrake makes no pretense toward being a crossover thing.
The crossing over will be left to Jaguar’s hot-selling F-Pace SUV and the forthcoming E-Pace compact. The Sportbrake, according to designer Wayne Burgess, was developed for people who want more space to carry stuff but expressly do not want increased ride height—perhaps because they want to make it easier for pets to climb aboard, or because they just can’t abide by a higher center of gravity. There’s something to be said for that.
The Sportbrake is identical in length, width and wheelbase to the aluminum-intensive XF sedan, and it will be offered stateside only in the XF’s driver-oriented S trim. That means Jaguar’s familiar supercharged 3.0-liter V6 (380 horsepower, 332 pound-feet of torque), a ZF-sourced eight-speed torque-converter automatic, lightweight all-wheel drive system (just 45 pounds for the power take-off and front diff) and electronically managed adaptive shock absorbers. To promote a nice, flat load floor and maintain an even keel when it’s fully loaded, the Sportbrake gets its own self-leveling rear air suspension.
The remaining differences are the obvious ones, starting with the Sportbrake’s longer glass wagon roof. Jaguar engineers say they went to great lengths to minimize the Sportbrake’s weight gain, applying denser, lighter acoustic insulation, slightly thinner aluminum for the side panels and a single-piece composite tailgate. Still, with the heavy glass roof, air suspension components and various wagon accoutrements, the Sportbrake adds slightly more than 200 pounds to the XF S sedan’s curb weight.
That weight gain has some value in its own right. The XF sedan, noted for its near 50/50 weight balance, is actually biased slightly toward the front. The Sportbrake shifts that bias rearward, to a Ferrari-like 47/53.
Then there’s the cargo volume under the Sportbrake’s long roof. It has 32 cubic feet of space behind its rear seat, compared to about 19 cubic feet in the XF sedan’s trunk and 33.5 cubic feet in the F-Pace SUV, which happens to be one of the roomiest in its class. Lower the Sportbrake’s rear seatbacks, and there remains a perfectly flat load floor at least 42 inches wide stretching to the front seatbacks. There’s also 69.7 cubic feet of volume, or about five cubic feet more than the F-Pace with its rear seat folded. Rear passengers in the Sportbrake get a bit more knee room and 2.75 inches more headroom than those an XF sedan.
The wagon accoutrements include a gesture-operated tailgate with programmable lift height and LED puddle lights, 40/20/40 split rear seatback, rear seat folding mechanism at the tailgate, a cargo blind, four tie-down points on the load floor and flush-mounted rails in the load space that accommodate a range of accessories. If there isn’t enough room inside, the Sportbrake’s roof rails will support 220 pounds. And while it won’t be tow-rated in North America, the XF wagon can be fitted to pull about 4,000 pounds in Europe. We’d guess it’s suitable for towing here, too, if you want to install a hitch. The only thing to worry about is your warranty.
Jaguar Land Rover has started XF Sportbrake production at its Castle Bromwich plant in England, and the first U.S. spec cars are due by the end of the year. At $71,445 with the $995 destination charge, the Sportbrake S comes with standard front and rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control. Act quickly and you might snag one of 20 First Edition Sportbrakes—all painted metallic Farallon Black. These will add equipment that’s optional on the S, including Jaguar’s wearable Activity Key bracelet, an 825-watt Meridian stereo, wifi hotspot and a control feature that allows front-seat occupants to operate the roof shade by waving a hand in front of the mirror.
Jaguar isn’t talking Sportbrake sales volume—neither total nor share of all XF sales—but it won’t amount to many cars. At 20 percent of all U.S. XF sales, the Sportbrake would barely break 1000 per year.
Jaguar isn’t bringing the Sportbrake to North America to greatly increase volume. It’s doing so to try to reset the low-profile XF among the E-Classes, 5-Series and A6s of the world. The Sportbrake is the sort of vehicle that builds brand loyalty and re-affirms a company’s soul, and it should only help Jaguar continue to claw its way back into the consciousness of American luxury-car buyers.
