The 3 series is regarded as the benchmark compact sports sedan that everyone else in the market is competing against, but it wasn’t the first. Arguably the Jaguar MKII was the first great compact sports sedan, and in 1959 it set the benchmark. So what happened, how did Jaguar lose its crown?
Both BMW and Jaguar have an interesting history that starts in the 1930s. Both started making bikes, and both moved into cars around the same time. BMW’s first car was the very English Austin 7, made under licence in 1929. Jaguar started life as a company founded by William Lyons called Swallow Sidecars, and started by building bodies for existing cars, including a popular redesign of the Austin 7. In the 1930s Lyons then contracted the Standard Motor company to build engines and chassis that he put bodies on, they were sold under the SS brand.
Both BMW and SS then built a number of very popular and very fast 6 cylinder sports cars before WWII put things on hold. Post war Lyons rebranded his company as Jaguar and while BMW slowly recovered the new Jaguar shot to world fame, making cars like the E type and Mark II. The Mark II was a revelation; it was for the time fast with great handling. It had brakes and suspension that worked and a wonderful straight 6 engine. The Mark II basically invented the concept of the luxury compact sports sedan. It was followed by a number of other great British cars like the Triumph 2500 and Rover P6. Sadly for Jaguar, Rover and Triumph they all got wrapped up in British Leyland and in 1975 as the English car industry started to self-destruct under bad management, BMW released the 3 series. The first 3 series was popular, it was a good car, but it didn’t grab much attention. However in 1982 the second generation 3 series, the famous E30 came out. By this stage the English car industry was basically dead, the once proud Jaguar was barely hanging on and producing some interesting cars, but nothing like the Mark II. All the new Jags were big, heavy and not known for great handling. The E30 on the other hand was a like the old Jaguar Mark II, it was the right mix of sporty handling and luxury feel. Top of the range models featured a 6 cylinder engine and had great performance for the time.
Of note, the rear suspension of the 3 series was copied directly from the Triumph 2000/2500, elements of the trailing arm design still exist even on the current 3 series.
The E30 was a massive hit. It set the new benchmark for the Compact Sports Sedan, and through all the generations that followed it simply got better. BMW grew with it, and is now a massive global brand, thanks largely to how good the 3 series was in the early 80s.
Jaguar on the other hand went rapidly backwards, its lowest point being ownership by Ford in the 90s and into the turn of the century. At one point Ford stuck the Jaguar badge on the Mondeo platform and produced an All Wheel Drive compact sports sedan in an attempt to take on BMW and the 3 series. It was everything you could expect, and worse.
Then in 2008 Tata Motors bought what was left of Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford, combining the two brands into the Jaguar Land Rover Group. They hired the amazing Ian Callum as chief designer then gave the English a bunch of money, resurrected William Lyons original vision of making value for money luxury sports cars and told the English to do what they do best.
The first thing the new Jaguar did was drop all the old Ford designs and underpinnings. Then they launched the very successful XF, followed by the XJ then the incredible F-Type. In a short space of time Jaguar went from nothing to something again, the cars were well built, fast, had great handling and they looked amazing.
Now in 2015 Jaguar have released the XE model, it’s their first true compact sports sedan since the Mark II, and it has the 3 series set squarely in its sights. Jaguar wants their crown back.
So how does do they both compare? Being New Zealand we don’t have unlimited access to every model, but BMW did have a 320 we could drive and Jaguar had a spare XE 2.0S, which means both cars were similar, but not the same. That highlights the first difference, BMW have stuck with the traditional model of combining spec with engine size. The more powerful engines come with high spec and trim levels. Jaguar have separated the two, it is possible to have a low spec base trim XE with the Supercharged V6.
Both of the test cars however were 2.0 turbo 4 cylinders. You can no longer buy a 6 cylinder 3 Series in NZ unless you get the M3. Instead there are two 4 Cylinder options, one making 130kw (the 320) and one making 185kw (the 330). The Jaguar comes with two 4 cylinder options and the 3.0 supercharged V6.
The 2.0L in our Jag made a nice 177kw, considerably more than the 320. But at this level of the market there is more to compare than HP, and of course the BMW 330 makes 185kw. But all the different 3 series and XE models are fast enough to get you in trouble, and that’s all that really matters at this end of the market.
The other significant difference is the looks. Ian Callum is recognised as one of the world’s greatest car designers, and the XE is a great looking car. Inside and out it drips with character and feeling, there are curves and lines in places cars should have curves and lines, and it is genuinely a nice place to be and a nice car to look at.
The 3 Series looks a little dated in comparison, it’s a little bit safe and slightly conservative inside and out. The Jag certainly wins on looks.
In terms of engines the BMW 2.0 Turbo is a wonderful motor. It delivers a big chunk of torque over a very wide power range that starts well below 2,000rpm. But it’s not a very linear motor, up high it feels like its struggling. The Jag 2.0 Turbo produces similar numbers, but in a different way. Power delivery is more progressive over the rev range, and it revs out well, making good power all the way to redline. You will be short sifting in the BMW but enjoy winding out the Jag. Both cars use a the 8 speed ZF automatic gearbox. It’s an awesome gearbox, it’s the best automatic ever made and in both cars it is fantastic. That’s all there is to say about it.
Specs and trim levels do vary; there are no heated seats in the Jag, or a heads up display, standard on even the base model 320. And the Jaguar is clearly built to a price if you dig into it too far, the boot isn’t as well lined as the BMW and more of the engine bay is exposed when you lift the bonnet. But then Jaguar have priced the XE in some clever ways, generally making it cheaper than the 3 Series, although with slightly lower spec. Both cars had lots of leather and electric seats etc, all things you expect at this end of the market. Both also had great stereos, I’ve criticized BMW in the past on its factory stereo systems, but the new 3 Series sounds fantastic.
But what really defines a Compact Sports Sedan is how it handles. The BMW is precise; it feels a lot lighter than it is. Turn in is crisp and sharp, and the steering retains its edge and feel as it loads up. Both cars have an almost analogue feeling to them, harking back to simpler times. But the Jaguar steering, while using a faster rack, is less precise at turn in. Once loaded up there is more communication, but it lacks the sharp edge of the 3 Series. The 3 Series also has better body control, it feels more stable through the corners and feels like it has less body roll. It also rotates nicely into a corner and you get a great feeling that the car is quite agile and willing to be dynamic.
The Jaguar rolls more into corners and requires a fair bit of commitment to make it sit into a corner. Once there though it hangs on, but it requires more driver involvement to get it moving around.
Over all the BMW inspires more confidence than the Jaguar and after taking both cars on long road trips, the BMW simply made me smile more. The Jaguar is of course a deeply competent car, racing point to point I doubt there would be much difference between any XE or 3 series model, and both are well deserving of the Compact Sports Car title. It’s just that the BMW is that little bit sharper and better handling, which is a shame, because the Jaguar is the better looking car and evokes more emotion.
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