Beauty and Brawn in the Newest Jaguar

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Jaguar North America

Beauty and Brawn in the Newest Jaguar

Among large ultra-luxury cars, the Jaguar XJ model has always occupied a distinct position. It’s very luxurious in a London private club kind of way, but never the most sporting. When compared to the big sedans from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, the flagship Jag usually felt a little daintier and less willing to strut its stuff on twisty roads.

Sure, there were the XJ-S models with their supercharged engines and tons of power, but the chassis of the car was much less serious when performance was discussed. As comedian Adam Carolla once said, the XJ always seemed like the car Mrs. Howell would drive if the castaways ever got rescued from Gilligan’s Island.

The all-new 2011 Jaguar XJ is a game changer. First, its looks are absolutely fantastic, with a shape that’s both athletic and seductive. The design team was given the task of paying tribute to Jaguar’s long heritage while making the car as modern as anything else in its class. From just about any angle the new XJ is quite striking, with bold lines down the sides, swooping down the hood, and yes, even along the rear flanks. The designers even came up with a way to integrate the taillights with the sweep of the trunk lid.

Inside, the styling carries through in another blend of retro and futuristic. For example, the air conditioning ducts on the leather covered dashboard jut out from the top and have large chrome grills on them. But the instrument cluster is strictly modern, with no actual dials. Right ahead of the driver is a huge 12” LCD screen that displays the dials in a “virtual” way kind of like a video game. It’s not that it’s bad, but it really digresses from what we’ve come to expect from the British brand.

The center console is also liberally sprinkled with chrome pieces within the many square inches of finished wood. There’s also leather everywhere, and the ceiling is covered with suede for a nice luxury touch. Jaguar design chief Ian Callum told me that wood and leather are premium items that are used in upscale furniture and should always be in a Jag, no matter how modern the car is mechanically.

A tap of the starter button brings the car’s 5.0 liter V8 engine to life, with a mild purr that’s never intrusive. There’s just the slightest muffled note of power from the exhaust when underway, but otherwise the big cat is virtually silent. Standard horsepower is a very respectable 385, while the supercharged model comes through with 470 horsepower. Both engines feed power through a 6-speed automatic transmission with an adaptive shift system.

As with the previous model, the Jaguar XJ is available in both short and long wheelbases, with the latter having 5” of extra legroom as well as rear seat niceties like flip-down seatback trays (one of those signatures of large British cars) and illuminated vanity mirrors. If you’re going to be driven around, the rear seat of the LWB model is the place to be.

Ah, but the XJ is actually a driver’s car. For their U.S. media introduction, Jaguar let us play with their new car on the roads that snake through the Malibu hills. I was prepared for a bit of wallow and sway in the long wheelbase car I drove, but was surprised to find a car that it really gripped the pavement when asked. The chassis engineers did their homework and came up with a near-perfect compromise between luxurious ride and sporty handling.

Heading down Mulholland Highway on a quiet weekday morning, I pushed the large sedan a little at first, then a little more, then a little more. The old XJ would have been howling in protest, but the 2011 iteration just holds its line and tracks through every corner like a much smaller sport sedan. Credit goes not only to Jaguar’s engineers but to the relatively light weight of the car, thanks to its aluminum structure.

I did find a few nits to pick. First off, the hard black plastic used for the paddle shifters is pretty much inexcusable in a car with a base price of $72,500. I recently drove a new Hyundai Sonata (which costs one third the XJ’s price) and its shift paddles are also plastic, but finished in a silver color that at least made them seem like they could be metal. Jaguar should be able to do better.

There’s also that high-tech display for the instrumentation. While its value as a changeable display is great (selecting Adaptive Dynamics for the suspension tuning changes the gauges to a red glow), the cluster looks more “Nintendo” than I imagine most buyers want in a European luxury car. I also wonder about its long-term durability. If you keep this car for a number of years and the thing goes kaput, what’s that going to cost?

Those quibbles aside, the new XJ is an absolute winner, both when compared to the car it replaces and against its competition in the marketplace. It performs very well, it’s oh so comfortable, and it looks like nothing else on the road. The other big luxury cars have been put on notice.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.

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