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It might sound trite or cliché to say, but it’s true: The XF Sportbrake encapsulates what we like (and like less) about Jaguar’s current sedan lineup. With a lot more room to carry stuff.
Its 3.0-liter supercharged V6 is stout, if not particularly luxurious—substantially more powerful than the engine in similarly slotted competitors like the Mercedes E400 wagon and Volvo V90, and packed with happy acceleration. The problem is that the sound this V6 generates does nothing to make the driver want to work it. It can be loud in dissatisfying style, and an impenetrably thick wall of noise at full bore.
The noise you can live with, given the megawatt audio and the XF’s general quietude at light throttle. The bigger problem is that it usually takes a split second for the happy acceleration to materialize. The Sportbrake’s eight-speed automatic is slow to kick down, and sometimes even in sport mode. We’d guess this might be learned behavior, in that the algorithms aren’t necessarily anticipating full fuel when you punctuate stretches of steady, light-throttle operation with deep jabs at the gas pedal. But even manual shifts can feel imprecise and less than authoritative. Given that this automatic is entirely satisfying in lots of other automobiles, including some Jaguars from an earlier era, one has to think that the Sportbrake’s uninspired shift management has something to do with Jaguar’s tuning or ultimate objectives (which largely escape us).
That’s about as troubling as it gets, and the good stuff is really good, because the Sportbrake’s lackluster powertrain dynamics are more than balanced by its chassis. This wagon is crisp, athletic and nearly perfectly sorted, and it gets down the road with a dexterity many very good luxury sedans (or wagons) can’t match—particularly those fitted with all-wheel drive. The Sportbrake’s steering is light, but it rolls off center authoritatively, maybe perfectly, with no hint of nervousness. If its brake-vectoring axles are helping it track steadily through bends, you’ll never notice beyond an occasional whiff of brake dust.
Driving the Sportbrake through canyons and switchbacks is an organic, satisfying experience no matter how fast you’re going (though it helps to hold gears as long as possible), and nothing in its comportment suggests a 4100 pound curb weight. We defy anyone short of Lewis Hamilton to determine through the arse that the Sportbrake weighs a few hundred pounds more than the XF sedan. Its springs feel firm, to be sure, but stiff, rigid or choppy are not appropriate descriptors.
This assessment might change if the drive route ran southwest from Pittsburgh to Wheeling, rather than over the mostly new, rarely bad roads around sunny Porto, Portugal, or if U.S.-spec Sportbrakes ship with all-season rubber rather than the sport tires on the test car. The kernel should remain nonetheless: you’ll look long and hard for a more dynamically enjoyable drive with comparable utility to the Sportbrake, and you won’t find it even in Jaguar’s own F-Pace.
The current XF is just three model years old, though you might not think so sitting statically in one of the front seats. The switch layout and interface are better than some and as good as most. The finish is rich, but the shapes are largely slabs and ornamentation is subdued. There’s nothing to describe as flash. The Jag designers’ pitch might be “classically timeless;’’ others might call it dull or unfashionable. If the Sportbrake were the car, this guy would not be put off by the cabin treatment, but that comes down to what one wants from life.
In the scheme of Teutonic-influenced luxury sedans, the Jaguar XF is an outlier. Given the buying public’s limited appreciation for wagons, the XF Sportbrake probably moves further toward the fringe. While its engine/transmission can occasionally annoy, the Sportbrake’s ride/handling balance and its usefulness as daily transportation may be beyond reproach.
The best thing to say about the XF, wagon roof or otherwise, is that it’s easy to find its soul. As the age of the SUV approaches the dawn of autonomous mobility, clear and obvious soul shouldn’t be minimized.
On Sale: December 2017
Base Price: $71,445
Powertrain: 3.0-liter supercharged V6, eight-speed automatic, AWD
Output: 380 hp @ 6,500, 332 lb-ft @ 4,500
Curb Weight: 4,045 lbs
0-60 MPH: 5.3 sec (manufacturer)
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 27 highway (projected EPA)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: The hauling space of a mid-size SUV with the lightness and athleticism of a Jag sedan
Cons: A powertrain that doesn’t quite deliver the full joy its horsepower rating promises