On that packed and polished ice, Dave Shaw, vehicle engineering manager for the Jaguar F-Pace, made an unusually frank admission, in a conversational context in which men in his position rarely go further than a grunt of acknowledgement.
“The F-Pace wouldn’t be the car it is now if not for the Porsche Macan,” he said. “The Porsche put our project back months when it came onto the market in 2014. It made us take some big decisions and retune the car’s suspension and steering. It set a handling benchmark we simply couldn’t afford to ignore.”
Rarely do you hear such high praise for a benchmarked competitor car as that – and when you do, from someone like Shaw, you can at least take encouragement that the instincts you trust as a road tester, in declaring cars such as the Macan true greats, are sound.
What else, then, but to find out if the assertion that Shaw made next is to be believed? Has Jaguar really made a better-handling SUV here than the one made by Porsche just two years earlier, a car that so conclusively proved itself dynamically superior to every sports utility vehicle on the market? Was the F-Pace’s big rethink worth the trouble? And is it now the best driver’s car of its breed?
Well, no, it hasn’t, not quite. And also yes, it was – without question. That’s the confusing response you end up struggling to reconcile after spending a couple of days in the company of the six-cylinder diesel versions of these cars, on a mix of testing roads around south Wales. Direct questions deserve equally direct replies, and yet even now I know that it’s going to take the balance of these couple of thousand words to explain how and why the F-Pace can be class leader and second fiddle at the same time. Only by doing that can we ultimately be fair to both of these cars.
First, a refresh of what we already know. Several weeks ago the F-Pace underwent the Autocar road test process in four-cylinder Ingenium diesel-engined form. We ranked the car second in class overall, subordinate only to the Land Rover Discovery Sport, but in spite of its slightly disappointing showing on performance, refinement and fuel economy, we also acclaimed it as the new default choice within the family SUV class for keener drivers.
The cars it shuffled back down our class top five were the equivalent big-selling versions of the BMW X3, Volvo XC60 and Mercedes-Benz GLC. The Macan got no mention among the F-Pace’s rivals on that occasion, not least because there is no sub-£40,000, four-cylinder diesel version of the Porsche that might compete directly in the same niche.
There is, of course, a 255bhp sixcylinder Macan S Diesel, which, although it undercuts the list price of Jaguar’s 296bhp F-Pace 3.0d S by several thousand pounds, looks on paper like a close rival for the British car. And so here we are. Jaguar apparently considers these cars opponents. Both are cracked up by their respective makers as the key pace-setter in the mid-sized SUV class for handling sophistication and driver engagement – and surprisingly little separates them on performance, size or kerb weight.
And yet, after 36 hours swapping between the driver’s seat of each, I’m not convinced that the Porsche Macan was such an important benchmark for the Jaguar F-Pace after all. For reasons we’ll get to, I’m not sure you could really be in the market for both of these cars at the same time, and so – compelling though they are, as you’ll go on to read – the Macan’s dynamic advantages may not be worth much to the typical family SUV buyer.
On we go, then. The specification comparison won’t give you so clear an indication of the differing roles that the Macan and F-Pace were designed to fulfil as the one you get by parking the pair within a few feet of each other and slowly taking them in. Jaguar would prefer you to think of its F-Pace as a modern ‘crossover vehicle’, after all, but the relatively squat, brooding presence of the Macan, with its raked pillars and swooping roofline, makes you highly unlikely to do that.
There’s an awful lot of the high-rise coupé about the shape of the Porsche – so much, in fact, that it’s an almost unintelligible-looking car, all jacked up and hunkered down at the same time. It’s one of a class apart now, of course; reference the BMW X4 and Mercedes GLC Coupé that have followed it down the path of combining coupé looks and slightly downsized proportions with SUV capability. Still, to these eyes the Jaguar looks the more appealing of the two, at least partly because it’s more coherent, being easier on both the eye and the grey matter. A recognisable family SUV, albeit a stylised and overtly sporty one.
The curvature of the Macan’s roofline also disguises the car’s size very skilfully, so you wouldn’t believe that it’s within a couple of inches of the F-Pace on overall length and an inch or so on height. But there is no mistaking the fact that the Jaguar is the bigger car of the two – something you won’t question as you compare one cabin with the other.
Climbing into the F-Pace feels very much like boarding a typical premium-brand SUV – for starters because you climb up. The Jaguar’s driver’s seat is sufficiently high-set that it’ll mean an upwards stretch for many and a more convenient slide sideways for some. The Porsche’s driving position is considerably lower and more reclined – less SUV-like, more sports car-ish. Much more
The Porsche’s cabin has the greater impression of solidity of the two, its materials feeling smoother, smarter and more pleasant from ankle level right the way up to the windscreen and its fixtures showing greater apparent integrity. But the Macan’s interior is surprisingly plain and functional – and quite typical as such for a Porsche cabin. The Jaguar’s cabin, while it may not feel as well built as the Porsche’s, has the distinguishing sense of richness and luxury that features highly on the shopping list of so many SUV buyers. Another key point of difference.
