From the driver seat, you look over the lumpy hood, rather than down it as usual, yet this car could only be a Jaguar. It may offer a different view of the road from that of any other Jaguar ever built, but there's enough evidence in those shapes to remove the need for any label.
This is the latest iteration of the Jaguar C-X17, the concept version of the all-wheel-drive "sports crossover" that Jaguar will surely launch in two or three years' time. It will be built on the enormously expensive all-aluminum architecture into which the company is pouring every dollar to build a viable future among the world's premium car manufacturers.
Drives Like a Prototype
The first things you see through the cabin door are the elegantly simple seats in saddle leather, reminiscent of those from the original E-Type, whose beauty and simplicity has endured for 50 years. We climb in gingerly, knowing how fragile concepts can be.
There is brightwork, but it's simple: a generously proportioned pair of round dials ahead, a high center console running right through the car that, fascinatingly, can turn itself into a screen, and a louvered light shade above that projects patterns on the lower interior.
The Jaguar C-X17 has 23-inch wheels and steers better than it rides. Even pea-size gravel becomes obvious as we begin to roll. Prototypes are usually like that. Before we go, an engineer lurking in the rear selects Drive with a tool inserted into the console. The car growls forward with a will, but it's strange to drive a Jag without a highly tuned exhaust note. It's too loud and, there's an obvious leak somewhere in the exhaust system.
The suspension reacts alarmingly to even the most modest bumps (these wheels are selected for visual impact, not stability) and there is some disconcerting clanking from the transmission under engine braking.
Oddly, the steering feels pretty good. This prototype uses a double-wishbone front suspension (deemed better for precision than MacPherson struts) because it allows the low hood line that the designers seek and the superior steering and ride that the engineers know a compact Jaguar needs.
It's over before we even hit 40 mph, and there is noise from the brakes as we stop. When all forward motion ceases, the rear-riding engineer shifts the prototype into Park.
From Concept to Reality
Tonight this priceless machine will be thoroughly washed for its debut tomorrow at the Dubai International Auto Show. But before it commits to producing this SUV, Jaguar has a BMW 3 Series-challenging sedan to launch off the very same architecture. Until then, it doesn't want anyone getting too carried away with the SUV's preliminary specifications. This is, after all, a showcar.
When asked if the new aluminum structure lurks beneath the elegant skin of this particular prototype, Graham Wilkins, vehicle engineering manager for the cars that will use this new architecture, tells us it is not much more than an engineering test.
"It shares the XF and XJ's supercharged 3.0-liter V6," he says. "And it has four-wheel drive. It's more of an experiment. What's important is that it can both look good and that the right hardware fits."
Aluminum Is the Future
It is apparent that this is not merely a compact architecture that Jaguar is building but the basis of its entire future range: looking ahead for two decades and more.
"I know it sounds rather corporate," says Wilkins. "But this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime project for someone like me. We are configuring this architecture to accommodate maximum flexibility of suspension choice, wheelbase, width and height.
"The only thing it might not cover is the sports cars, because they're low, their wheelbase is short and their proportions are unusual compared with the rest. But for me, this is the future Jaguar. I'm 39 and I expect to retire before we need to do things in this kind of detail again," he says.
Style Is at Jaguar's Heart
The interior essentials are as they might be in production, says Jaguar Advanced Design Chief Julian Thomson, but the color and trim are, in essence, experiments. Thomson — whose credits include penning the original Lotus Elise and leading the Land Rover team that produced the LRX concept (Evoque) — was initially heavily involved with the Jaguar C-X17 concept.
"My department's job is to create concepts and model proposals that might go into production in a minimum of four or five years." He says designers hate hearing people say they'd have bought the concept but can't get excited about the production version. "The last thing we want to do is disappoint people, for a concept to be used as a set of excuses," admitted Thomson.
Accordingly, Jaguar is very respectful of materials. "We try to use them the way they want to work. Some people torture wood in car interiors. Not us. We use a lot of saddle leather, which is a very straightforward material that reflects craftsmanship admirably," he says.
Prototypes Are Expensive Experiments
Thomson acknowledges that investment in a prototype like this one isn't taken lightly. "A new model is a really big deal," he says. "It's important that people get to understand it, to know what it is and who it appeals to, even before a decision is made to build it. That's what concepts do."
He, too, sees the benefits of the new chassis material and architecture. "It lets us go back to first principles with a car and to control its critical dimensions. With C-X17 we needed the weight sitting in a certain way and we needed to control the way the driver sits in the car, too. If you start with a jacked-up sedan, you can never make it work."
Jaguar's design chief, Ian Callum, refused to do that, according to Thomson.
Almost a Sure Thing
This has been anything but a sustained drive, or even respectable progress, yet we have learned two important things. Sitting in the driver seat, enjoying its sight lines and the view over the hood, we're left with absolutely no doubt that this SUV is on its way to becoming a distinguished production Jaguar.
The interior details aren't right, but so much else is spot on. And why should it not be? This is the fastest-growing premium segment. Audi and BMW have been making good money in it for years, and the growth won't be stopping any time soon.
Jaguar's people on the ground in Dubai maintain their discretion to the end. Their conversation is peppered with phrases like "if we were to make a car like this." Despite these superhuman efforts at polite obfuscation, the truth is clear. You can see it in the specially designed and engineered exterior mirrors. And lights.
In a couple of years' time, after the new sedan has had its day in the sun, there is going to be a production Jaguar C-X17: with a different name. And it is going be a terrific car.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.