First Drive

2018 Jaguar XF S Sportbrake Review | Who needs a crossover with a wagon this sexy?

Jaguar gambles on a wagon hunch for the States.

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PORTO, Portugal — SUV and truck mania is real — just ask the 63 percent of American buyers who opted for the high-riding vehicles last year. But there has been a recent groundswell of alternative options in the burgeoning wagon segment. Sure, there are lower-end wagons such as the tried-and-true Subaru Outback ($25,895) and the new-kid-on-the-block Volkswagen Golf SportWagen ($21,580). But the 2018 Jaguar XF S Sportbrake competes more closely with the stalwart Mercedes-Benz E400 ($64,045) and the stylish Volvo V90 Cross Country ($52,300).

This begs the nagging question: Could wagons become a serious thing in the States? We spent a day bombing through Portuguese backroads to find out how the Sportbrake fares among its niche competitive set.

The 2018 Sportbrake is a wagonized version of the second-gen XF sedan that arrived in 2016. While the first-gen model only offered a wagon variant for the European market, the new Sportbrake is a global vehicle that brings a more streamlined, aluminum-intensive architecture to the table and finally gives American wagon lovers the Jag they've been craving.

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First off, the essential reason we're here: the cargo area. Activate the power tailgate (which uses a one-piece composite tailgate, just like the F-Pace), and the opening reveals a flat surface on all sides with 31.7 cubic feet of storage. Fold the rear seats down, and volume expands to a considerable 69.7 — an increase of 12.6 and 38.4 cubic feet, respectively. For comparison, the Volvo V90 Cross Country offers 19.8/53.9 cubic feet, and the Mercedes-Benz E400 Wagon has 35.0/64.0 cubic feet. Folding the Sportbrake's rear seats down produces a nice, flat expanse for cargo, with no obtrusive humps or bumps on the side. Standard rear air suspension keeps things level when loaded up.

Onward to the front seats, where the cabin brings the XF's familiar design with the dashboard rimmed in a curved ribbon of wood veneer — a pleasant touch that offsets the otherwise blasé textured aluminum bits on the dash and shifter surround. Of course, there's the love-it-or-leave-it cylindrical shifter that rises from the center console, a confounding bit of design that leaves most PRNDL traditionalists cold. So, too, does the plastic starter button on the dash, one of the few unsatisfying puzzle pieces in the otherwise agreeably finished interior. But fire up the engine, and it's easy to forget these quibbles.

Click into D, and the Sportbrake accelerates eagerly thanks to the engine's 332 lb-ft of torque, which has 4,045 pounds of mass to hustle. The Sportbrake is 165 pounds heavier than the sedan, so it's closer in weight to the F-Pace S AWD at 4,015 pounds. The V-6 offers plenty of power in the standard driving mode, while turning the dial to S downshifts the eight-speed auto more eagerly. Even in the more aggressive mode, shifts are smooth and predictable, reflecting a well-tuned relationship between engine and gearbox. Paddle shifters respond reasonably quickly to inputs, though the auto shift setup is natural enough not to beg for human intervention. Along Portugal's smoothly paved road surfaces, the Sportbrake struck a good balance between responsiveness and ride quality, which bodes well for everyday use. And while the Sportbrake is currently available only with the supercharged V-6 and all-wheel drive, Jaguar says more powertrain variants will become available down the line.

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A center console button offers sport (checkered flag) or winter (snowflake) modes, which affect steering stiffness, throttle response and shift points. I found the sport setting made the throttle too twitchy to apply power smoothly. Apart from that, the Sportbrake offered precise steering, sharp turn-in and communicative responses to inputs on the winding roads throughout Portugal's hill country. Interestingly, that feeling of intuitiveness runs counter to its lengthy wheelbase or its thick-tailed profile view: In spite of its size, the Sportbrake manages to feel smaller and nimbler from the driver seat, encouraging higher corner speeds and greater confidence the more you drive it.

Not to beat the proverbial dead horse about the satisfaction of driving a wagon, but everything about the Sportbrake's outstanding handling characteristics has to do with its layout: Thanks to its sedan-based underpinnings and low center of gravity, this Jag becomes more of a joy to drive the windier the road gets and the harder you fling it into the next corner. But some of these exemplary road manners can, in fact, be credited to a bit of mechanical trickery. During a brief photo stop, I noticed the distinct whiff of evaporating brake pads, evidencing that the torque vectoring system was squeezing the inside wheel's calipers to help rotate the vehicle through corners. The system's aggressive countermeasures suggest that spirited drivers might want to budget for accelerated brake wear, since the electronics are working them hard to help counteract two tons of mass.

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After nearly 200 miles of driving on open highway and tight mountain roads, the XF S Sportbrake handled whatever decreasing radius corner I threw in its path, managing to avoid irksome understeer and deliver surprisingly buttoned-down handling while driving as hard as is prudent on public roads. While its F-Pace stablemate acquits itself well considering its size and height, the Sportbrake easily has the crossover beat when it comes to agility and responsiveness, while falling just 1.8 cubic feet short of its rear cargo capacity. This is clearly a driver's car, and by bringing the top-tier drivetrain and trim level to the States first, Jaguar is appealing to well-heeled pragmatists who enjoy driving—exactly the demographic that has historically embraced high-end wagons.

Starting at $70,450, the Jaguar XF S Sportbrake slots within the realm of premium, performance-focused SUVs such as the Mercedes-AMG GLE43 ($70,500) and Maserati Levante ($72,000). But thanks to its low center of gravity and wagon layout, the Sportbrake offers a connection to the road that will inspire an entirely different emotional response from drivers. While the Mercedes E400 Wagon offers similar advantages over its SUV stablemates, the Jaguar feels a bit livelier and entertaining on twisty roads. On the other hand, the Volvo V90 offers an oasis of contemporary design, one whose zen-like interior and Scandinavian sparseness offers a counterpoint that seems to beg the question, "Why drive fast when you can just chill and enjoy the drive?"

While many will write off the XF S Sportbrake because of its familiar platform (or, likelier, because the vast majority of buyers prefer the crossover form factor), the driver-focused minority who opt for this dark-horse wagon will be in for an unexpected treat.

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