The F-Pace’s cabin also offers the sense of space that is likely to feature every bit as highly on that list. A broad rear door grants access to a second row of seats in the Jaguar that will comfortably admit and ensconce two large adults – or three smaller ones. The Macan’s rear side doors are considerably smaller, their aperture obliges a more physically trying entry routine and, once inside, taller adults will find the car a little bit tight on knee and shoulder space. You wouldn’t even attempt to sit three across the back of the Macan, and while its boot is more than respectable on size, it’s notably smaller than that of the F-Pace. The bottom line is that the Jaguar is a practical and plush family car for those with grown-up children, while the Macan is really only as spacious as, say, a Nissan Qashqai or BMW X1.
Frankly, given the way it drives and the way it feels on the inside, it’s a surprise to find that the Macan is so little lighter than the F-Pace. The cars feel evenly matched on out-andout pace and flexibility, and despite a 41bhp deficit to the Jaguar on peak power and a bigger one on torque, the Porsche pulls every bit as hard when you accelerate.
Both diesel V6s have that abundance of mid-range thrust that overcomes mass so easily that you feel as if you could shunt rolling stock with these cars. But it’s the Porsche’s Audi-sourced V6 that is the marginally more responsive of the two engines, driving through a dual-clutch automatic gearbox that’s also quicker-shifting than the Jaguar’s ZF eight-speed torque converter auto.
The F-Pace counters with a greater willingness to rev than the Macan, but given that these cars are driven most often on their torque reserves, the advantage is not very telling. Both engines are pillars of strength. Both are perfect for a relatively heavy, pacey sports SUV. But neither is ultimately strong enough to pull the car it powers out of reach of the other.
Which is a regrettable shame – for the Jaguar. Truth be told, the Macan doesn’t need an engine that good. Even comparing an air-sprung Porsche with a Jaguar suspended by steel coils as we were, where you might expect the former to suffer with the sense of disconnection from the road surface that air suspension can confer, the Macan is head and shoulders ahead of the F-Pace as a driver’s car: on grip level, body control, steering feedback, cornering balance and handling response. The Porsche continues to do today, in the presence of the F-Pace, what it did two years ago in the Jaguar’s absence: it shows how agile and engaging a high-sided SUV can be – if that’s all it’s really got to be.Equally crucially and clearly, that isn’t all the F-Pace was ever intended to be.
The Macan’s steering is heavy and direct – feelsome, but also capable of sending the odd shiver of bumpsteer upwards to your palms, which is something all but unknown in most luxury 4x4s. And it needs to be every bit as weighty as that, such is the car’s amazing willingness to change direction. Get past the first few degrees of lazy steering angle engineered in to keep the Macan stable at speed and the rate at which the car accelerates towards the apex of the corner you’re rounding, as you add lock, really takes your breath away. You’re expecting body roll – a little softening initial understeer, too – but you get neither. The Macan settles and rotates beneath you with the alacrity of a pedigree sports saloon. And then a second later, as you’re beginning to think about the stretch of road on the other side of the corner and how much sooner you can concentrate on it than you expected to, you get another surprise: rear-driven handling balance, the unmistakable manifestation of torque going backwards before going onwards anywhere else and even some throttle adjustability as your confidence level grows.
No other SUV, Range Rover Sport SVR included, handles with such abandon as the Macan – and neither does the Jaguar F-Pace. The Jaguar’s steering is lighter and less informative, creditable and fluent but governed by a brief that demanded slick manageability as well as feedback. The suspension is considerably more softly sprung than the Macan’s, more settled and better-riding over a really bumpy B-road but more languid in its body movements and therefore heavier and less athletic-feeling.
On the way into a corner, the F-Pace has crisp handling responses; on the way out, it has distinguishing balance. But neither is in the Macan’s league and neither makes the F-Pace feel like anything other than a very well-sorted SUV. Jaguar will argue, with justification, that the F-Pace’s handling sophistication depends much less on marble-smooth asphalt than that of the Macan, and you can imagine the ability to deal with rough surfaces as effectively as smooth ones could really sell a performance SUV. There’s no mistaking the fact that the Porsche is an excitable, hyperactive prospect at times, pitching and tossing its way over harsher intrusions and not always feeling as well damped as it should. But for keen drivers like you and me, it genuinely is a sports car in SUV clothing – and its incisiveness is utterly convincing.
So the Macan wins; it has to. It’s the better-handling car and the better driver’s car by some distance. It’s a phenomenon. But back comes the ambiguity: does that make it the better-handling SUV? Perhaps not – because I’m not really convinced that a Macan is an SUV at all.
In 3.0-litre diesel form, with the adaptive dampers that Jaguar throws in as standard for the 3.0d S AWD’s tidy £50k asking price, the F-Pace finally fulfils its promise. It’s fast, fluent, fleet-footed and engaging, but still lavish, comfy, expansively spacious and relaxing. It’s expensive, too. But had it gone up against its true competition here, not from Porsche but instead from BMW, Audi and Mercedes, I’ve little doubt that we’d have been reporting on a commanding victory. And – while you’ll have to trust me on this bit, and have that man on the Swedish frozen lake to thank for the slightly mismatched contest you’ve just read – I write that having spent plenty of time in an X3 and a GLC lately.