From the driver's seat you look over the Jaguar C-X17’s lumpy bonnet, 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 over which you're seeing the
road to remove the need for any kind of label.
The middle of the bonnet has a reassuring power bulge, not identical to any other Jaguar's but strongly related. At either side, two gentle curves gracefully intersect at the car's frontal extremity, one pair gliding across the top of each headlight, the other describing the muscle that runs above each front wheel.
This is the latest iteration of C-X17, the concept version of the all-wheel-drive "sports crossover" Jaguar will surely launch in two or three years' time off the enormously expensive all-aluminium architecture in which it is pouring every earned pound - and then some - to build a viable future among the world's premium car manufacturers.
When I ask whether the new aluminium structure lurks beneath the elegant skin of this particular prototype, engineer Graham Wilkins, vehicle engineering manager for the cars that will use this new architecture tell me it is not much more than an engineering lash-up. "It has a supercharged XK engine," he says, "and it has four-wheel drive. It's not the real thing, but more of a bespoke experiment. What's important is it proves the car can look that good, yet all the new stuff would fit under there. That's as important as having it in place."
Jaguar high-ups have been in two minds about how to treat the C-X17 ever since it first broke cover two months ago. For some, it's a way of showing that the F-type's design style can extend to one automotive extremity - sports cars - to the other, SUVs, while encompassing saloons and estates on the day. Ergo, Jaguar can build whatever cars its R&D department believes the market will take.
Others feel this concentration on design style obscures the significance of the wholesale change to aluminium, a programme costing many millions that will affect every Jaguar ever made from now on. It is becoming apparent that this is not merely a compact architecture Jaguar is building but the basis of its entire future range - looking ahead for two decades and more.
Gingerly, I climb into the car. First thing 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 stayed with us for 50 years.
There is bright work, but the effect is simplicity: a generously proportioned pair of round dials ahead, a high centre console running right through the car which, fascinatingly, can turn itself into a screen, a louvered light shade above that plays patterns on the lower interior, and a simple raked fascia with a metal trim-piece at its trailing edge, with 'Jaguar' embossed above the console.
The essential "volumes" of the interior are as they might be in production, says Jaguar advanced design chief Julian Thomson, who is proud of what his team achieved, but the colour and trim are, in essence, experiments.
The car may look slick, but the crudity of its under-bits come instantly into focus as we begin to roll. Prototypes are usually like that. Before I go, an engineer lurking in the rear selects Drive with a Tommy-bar mysteriously inserted in a hole in the console.
The car growls forward with a will, propelled too well by its 3.0-litre supercharged engine as used in the XF and XJ, but how strange to drive a Jag without an "engineered" exhaust note. It's too loud, and somewhere along the pipe, the exhaust is blowing. The suspension reacts alarmingly to the most modest bumps - these are 23-inch wheels, chosen for visual impact, not stability - and there is some disconcerting clanking from the transmission on the overrun.
Oddly, the steering feels pretty good. We briefly wonder why, then remember Graham Wilkins has confirmed this car's use of double wishbone front suspension (deemed better for precision than MacPherson struts) because it allows the low bonnet line the designers seek, and the superior steering and ride the engineers know a compact Jaguar needs.
Now it's time to pull up and let the next bloke have his go. I doubt we have hit 65kph, and there is more chuntering from the brakes as we pull up. The ghostly rear-riding engineer again does his stuff with the Tommy-bar and all forward motion ceases. We alight, and because we're in a Jaguar with a feet-out driving position, I almost fall out of the car, forgetting that its H-point is a good 10cm higher than anything else the company makes.
You can’t. Not yet, anyway. This short drive in an early prototype has been anything but a sustained drive, or even respectable progress, yet we have learned two important things from it.
Sitting in the driver's seat, enjoying its sight-lines and the view over the bonnet, I am left with absolutely no doubt that this crossover is on the way to becoming a distinguished production Jaguar.
The interior details aren't right, but so much more is spot-on. And why should they not: this is the fastest-growing premium sector going, Audi and BMW have been making hay in it for years, and the growth won't be stopping any time soon.
Jaguar's people on the ground maintain their discretion to the end. Their conversation is peppered with "if we were to make a car like this" and "were we considering a crossover" but despite these superhuman efforts at polite obfuscation, the truth is clear.
As someone said, you can see it in the specially designed and engineered exterior revision mirrors. And lights. In a couple of years' time, after the saloons have had their day in the sun, there is going to be a production C-X17 - possibly not named thus - and it is going be a terrific car.
Wheel base 2905mm
Ground clearance 213mm
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