The spotlight always shines on the superstars. These are the cars with the most powerful engines, largest wheels and most radical bodywork. In the midsize luxury sedan market, the brightest illumination falls on the flagships such as the BMW M5, Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, Cadillac CTS-V, Jaguar XFR and Audi S6. These four-doors not only frequently secure the cover shots and garner the lion's share of publicity, they also carry hefty window stickers.
But take a look past the flared wheel arches, side skirts and rear decklid spoilers and drop down a big notch in price. There you will find the unexpected sleepers – vehicles that appear much like their standard siblings yet pack serious firepower under the hood and all the proper go-fast equipment to tame it.
While not everyone in the midsize luxury sedan segment offers a contender in this niche (Audi and Cadillac only muster six-cylinder power), the BMW 550i, Mercedes-Benz E550 4Matic and this Jaguar XF Supercharged we recently spent a week with are prime examples of four-doors ripe for the discreet enthusiast.
Jaguar first introduced us to its XF sedan at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show. The strikingly handsome four-door, designed by Ian Callum, replaced the retro-steeped S-Type in the British automaker's lineup when it rolled into North American showrooms as all-new for the 2009 model year. Americans were initially offered a choice between a naturally-aspirated 4.2-liter V8 and a supercharged variant of the same engine – the flagship was a model called the XF Supercharged.
There were big changes in 2010 when a 5.0-liter V8 arrived to deliver more power to the upper trim levels. While the XF Supercharged also returned, it was eclipsed by a new flagship model dubbed XFR. The high-performance variant featured more horsepower, oversized brakes, adaptive suspension, 20-inch wheels, limited-slip differential and many cosmetic enhancements. Its target was enthusiast-tuned models from Germany and America.
While 2010 was exciting for the XF, the 2011 model year was quiet. The most significant news was the announcement that the venerable 4.2-liter V8 had been discontinued and all models would feature the new 5.0-liter V8.
Count 2012 as significant, as Jaguar has treated its entire XF lineup to a host of upgrades.
Most obvious to the eye is the new front fascia. The large round outer beams, something of a Jaguar tradition, have been replaced with a sleek integrated light cluster that is designed to "adopt the bold Jaguar design language introduced on the flagship XJ saloon," says the automaker. The facelift includes sheetmetal revisions to the hood, grille and front quarter panels – the reshaped side vents have been designed to give the four-door a more muscular appearance.
New lighting, front and rear, integrates LED illumination in place of traditional incandescent lighting. The headlamps are bi-xenon, and there are new LED daytime running lights (DRLs) arranged in Jaguar's 'J-Blade' signature pattern. The incandescent taillamps have also been replaced with LEDs, and the rear trunk lid resculpted to accept the changes. Overall, the look is undeniably more aggressive and much sleeker, but its freshness is tempered as nearly everyone at this level offers LED day DRLs these days.
The new look is undeniably more aggressive and much sleeker.
The interior has also been enhanced for 2012. The front seats now incorporate a new 'hoop' feature to deliver better support and additional switches have been added below the seven-inch TFT touchscreen display to improve ergonomics. A polarizing filter has also been integrated for better contrast. To enhance entertainment, a 1,200-watt Bowers and Wilkins sound system with 17 speakers has been added to the options list and all audio systems now offer both USB and iPod interfaces with Bluetooth audio streaming.
Mechanically, the 2012 Jaguar XF Supercharged carries forward mostly unchanged. Under the hood remains the brawny 5.0-liter V8 force-fed by a belt-driven Roots-type supercharger. In addition to spray-guided direct fuel injection, the all-aluminum engine also features variable timing on all four camshafts. The end result is 470 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 424 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a six-speed ZF automatic transmission (ZF 6HP26), one of our favorites. The engine is strong, but not very frugal at an EPA-rated 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway.
The XF Supercharged arrives with Jaguar's adaptive dynamic suspension as standard equipment. Shared with the XK – meaning it was designed from the onset with sporty handling in mind – the Computer Adaptive Technology Suspension (CATS) uses electronically controlled two-stage adaptive dampers. Road conditions and driving inputs are constantly electronically measured to allow damping to be adjusted within milliseconds.
