Jaguar XF - New Owners; New Era
It's not always a good thing when the biggest news coming out of a car company ends up on the business pages instead of the car pages.
But it cannot be ignored that Jaguar, along with its fellow iconic British stablemate Land Rover, has just been sold to Tata, an Indian concern.
Big deal. I mean, how British was Ford?
The fact remains that if Ford hadn't bought Jaguar (or Land Rover for that matter) both brands probably would have died off long ago.
The same fate was facing them again.
Ford has more pressing issues at hand at the moment - like its own survival - and has chosen to take a couple billion dollars from Tata, use that to help stabilize the Detroit giant's own core products, and hand the stewardship of Jaguar and Land Rover over to an east Asian company.
Most seem to believe that this well-managed, financially flush outfit will provide the capital and management expertise to keep these two venerable marques afloat, maybe even prosper.
Now, so far, Tata is best known for trucks and its recently introduced tiny little $2,500 "Nano" microcar, which could well become for India and the Far East what the Model T Ford was for North America and, indeed, much of the rest of the First World.
So the parallel with Ford isn't at all far-fetched.
And in case you haven't been paying attention, the locus of the economic world is shifting ever eastward. There are lots of places Jag and Land Rover could have ended up that would have been a lot worse than Tata.
Besides, this company has a terrific built-in marketing slogan - "Nice Tatas!"
What is a good thing for a car company is the introduction of a new model which is stunning to look at, fabulous to drive, and destined to become a benchmark in its class.
This from a company with no shortage of historically sensational models in its portfolio.
That would be the Jaguar XF, the replacement for the mid-size S-Type Sedan.
The Past is Prologue
How good is the XF?
Well, start by just looking at it.
The secret to car styling, especially for an iconic brand, is to remain true to your heritage, but not be enslaved by it.
BMW has surely been the most successful proponent of this strategy in recent years. Love the new BMWs or hate them, you can't deny that they look like BMWs, and that they have moved the game along.
Jaguar, on the other hand, seemed to get trapped in its own past. The current big XJ sedan, for example, is a lovely car, with a lot of technology under the skin - notably its all-aluminum structure and body.
But it looks hardly any different from the car it replaced, and gives no clue to the light-weight metal of which it is made.
The outgoing S-Type fell into that trap too, trying too hard to mimic the fabled Series II of the early 1960s.
Ian Callum, chief designer for Jaguar, is certain that the XF breaks the company free from those chains.
"Jaguars should be seen as modern cars," said Callum. "Throughout its history Jaguar has created some of the most striking, modern and beautiful sports sedans imaginable. The new XF fuses the style and performance of a sports car with the refinement, space and sophistication of a luxury sedan. This is the beginning of a new era for Jaguar."
He spoke those words before the Tata announcement had been made, but I bet he knew ...
You'd expect Callum to be proud of his new baby, but he has some support. Britain's Autocar magazine has bestowed its Design Award upon the XF, the first-ever production Jaguar to win this prestigious bauble, surprising considering all the beautiful Jags of the past.
You will be forgiven - and wouldn't be alone - in seeing a bit of a Lexus GS in the profile (think four-door coupe rather than typical three-box sedan) and maybe in the oval grille too.
But the sculpted hood, flutes over the headlights and low-slung, powerful stance are all Jaguar hallmarks.
Perhaps the most controversial bits are the headlights - lozenge-shaped openings with a round element bulging out of the top of said lozenges.
One terrific thing about the lights though - they do a good enough job in fog that no fog lights are even available. "Hurray!" sez I.
From the rear, you can't help but recall the Jag XK sports car, and that's no bad thing.
Handsome is as handsome is engineered
Structurally, the XF is an amalgam of other Jaguar models. Kevin Stride, chief engineer on the car, noted that the suspension systems are largely lifted from the XK sports car, although retuned for the bigger sedan.
"Calling it a long-wheelbase XK wouldn't be totally wrong," he smiled.
The Supercharged model gets Jaguar's CATS system - Computer Active Technology System (CATS; Jaguar - geddit?). The dampers on each wheel can be individually set to one of two stiffness settings, depending on what the car is doing - there is no driver selection capability. The soft setting is actually softer than the base suspension, so the CATS cars can ride better and handle better too, a tough parley.
Unlike the XK and XJ, the XF is not aluminum-bodied.
"We were very aware that there would be no other new entries in this very competitive class in model year 2009," noted Stride, "so we really wanted to get this car out this year. Doing it in aluminium" - he's British, don't you know - "would have added at least six months to the car's development.
"It would also have been very difficult to get some of the deep contours we have in some of these body panels on this car in aluminium."
He confesses the steel construction adds about 70-100 kg compared to aluminum -- not a lot, actually. It does however make the XF weigh about the same as the larger but light-metal XJ.
About 20 per cent of the car's components are shared with the outgoing S-Type, but not so's you'd notice - they're mostly in the floorpan and underbody.
Power and efficiency
Two engines will be offered in Canada, again both familiar from the current Jag line-up - the aging but still well-loved 4.2-litre all-aluminum V8, in naturally-aspirated (300 horsepower) and supercharged (420 hp) forms. Europe also gets a 3.0-litre V6 and a 2.7-litre twin-turbo Diesel.
All are mated to a ZF six-speed automatic, which can shift automatically or be urged into action by steering-column paddles.
The J-gate auto-shifter (a.k.a. 'Randle Handle,' after Jaguar's former director of engineering) has graced all Jaguars since the mid-1980s. It has been replaced in the XF by the JaguarDrive Selector, a round knob on the console, looking for all the world like BMW's iDrive controller.
