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Wheels: Light Heavyweight

Paul Dean

Ford and Jaguar continued to misfire on most cylinders last year. Ford posted losses of $1 billion, leading some Wall Street undertakers to suggest that this 100-year-old company that practically invented the auto industry was on the verge of bankruptcy. British subsidiary Jaguar, younger in years but richer in heritage than its parent company, announced a shortfall of $500 million due in part to the disappointing sales of its less expensive, not-quite-so-luxurious X and S Types—more proof that a lower price rarely compensates for a reduced offering.

The Premier Automotive Group, formed by Ford four years ago to deliver new visions and design loftier legacies for its cache of cachet cars—Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lincoln, Land Rover, and Volvo—has dribbled downhill. It now employs only a dozen souls, including the man in the mail room, and its raison d’être has been redirected to implementing cost reductions through coordination of divisions and increased commonality of parts among member marques.

Clearly, there could be no better time than the present for Ford/Jaguar to introduce a brilliant flagship free of past drawbacks, a car that finally takes advantage of space-age technology for bonding and riveting aluminum without allowing such modern methods to compromise established characteristics and traditional luxuries.

The 2004 Jaguar XJ satisfies all of the above, though at a quick glance it does not appear radically removed from its first ancestor, the 1968 XJ6. This is no accident. “Our challenge was twofold,” explains Jaguar Director of Styling Ian Callum, who inherited the final design of the new XJ from Geoff Lawson, when the latter died unexpectedly in 1999. “First, the new car had to be instantly recognizable, capturing the essence and style of the XJ but in a more modern idiom. Our other challenge was to give customers more room, enough for five adults to ride comfortably.” In other words, there is enormous purpose behind the small changes to a sedan perennially panned for being too cramped for a large luxury car, particularly for those riding in the rear. Or as Callum prefers to understate, “The old car was not blessed with a huge interior.”


This version has a roofline that is 4.3 inches taller than its predecessor. It is also 2.4 inches longer and 2.7 inches wider. The new dimensions provide one additional inch of headroom, two extra inches of shoulder space, two more inches of legroom in the front seat, and an equal amount of added knee room for passengers in the rear.

One wore the old car like a sweater that had shrunk in the wash. The new car is a much better fit—not quite XL, but close. The old car carried only two golf bags in the boot, while the new one has room for four pieces of Callaway luggage. For those who do not golf, that translates to about 105 tennis racquets or 43 hard-cased shotguns.

Critics of Jaguar’s fusty appearance will be quick to pounce on this apparent lack of progress. On the other hand, asks Callum, why change a classic shape simply for the sake of change? Consider, he suggests, the enduring silhouette of Porsche’s 911, which closely resembles the 1947 Type 356.

Now, adds Callum, examine the new XJ again. The cabin is taller than the original. The hood is shorter, as are the front overhangs. The beltline is higher, there is a mild hump—reminiscent of lightly hunched shoulders—over the rear seats, and the entire shape is more wedgelike. Callum made one more slight modification: The outer headlights are slightly ovoid, creating a kind of smirk on the front of the car.

The heftiest advance and advantage of the new Jaguar is invisible, lying just beneath the paint. There is no steel there, only an all-aluminum unibody fastened to cast, stamped, or extruded components by space-shuttle epoxy adhesives and about 3,200 self-piercing rivets. While Audi, Acura, and Ferrari are heavily into alloy frames, bodies, door panels, and lids, Jaguar claims to be the first to embrace the bonding and riveting techniques—for a car that will be produced by the thousands, not the hundreds.


The all-aluminum design gives the XJ a body that is 60 percent stiffer and 40 percent lighter than its predecessor’s (and more than 900 pounds lighter than the Mercedes S-Class). With its weight reduced by 200 pounds, the base XJ8’s gas mileage has improved from 17/24 mpg to 18/28 mpg, and its zero-to-60 acceleration is down from almost 7 seconds to 6.3 seconds.

 

Three flavors of XJ arrived in the United States this summer. The introductory XJ is powered by a normally aspirated, 290-hp V-8 and sells for a little under $60,000. Then there is the brute of the trio, the supercharged XJR, which pumps out 394 hp and carries a $75,000 price tag. The XJR will motor from zero to 60 mph as quickly as, or even quicker than, the Acura NSX, the BMW M5, the Porsche Carrera 4, and just about any Mercedes on the road. In between those two models is the gussied XJ8 Vanden Plas, with the crinkled radiator grille from a long European line of dying Daimlers.

In each variant, the improvements to the car’s mechanicals are as impressive as its construction. Niceties include Brembo brakes, a 6-speed ZF automatic transmission, 19-inch wheels, traction and stability controls, and a new air suspension that lowers the car by a quarter-inch when rolling north of 100 mph. As an additional safety measure, the XJ features Jaguar’s Adaptive Restraint Technology System (ARTS). It is mated to sensors that read the weight and the sitting positions of the driver and the front-seat passenger and check whether they have buckled up. Based on this data, ARTS adjusts the force of air bag deployment so that in the event of a collision, the device becomes a firm pillow and not a battering ram that breaks cheekbones and pops contact lenses into the backseat.

Only one element of the XJ continues to draw moans. Despite unanimous condemnation from owners and automotive reviewers, Jaguar refuses to junk its bloody awful J-Gate gearshift. It operates adequately in automatic mode, but when slapped left into manual, shifting is clumsy and primal, sometimes requiring a downward glance to see what gear you are in. It is eons beyond high time for Jaguar to follow the lead of other luxury carmakers and begin building a sequential shifter.


In the interior, the XJ offers subtleties that instill in its owners a sense of style, elegance, even acceptable self-importance and social position. Jaguar continues to resist replacing its leather and wood trimmings with Kevlar or brushed steel. It is all very traditional, and form follows function; each knob or switch has been positioned exactly where one would instinctively reach for it.

While we often approve highly of cars that thunder and boom to the song of a supercharger while traversing entire counties or small principalities in minutes, in this instance our favor falls on the less powerful, normally aspirated XJ8. Its steering seems better weighted than the XKR’s, the interiors are identical, and the V-8 power is just as smooth if not quite as enormous. The XJR seems too raucous for its role, while the XJ8 feels just a little more dignified for its place in the same fast lane.

The XJ8s, all of them, can do nothing but restore Jaguar’s reputation to its deserved station, and its parent company will recover because any alternative is unthinkable. There certainly will be some repositioning of the S-Type, and Ford only knows what will become of the wishy-washy X-Type.

Those deep inside Jaguar have not stopped toying with another intriguing possibility for the marque. They believe the time might soon be ripe for Jaguar to build a blue-blooded, tough-driving, no-apologies sports car that will recapture the élan of the XK120 and 140, the D-, C-, and E-Types. It would complete the company bloodline—from large luxury sedan through performance roadster and midsize tourer to pure and pedigreed sports car.

Such a two-seater, called the F-Type, was on the books and in concept form in the late 1990s. It was widely adored, but Ford decided against production. Jaguar engineers, according to insiders, continue to examine the car in their spare time, tweaking its design, realigning the concept, and praying for a change in corporate thinking and the economic climate. “I think we should build it,” says Callum. “I think we will.”

Jaguar, www.jaguar.com

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