The engine is strong, but not very frugal at 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway.
Braking is tasked to twin-piston sliding calipers in the front and single-piston sliding calipers in the rear. Large ventilated iron rotors absorb heat, and one is located within each of the Supercharged model's standard 20-inch alloy wheels. Tire size is 255/35ZR20, and our Jaguar arrived wearing Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires (maximum performance summer rubber) as OEM equipment.
Our tester was dressed in Indigo Blue metallic paint over two-tone Ivory/Navy leather, a color that looks both chic and classy in the flesh and even better in pictures. 2012 XF Supercharged models start at $68,100 – the base 385-hp XF starts at $53,000 – and our tester arrived lightly optioned. Looking at the Monroney, additional equipment on our vehicle was limited to the B&W 1,200-watt audio upgrade ($2,300), electric rear window sunblind ($475) and a heated front windshield ($375). Add in the required $875 transportation and handling fee and the grand total was a rather reasonable $72,125. For comparison's sake, a similarly equipped BMW 550i will run about $73,000 (base $62,895 plus options) while a Mercedes-Benz E550 4Matic will cost approximately $71,000 (base $60,665 plus options). The price difference between the three is negligible from this type of buyer's perspective.
As mentioned, the Jaguar XF Supercharged finds itself in an interesting niche – it is the jelly sandwiched between the entry-level Jaguar XF and the flagship Jaguar XFR. In theory, its configuration should allow it to provide plenty of traditional British luxury while having the capability to flex its muscles without sweating.
It is the jelly sandwiched between the entry-level XF and flagship XFR.
Our first undertaking was to attend a holiday dinner. Dressed to the nines, we dropped into the front seats in preparation for the two-hour drive (50 miles in heavy Los Angeles evening traffic). What greeted us was an overpowering rich leather aroma – the smell of a Jaguar's cabin never gets old.
The front seats are definitely improved from last year's model, but they still fail to offer hip-hugging bolsters or much else in terms of lateral support. Making matters worse, the beautifully finished perforated leather is slick (one still slides off the seat rather than remain firmly in place). The main instrument panel, on the other hand, is much improved. The climate controls and other primary switchgear are now in a contrasting dark finish, instead of mirroring the rest of the brushed aluminum trim, which is much better ergonomically.
The rear seats are unchanged from last year, meaning an average-size adult will fit in each of the outboard positions and a third may squeeze in the middle where the center cushion is flat enough to be temporarily comfortable. The XF is obviously smaller than the larger XJ, so the two front passengers may have to move their seats forward a bit to keep knees from bumping their backrests.
The XF is well known for its robotic boot-up process. We hit the glowing start/stop button and the transmission knob rose from the dead while the air vents tumbled into position. It is both silly and entertaining, but if you are in a hurry, the theatrics are a bit excessive (this should be a driver setting). Tricks aside, the supercharged V8 starts with an unexpected roar and then settled down to a quiet and very smooth idle. Hear it for yourself in the Short Cut video below.
Despite the improvement in controls, the infotainment and navigation system remains subpar. We were able to configure Bluetooth phone connectivity without reading the owner's manual, but we gave up on the navigation (too cumbersome) and simply used our intuitive and much more human-friendly iPhone for directions. The 1,200-watt B&W audio system is visually distinguished by the raised hump on the top of the dashboard – its center speaker – and the package sounded great to our untrained ears.
As mentioned, our first journey was choked with traffic. As we were in no real hurry, the congestion left us ample time to adjust the seat into the proper position for our tall frame and get settled in for the long drive. Despite lacking lateral support, the seats are very comfortable, and kudos to Jaguar for fitting the XF with a finger-friendly heated steering wheel and excellent heated seats – our rear ends got so hot that we had to turn the butt-warmers down. We found the xenon headlights to be powerful, but were constantly distracted by a glare in the front windshield. The optional heated windshield feature, as it turns out, uses tiny heating elements (wires) embedded into the glass that can cause odd reflections. It should be avoided by those who don't live in the Snowbelt.
A Jaguar without an "R" on its rear decklid should drive like a gentleman.
Our late-night return trip was much quicker. Supercharged engines deliver gobs of grunt down low and the XF's blown 5.0-liter V8 is no exception. Onramp acceleration was brisk as the Jaguar roared up to speed, and we effortlessly merged with the other night owls. The light traffic cruised at about 75 mph across the LA Basin, so we followed the current and moved with the flow. Despite being fitted with Jaguar's Adaptive Dynamics suspension, busily adjusting the dampers on the fly, we didn't find the ride as smooth as anticipated. Whether you blame today's generous 20-inch wheels or the aged and broken Los Angeles pavement, the ride was a bit choppy – maybe a bit too much for our palette. Things improved on smoother roads as the Jaguar was decidedly more graceful, but we never felt it achieved the expected level of poise. A Jaguar without an "R" on its rear decklid should drive like a gentleman.
Thankfully, the XF Supercharged surprised us the following day when we took it to the mountains. Instead of leaving its automatic transmission in "Drive," as we had been doing, we spun the dial around to the far right "Sport" position and allowed its new mindset to make the choices. Full throttle launches meant a throaty exhaust note and giddy wheelspin (you can shut the traction control completely off). The engine rumbled as the XF Supercharged followed its evil alter ego's commands – yes, it was fun. We cinched down our seatbelts and playfully put the Jaguar through its paces, and it returned the favor by allowing us to push unbelievably hard. The brakes and tires seemed every bit up to the task. Even the steering, which felt light around town, took on a more communicative position, and it was easy to place the front wheels precisely where we wanted.
In Sport mode, the steering wheel-mounted paddles responded with obedience and the ZF transmission didn't skip a beat (we still find this old-school six-speed one of our favorite traditional slushboxes). Of course, it wasn't lightning-fast like a dual-clutch gearbox, but the shifts were solid and the torque pushed all occupants back in their seats. Overall, the rather nondescript dark blue Jaguar was nothing short of an asphalt-ripping sports car in the canyons. In the past, we've noted that the electronic rear differential on the Jaguar really worked the rear brakes – it uses the ABS system to clamp the wheel that is spinning, thereby sending power across the axle. It was no different this time, as our spirited driving left a waft a brake fumes every time we slowed.
The nondescript dark blue Jaguar was nothing short of an asphalt-ripping sports car in the canyons.
When compared to its closest German rivals, both on paper and from behind the wheel, the lone Brit unexpectedly finds itself the enthusiast's choice – as if the others have abandoned this niche as they focus on their aforementioned flagships.
Mercedes-Benz dropped its rear-wheel-drive E550 for 2012, which means the less sporty (yet four-season capable) E550 4Matic is this Jaguar's closet opposition. However, saddled with the additional driveline bits, the Benz tips the scales about 300 pounds heavier (Jaguar 4,306 pounds vs. E550 4Matic 4,609 pounds) and the Mercedes simply isn't configured for carving canyons – there are no sport packages and the largest wheels are 18-inch alloys. Canyon carvers best look elsewhere.
BMW offers its rear-wheel-drive 550i, a sedan that weighs about the same as the XF Supercharged and delivers similar performance. In standard configuration, the Jaguar is equipped with more standard performance equipment. Throw in BMW's optional Sport and M Sport packages, which seem to do more for aesthetics rather than lap times, and the 550i gets pretty close on paper. Yet, our non-instrumented conclusion says the Jaguar delivers better throttle/acceleration response (six-speed automatic verses an eight-speed automatic) and superior braking. Taking it one step further, from an enthusiast's perspective, the XF Supercharged actually seems more engaging to drive.
It's already soundly beating rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz at the luxury sleeper game.
Let's not get lost in the marketing hype. A new front end, upgraded seats and a splash of LED illumination do almost nothing to change the way this mid-size sport sedan drives; the superficial enhancements only serve to keep the sedan showroom fresh in a constantly changing automotive landscape. Maybe the real story is that the 2012 Jaguar XF Supercharged didn't need a performance boost as it is already soundly beating rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz at the luxury sleeper game.