Twist this knob to the right, and it moves from Park to Reverse, to Neutral to Drive. Push the knob down then further to the right and you get Sport mode, which holds the intermediate gears longer and shifts more quickly, for a sportier drive.
The XF is rear-drive only. "The chassis isn't really set up for all-wheel drive," admitted Stride. "We feel the directional stability control system plus the winter shift program in the transmission give us all the control we need."
That may be whistling past the graveyard, because most of the XF's competitors do offer that feature, which, of course, is particularly worthwhile in Canada.
Past and Present inside
Jaguar interiors have long been chrome/wood/leather, and all three are present here. There is actually more wood in this car than in any Jag since the early '60s, although it is used in more subtle, more modern ways -- the main dash panel is aluminum.
Jags have traditionally had what Callum calls a high horizon - you sit low in the car and almost peer out over the dash into the middle distance. Despite a shallow "greenhouse" - the glass area between belt line and roof - the XF has a lower horizon, for better down-the-road visibility.
Callum wanted to maintain the sports-car-like cockpit idea though, so the body sides are fairly high, as is the centre console.
Because the JaguarDrive Selector requires no real arm action, unlike a conventional shift lever, the higher centre console isn't a problem. Instead, the space is used for three cup holders, ranging from big to Big Gulp.
Speaking of iDrive, Jaguar handles the multiplicity of control functions by a combination of hard buttons (Jaguar research shows that customers prefer these for HVAC and basic sound system operations) and a touch-sensitive dash screen. The latter can be tough to read in bright sunlight and needs some getting used to, but is easily mastered.
Callum feels a car should be fun and welcoming, and the start-up procedure is all of that. When you enter the car, the engine start button on the console starts to flash like a heartbeat - lub-DUB, lub-DUB. Hold the button down for a second or so, and the engine springs to life, the air vent covers rotate upwards like those in the VW Phaeton, and the shift knob slowly rises out of the console, as if to say, "Let's go!"
Three other interior tidbits: phosphor-blue interior ambiance lighting looks wonderful at night and driving through the tunnels that lace the mountain roads in the Provence region of southern France.
The glove box door opens by a simple touch of the finger - some magical electronic sensor somehow knows your finger is there. Reminds me of those '60s Otis elevator buttons.
And a high-end Bowers & Wilkins sound system, standard on the supercharged model and available on others, is said to set new standards in auto audio.
Driving is Believing
Given that much of the mechanical hardware in the XF is familiar, I didn't expect to be surprised by the XF's deportment.
And I wasn't. The engine shoves the car along just fine - even the base car is plenty quick enough. It sounds terrific too.
I thought the rotating shift controller would take longer to get used to than it did; within minutes it felt very natural. Virtually all automatic transmissions are now activated by electronic switches; the actual shape of the controller is increasingly irrelevant.
I spent most of my time in a supercharged car. Perhaps it was the soft setting of the CATS dampers that was a bit unnerving; it felt like the car would be too soft steaming into the corners.
But no. The steering is beautifully direct, and the car takes a proper and controlled set.
There was still a lot of snow on the shoulders of the higher mountain roads; the melted run-off made some of those corners a bit slick. We had a few DSC moments, but the car feels very confident.
During this spirited driving, I wished for a bit more contour in the seats, both in the cushion and the backrest. And the backrest didn't seem ideally comfortable for me; it might be right for you.
The back seat is usable for two average-sized adults, and a third seat belt means three smallish, close-ish friends could survive back there.
The trunk is sizeable (for a Jaguar anyway) at 17.1 cubic feet, and the standard fold-down rear seat backs add another 14.8.
The high-zoot sound system certainly sounded fine, but I don't know that it was any better than the high-end systems from Bose or other up-scale car audio systems. It does support iPod, USB and Aux-In inputs.
The XF lines up directly against the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Infiniti M Series, Lexus GS and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Fine cars all. It offers a true alternative to all of those, being very competitive in performance and features, ahead of probably all of them in style, and as noted, something new.
Prices range from $59,000 for the base car, $65,000 for the Premium Luxury edition, and $77,000 for the supercharged model.
The bottom line: the new Jaguar XF introduces a fresh new face to the mid-size luxury sports sedan market, at a price more than competitive with what the others can offer.
If you're shopping in this aisle of the automotive grocery store, you have to give it a look.
The Data Panel:
2009 Jaguar XF. Four-door five-seat sports sedan.
Price: base - $59,000; Premium - $65,000; Supercharged - $77,000.
Engine, base: 4.2-litre all aluminum V8. Four camshafts. Four valves per cylinder. Naturally-aspirated. 300 horsepower @ 6,000 r.p.m. 310 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,100 r.p.m.
Engine, optional: 4.2-litre all aluminum V8. Four camshafts. Four valves per cylinder. Supercharged. 420 horsepower @ 6,250 r.p.m. 413 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,000 r.p.m.
Fuel Consumption City/Highway, litres per 100 km (Transport Canada numbers not yet available; following are US EPA numbers, converted to litres per 100 /km): Naturally-aspirated - 14.7 / 9.8. Supercharged -15.7 / 10.7.
Here are the salient points and overall rating of this new model, as established by our reviewer.
1. Gorgeous styling inside and out.
2. Fine ride/handling balance.
3. Nice blend of sports car and sedan attributes.
1. Seats could use more lateral support.
2. Seems a shame they couldn't take one more step towards becoming the all-aluminum car company.
3. Lack of four-wheel-drive may limit appeal in Canada