DIJON, France — No, the new $30,000-plus Jaguar X-Type “Baby Jag” does not drive like a Ford Mondeo, the front-drive commoners' car on which it is based. And no, journalists aren't mumbling under their breath, equating it with the Cadillac Cimarron, the re-badged Chevrolet Cavalier that embarrassed Cadillac and General Motors Corp. in the 1980s.

But just to hammer home the point that the X-Type indeed is deserving of the storied leaping cat ornament on its hood, Jaguar Cars Ltd. puts us in the seat for hundreds of miles of twisty two-lane roads in France's wine country for two long days — and then for a few more hours on the track, to boot.

Enough already! It's obvious in just a few minutes behind the wheel of the new all-wheel-drive X-Type that it's up to the task of competing with the $30,000 to $40,000 cars it's priced against, including the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Lexus ES300 and IS200/300, Infiniti I35, Acura TL and the rest of the contenders in the increasingly crowded entry level luxury market. The X-Type can't match the BMW 3-series — the benchmark in this segment — in all-out performance, but what it gives up in cornering ability it makes up with perhaps the best ride quality of the bunch.

Despite good initial reviews, it doesn't mean Jaguar's newest offering is a slam-dunk. Consumers are fickle and the competition is very, very good. Market analyst Susan G. Jacobs of Jacobs & Associates adds that Jaguar also is launching into global markets that are weakening — and that could make it difficult to hit sales targets without incentives.

Here are a few other potential roadblocks:

  • The poor relation issue. Thanks to a subtle mud-slinging campaign by a couple of competitors, the X-Type is a poster child for the pitfalls of so-called platform engineering. Based heavily on the front-drive CD132 Mondeo platform — whose predecessor was sold in the U.S. as the Ford Contour — critics argue the X-Type doesn't have the pedigree necessary to compete against Mercedes and BMW purebreds. This argument could carry weight in Europe, where consumers care about such matters. Even so, the Volks-wagen Passat-based Audi A4 has managed to do well despite its humble roots. In the U.S., heritage seems almost a moot point: sales have tanked recently, but historically Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus ES300 — a thinly disguised Toyota Camry — has been a sales leader in the U.S. entry level luxury market.

  • Mundane engines. It is a bit annoying to hear Jaguar officials disingenuously claim that the X-Type shares only 20% of its parts with the Mondeo, and then point to non-descript parts such as fuel pumps. I don't know how they arrive at that figure, but engines are hardly a component you can overlook. And in fact, both the 2.5L and 3L V-6 engines available on the X-Type share many of their key parts with Duratec mills found on Ford's mainstream cars. The Jaguar engines are, however, fitted with new heads and feature variable cam phasing that adjusts the timing of intake valve opening and closing depending on engine speed, load and oil temperature. The 2.5L engine produces 194 hp at 6,800 rpm and 180 lb.-ft. (244 Nm) torque at 3,000 rpm. The 3L makes 231 hp at 6,800 rpm and 209 lb.-ft. (283 Nm) of peak torque at 3,000 rpm.

    Fancy touches like sound-absorbing magnesium valve covers cut noise, vibration and harshness. Jaguar also optimized the air cleaner and inlet ducts and incorporated a tuned resonator to eliminate intake boom, all of which helps give the engines a satisfying growl during hard acceleration. Will X-Type buyers care that their engines are kissin' cousins to those found on the Ford Taurus? Probably not.

  • Lack of a diesel engine option. This oversight definitely will hurt the car in Europe, where fuel costs twice as much as in the U.S. and nearly 40% of all new cars sold are equipped with diesel engines. “We're going to need a diesel in this car. And it needs to be refined. An I-4 2L is a possibility, but a V-6 2.5L or 3L is more likely,” says Colin

    Quivey, Jaguar X-Type chief program engineer. The X-Type diesel engine is more than a year or two away, he says. Jaguar officials will not say if the engine will be developed by the Ford/PSA diesel joint venture.

  • Reputation. To many customers, the Jaguar brand has almost as much baggage as it has cachet. First and foremost: concerns about quality and reliability. Since Ford bought the fabled British automaker in 1990, it has logged massive improvements in quality and productivity, but whether or not news of this progress has trickled down to the rather proletarian ranks of entry level luxury car buyers remains to be seen.

  • Design. Even though the X-Type is smothered with every Jaguar styling cue imaginable — from the taillights of the XK8, the grille of the big XJ, and so on, it still struggles to look like a “real” Jaguar (meaning the larger, more upscale models). Designer Wayne Burgess denies his creation was limited by the hardpoints of the Mondeo and insists he wanted un-Jaguar-like characteristics such as a high tail instead of a low, sloping one. The high tail certainly makes the car more practical, allowing a big trunk and providing better aerodynamics. But it doesn't do much for the X-Type's lines. In comparison, the designs of BMW and Mercedes cars easily translate up and down the model range. The Mercedes C-Class, for instance, can easily be mistaken for the top-of-the-line S-Class.

  • Performance. No matter how hard Jaguar tries to position the X-Type as a “performance car,” it still can't match the benchmark BMW 3-series. The Jag's AWD viscous-coupled differential shifts 60% of the engine's torque to the rear wheels to simulate the driving dynamics of a rear-drive car, but because of the platform's transverse-mounted engine and front-drive roots, the car has 60% of its weight centered over the front wheels and 40% over the rear, vs. BMW's ballyhooed 50/50 weight distribution. Add that to the Jag's comfort-tuned suspension and you get a car that will never go through a corner at speed like a BMW.

  • Dealers. The move downmarket into more mainstream vehicles isn't just a big risk for Jaguar and its Ford parent. It also means the dealer network is taking a chance as well. Mike O'Driscoll, president of Jaguar's North American Operations, says the company's 145 U.S. dealers are committing almost $2 million apiece to upgrade their dealerships to accommodate the higher volume sales and service facilities the X-Type requires. Two years ago, only about 20% of Jaguar retailers had exclusive service areas and showrooms. By the end of 2002, more than 90% will have exclusive facilities, Mr. O'Driscoll says.

  • Manufacturing. Ford spent $450 million refurbishing its 40-year-old Halewood, U.K., plant to accommodate the X-Type, which previously built Ford Escorts until shutting down last summer for retooling. Ford and Jaguar talk effusively about the massive training programs implemented at the facility to prepare the 3,000-strong workforce to build the new cars, but the plant's ability to build products that can rival the world's best remains as yet unproven. X-Type production got underway at the Halewood plant in March and should be ramped up by August. Daily output in April was 50 units and by August should hit 450 per day, 2,200 per week. Capacity on two shifts is 130,000 annually. “We always have the option for a third shift,” says Mr. Quivey.

Officially, Jaguar projects that its worldwide sales figures will double in just two years, to around 185,000 cars and hitting 200,000 cars by 2004 as it launches its F-Type roadster. Worldwide, Jaguar predicts it will sell 37,600 X-Types in 2001, increasing to 93,600 the following year, accounting for more than 50% of the company's global sales. The U.S. sales target for the first full year is 27,000, plus 2,000 in Canada and 300 in Mexico. There have been published reports that Jaguar is backing off its sales goals, but Mr. O'Driscoll, is sticking to his guns, predicting 100,000 X-Type sales annually.

Jaguar sales already have doubled once, thanks to the sleek S-Type, which is based on the same rear-drive platform as the Lincoln LS and uses 40% of its parts. The British automaker sold a total of 90,000 units worldwide in 2000, and a record 44,000 in the U.S. last year. But sales have cooled considerably this year, sagging 13% in the U.S. through April. But that's still great compared with 1992, when Jag sold a piddling 22,008 vehicles worldwide.

So, now that you've heard all the reasons why it might not succeed, what does the X-Type have going in its favor? With base prices of $29,950 for the 2.5L and $35,950 for the 3L, the standard AWD is a definite plus. And while not really a head-turner, the X-Type is distinctive looking, certainly more so than its Japanese competitors. The interior also is very appealing in its overall “Jaguarness,” with very nice, craftsmanlike details in areas such as the inner door panels. The seats — especially in the upscale sport models — are superb, striking an excellent balance between comfort and support. And although there's been some hand-wringing over what the quality of the vehicle would be like, the overall fit and finish on our early production models pretty much put the rest of the Jaguar stable to shame, particularly the aging XJ sedan, which has lots of wide body gaps and sloppy fits inside and out.

But if there's any part of the Jaguar brand character that engineers really nailed on this car, it's the ride: taut, but still supple, buttery and very luxurious: no small feat in a car this size. The test drive alone should cinch more than a few sales.

2002 Jaguar X-Type
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 3L (2,968 cc) DOHC V-6; aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 231 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Torque: 209 lb.-ft. (283 Nm) @ 3,000 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 89 × 79.5
Transmission: 5-speed automatic/5-speed manual
Wheelbase: 106.7 ins. (271 cm)
Overall length: 183.9 ins. (467 cm)
Overall width: 70.4 ins. (179 cm)
Overall height: 54.8 ins. (139 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 3,428 lbs. (1,555 kg)
Market competition: Mercedes C-Class; BMW 3-series; Audi A4; Lexus IS300