Carlton Boyce explores what makes a Jaguar a Jaguar with two of the firm’s senior designers.
I didn’t have to think for too long before accepting the invitation to drive a selection of Jaguars and Range Rovers around The Cotswolds. After all, it was mid-week, it was summer, and the folk at JLR are some of the most interesting and innovative in the industry.
And so it proved; after pottering around in the sun for a few hours in some of Gaydon’s finest, I had (some very good) coffee at the The Lygon Arms with Jonathan Sandys and Paven Patel, who are the interior and exterior design managers respectively for the revamped Jaguar XE.
I started by asked what makes a Jaguar a Jaguar. “The overhangs and the wheel-to-heel need to be right,” Paven told me. “Ian (Callum, the former director of design at Jaguar) said that you need to get the proportions right. Once they are, everything else will follow.” He went on to confide that while the Jaguar back catalogue, which includes some of the most beautiful saloon cars ever made, can “initially be a burden, it inspires us, too.”
And the new Jaguar XE is as lovely to look at as any Jaguar I can remember. Previously a little bulky around the rear, it now sports new, slimmer lights, which have made a huge difference to the way the XE looks. Paven confided that “the rear end was the area we felt we could advance”, and the changes his team wrought have changed a good-looking car into a beautiful one.
The rear light clusters also now feature the Chicane Line, a stylistic flourish that was first used on the F-TYPE. A charming piece of whimsey, it will make an appearance on every model in time.
The headlights, all LED now, have a ‘J’ signature pattern on them too; neither light design is immediately obvious, but is the sort of Easter egg that makes car ownership just that little bit more rewarding, day-by-day as you slowly discover them.
The new XE features “improvements rather than changes,” I’m told. “Character and quality are what makes a car British.”
Which brought us neatly to the subject of the XE’s interior, which is Jonathan’s territory. “Everything inside has to have a texture – and it must be a unique texture,” he told me. So, while the chromed control knobs for the heating and ventilation system could have been engineered with a generic knurled pattern, Jaguar chose to use a unique pattern. It doesn’t cost any more than using standard tooling and while most will never notice, those that do will appreciate the effort that went into creating them.
The gearlever is the new Jaguar ‘pistol grip’ design; “every Jaguar is a sportscar” and because new models won’t have the option of a manual gearbox, retaining a tactile element is a crucial element in retaining driver satisfaction during a process most of us used to pride ourselves on doing well. I’d experienced it myself earlier, nudging the gearlever left with my little finger to engage the gearbox’s Sport mode and then flicking it back into Drive when I had finished playing.
It was such a simple process but the gearknob’s geometry and engineering enabled me to do so with a confident, albeit discreet, flourish. Just like I used to when I was short-shifting my way up the ‘box, or rev-matching on the way down. It made driving an automatic car a little bit more satisfying than it might otherwise have been.
And this sort of thing goes straight to the heart of why I don’t find electric vehicles as satisfying to drive as I might otherwise; manual controls and proper switches have been replaced almost completely by touchscreens that might save space, be cheaper to make, and satisfy a younger generation who have never heel-and-toed their way up an Alpine pass, but those of us who have sampled driving in its rawest, most manual form regret the loss of old-fashioned knobs, levers and switches.
After all, using a tactile, manual control in any context gives a reward all of its own. It is, Jonathan reminds me, why we used to play in our parents’ cars as children, changing gear, beeping the horn, and changing the heater settings. We did it because it was fun. (Interestingly, the new Suzuki Jimny eschews the outgoing model’s dash-mounted switches in favour of a proper lever to engage four-wheel-drive and the low-ratio gearbox. Just like it used to have, back-in-the-day…)
Manual controls allow you to use beautiful materials and interesting textures too, which is another part of Jaguar’s thinking in retaining manual controls for key components, even if it is happy to delegate some controls to one of the three screens the XE has, where it thinks the customer won’t mind.
These screens comprise a 12” configurable cluster in front of the driver in lieu of the sort of traditional dials we are perhaps more familiar with, in addition to a ten-inch central touchscreen and a smaller, five-inch screen set between the heater controls. “The 12” cluster is easy to configure, but more intuitive and instinctive than dials”, reasons Jonathon.
He also points out that the switches on the steering wheel are invisible when the ignition is switched off, only illuminating when it is turned on. I hadn’t noticed this during my drive but once he’d pointed it out I appreciated the clean, neat look it gives; like all great design, it is unobtrusive.
Acoustics are important too. The materials used within the cabin are softer now than ever before; mainly because they are nice to touch but also because they won’t echo when you knock them. Storage areas must cosset their contents too, so they don’t rattle when the car is in motion. These are, again, the sort of things you simply don’t notice – until they aren’t there.
I express my admiration for the Range Rover Velar’s optional non-leather interior, the so-called vegan or sustainable interior. Beautifully thought out it uses such a beguiling combination of textiles and textures it made me think that the days of using leather must be numbered; why choose to sit on something that is cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and slippery all year round?
And yet, I am told, only around 3% of buyers choose it when they are buying one. This figure is, to me at least, so low as to be inexplicable although it does prove that even the best-designed vehicle can face unforeseen challenges when it comes face-to-face with the public…
 Originally used only for the chauffeur’s seat because it was reasonably weatherproof (the driver originally sat out in the open, exposed to the elements; only the car’s wealthy owners sat in a closed cabin in the rear) it baffles me as to why it has become the de facto material for anything with aspirations to be seen as premium.
Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno