Introduction

Introduction

The big, luxurious sedans you see waiting (for someone else) outside of high-end hotels probably get too much attention from the people who cover cars for a living. After all, only a few thousand of these are sold per month in the U.S. and most of them aren't even all that much fun to drive. They're big, luxurious and heavy, carrying large engines that huff air like elephants not so much because they're incredibly fast but because most need to make up for their Caterpillar-like curb weight. I imagine each one with an aorta lined with Kobe beef, clogged and straining with blood vessels turned to 11.

For the last decade, buyers of these sorts of cars have predominantly chosen models from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus. Jaguar’s XJ sedan has been little more than an afterthought. The brand’s total sales in the U.S. peaked in 2002 at 61,000 cars, the vast majority of those being X-Types, the low-rent Jag created out of a cheap, midsize Ford. Last year reflected how badly the brand’s sales have cratered, as dealers moved only 12,000 Jaguars and only a few XJ’s.
Introduction

Introduction

With a brand-new XJ for 2011, Jaguar took a burn-the-house-down approach and rethought what their top-shelf car should be. Considering the problems the company has had in attracting new customers, I was happy to find that instead of stealing from another company’s playbook, Jaguar created something unique in the XJ. It needed it.

"I think that rather than focus on conquesting Mercedes-Benz and BMW buyers specifically, Jaguar needs to identify those who considered and rejected Benz and BMW," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with AutoPacific Group. "Jaguar doesn't have the safety or performance credibility to attack head on, but does have the tradition, the cosseting luxury feel, and even more exclusivity than S-Class or 7-Series. As of our 2009 research data, Jaguar isn't even in the top ten cross-shopped brands for either Mercedes or BMW owners, though Jaguar buyers have most often also cross-shopped BMW (26%) and then Mercedes (18%)."

With their work cut out for them, the Jaguar team set about redesigning their big cat. Did they get the job done?
Design

Design

Design has become Jaguar's religion over the last five years and for good reason. They have one of the best in the business in their design chief, Ian Callum, and the company has awakened to the fact that most cars in this segment (and just about every other) offer a lot of the same technology and equipment. Design is the new differentiator especially at the upper end of the luxury market.

Ian Hoban, Jaguar's director of special programs, explained their quandary: While the previous 2003-2007 XJ was filled to the brim with new technology (an all-aluminum body was a high water mark for its day), the car looked nearly exactly the same as its predecessor. "We weren't going to do that again," Hoban said. "We wanted to give this new car a new look, since it's not just a mild refresh. This is an all-new car."
Design

Design

Fortunately, the XJ's poor showing in sales ended up becoming its design salvation. With few buyers of the previous-generation car (and, truthfully, many of whom who would "phase out" altogether), there would be little complaint when Callum delivered an entirely different design for the new XJ to the executive team.

"What part of the old car was kept in this new one?" Callum was asked the afternoon of our test drive. Puzzled, he thought for a minute and offered up the longitudinal streak on the hood. "I think that's about it," he said. The point was taken: There's hardly anything old about the new XJ.
Design

Design

While the old car had a pleasant lawfulness about it -- everything from the long, low body lines to the boxed passenger compartment seemed to personify a day-time excursion around Blighty -- the new design is a night-time affair. Visually massive in comparison, the 2011 XJ carries a high beltline that points toward the front of the car, while the low, swoopy roofline arcs from the front to the back like it has no end.

The front face goes without the characteristic four round headlights, instead aping the look of the handsome XF sedan that Callum launched for Jaguar for 2009. The rear is the most controversial feature, but perhaps the designer's pièce de résistance. The rear window is flanked by two black pillars (as opposed to simply taking the body color), which Callum says give the rear a wider look that anchors the vehicle. It gives the XJ an appearance unlike anything else on the road. Rear taillights travel down, over the crease of the trunk, closing out the line that runs the entire length of the vehicle. It is in the rear that the vehicle becomes whole, unlike anything from Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Lexus.
Inside The XJ

Inside The XJ

While Callum's pen created an expansive, wide-elbowed XJ, the interior goes in the other direction. Deep, luxurious and secretive, the driver and his passengers slink into the piped leather seats and into something of a British time machine gone haywire. Old, classic touches remain: big, shiny air vents, burled wood trim, and fold-down sandwich trays in the rear. The instrument panel and gearshift lever go the other way, as if designed by a sixth-grade science class. The pop-up JaguarDrive gear lever is a safe-cracking wheel of sorts, a bit gimmicky and maybe a tad too slow, but unique to the Jaguar line.
Inside the XJ

Inside the XJ

The driver's display is novel in concept -- a full digital setup, with no physical needles or gauges in sight -- but falls short. Its shiny beveled edges and primary color contrasts too closely resemble a $100 diving watch, while the gauges themselves move back and forth out of display modes unannounced (the trip computer, for instance, disappears from the left gauge when the driver moves into a different drive mode). BMW's new digital display, seen in their 2011 models, uses a combination of actual gauges and a digital display and seems a generation ahead in terms of readability and usability. The digital navigation and audio controls in the center command screen on the XJ are easier on the eyes, but nearly unreadable in direct sunlight.
Inside The XJ

Inside The XJ

Technology aside, the interior is striking. Warmer than BMW's, more masculine than Mercedes-Benz's, and light years ahead of Lexus's in terms of sophistication, it will leave no buyer wondering where his 80-large went. The entire cabin is wrapped in a bold arc that extends beyond the dashboard and into the front doors, a nautical effect that once again gives Jaguar owners something not found anywhere else on the market. In my test vehicle, the arc closed in the middle of the dashboard, joining the two pieces of wood with a plaque featuring the brand's name, although buyers can customize this to anything they wish.

