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.
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.
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.