Despite the arc of the roofline, ingress and egress is unencumbered. Our legroom test wasn't conclusive -- we only tested the long wheelbase XJ (an extra five inches for the rear passengers), which was ample -- so we'll reserve judgment on the regular wheelbase vehicles.
Driving the XJ

Driving the XJ

Starting at a remarkably low 3,909 lbs, the XJ is one of the lightest vehicles in the segment. It's actually light by any standard, especially considering the 5.0-liter V8 under its hood. By comparison, consider that it weighs 100 pounds less than a base V6 Ford Taurus.

Comparing the XJ to its real competitors almost seems unfair: it's about 500 pounds lighter than the Mercedes-Benz S550, 1,500 pounds lighter than the Lexus LS460 and (gulp) 1,800 pounds lighter than the BMW 750Li. That means the XJ could carry a Smart ForTwo in its trunk and still weigh less than the BMW.
Driving the XJ

Driving the XJ

The low curb weight is a result of the XJ's extensive use of aluminum throughout the chassis and body. On the road this translates into a host of benefits, from acceleration and braking to handling. It also means that Jaguar will likely be able to offer a smaller engine in the future and hear few complaints. Right now the engines are similar to what's found in the XF sedans and XK coupes: they're all 5.0-liter V8 units. The base engine pumps out 385 hp and 380 lb-ft, a supercharged version brings power to 470 and torque to 424 lb-ft. A special-order supercharged model will offer even more power when it goes on sale later in the year: 510 hp and 461 lb-ft. Fuel economy isn't great for any of them, but they're all V8s. Combined numbers across all three engines hovers in the low to mid 20s, although we found our averages in the high teens during our drive.

Perhaps paradoxically, the better of the engines is the smallest. The naturally aspirated V8 (the one without the supercharger) is the one you want. It's not that the cheapest engine is good because it has "enough" power, it's that the entire XJ experience benefits by keeping its weight down.
Driving the XJ

Driving the XJ

Other vehicles in this segment benefit from a quiet ride, comfortable damping and trouble-free dynamics at speeds over 60 mph. The XJ seems dead-set on attacking those norms. Where a vehicle like the Mercedes-Benz S-class seems to grow at low speeds and feel uncollected, the XJ is a much smaller vehicle from behind the wheel. While it's still damped like a luxury vehicle, at low and medium speeds it drives more like the XF sedan (upon which it shares much of its platform), while at higher speeds it takes on a road-gobbling attitude more like a coupe.
Driving the XJ

Driving the XJ

Steering feedback is right there in the foreground, and although we don't like the way Jaguar laid out the manual shift controls behind the wheel, we like that they're there. Dynamic drive modes offer some flexibility for suspension and throttle response, but even with the car set to completely automatic mode, driving is engaging. Launch speed, mid-range thrust and passing at high speeds all bring to mind the word you really want to hear: Confidence. The car does not buck up and down on its center point like the old XJ, or like many other cars with a lot of power and a long wheelbase.
Conclusion

Conclusion

Priced at $71,650 for the standard wheelbase car with the base V8 engine, the XJ is aggressively priced. "Well, we've got a lot of work to do," said Jaguar President Gary Temple, admitting that company needs to change how people feel about the company. If the redesigned XF and XK proved that the brand could create products that appeal to younger buyers, the XJ should convince older buyers that they don't have to buy an old man's luxury car. Jaguar's status as a luxury also-ran could help it as it attempts to turn the corner.

"In this new more frugal atmosphere, for however long it lasts, Jaguar could get some buyers for being both less expensive and somewhat less well-known, flying under the radar a bit," AutoPacific's Brinley said. "In terms of status and the neighbor's view, the Jaguar has the chance to meet the luxury needs without being as obviously expensive or ostentatious as an S-Class."
Conclusion

Conclusion

The XJ should go a long way toward achieving that goal. With new owners (Ford sold Jaguar and sister company Land Rover to India's Tata Group in 2008), a new complimentary maintenance program and signals that show residual values are climbing, Jaguar is quietly brewing a renaissance. Will it hold? Years of lackluster products and lingering perceptions of poor quality remain. The only solution is great products.

Pricing aside, we can put the XJ in that category. Jaguar has built one of the most engaging large luxury cars we've ever driven. If the XJ's unique design can draw the right people in, those buyers will find they've purchased a driver's car unmatched among its peers. The XJ is light, fast and unlike anything else on the market -- that's what Jaguars were long ago and we're happy to report a return to form.


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