Like high-stakes gamblers with finite bankrolls and three-alarm substance-abuse habits, ruination always lies just around the corner for small-volume carmakers like Jaguar. Or so we have been told.
Admittedly, every roll of the dice counts for more when your pockets are shallow, which observation has led many to conclude that building luxury cars can only be a game for those with high-rise billfolds. Indeed, for years we've been assured that salvation for the world's exclusive carmakers lies in becoming less exclusive by urgent multiplication of volume -- leading us to the present moment where the ever-expanding sales targets of luxury brands such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz (and to a lesser extent Porsche) all but require them to crank production like General Motors puking out full-size Chevrolets in its 1960s heyday.
It was this harsh assessment -- as well as Margaret Thatcher's loudly declaimed free-market catechism -- which saw the sale of money-losing Jaguar to the Ford Motor Company in 1989. The marque would go on to become part of the now-defunct Premier Automotive Group, Ford's well-intentioned but money-losing agglomeration of luxury brands (with Aston Martin, Land Rover, Lincoln, and Volvo). Lately, most of PAG's components have been jettisoned, lest they distract Ford -- pockets no longer bottomless -- from the new Job One: keeping the namesake brand alive.
At the height of its powers, Jaguar was best known, in addition to its reputation for legendarily spotty reliability, for delivering amazing style and performance at comparatively reasonable prices, with hit after hit culminating in the eternally awesome E-type and the impossibly long-lived XJ. Penned by Sir William Lyons, the firm's founder, this four-door luxury sedan sold well from its 1968 introduction until its mildly dull replacement -- also called XJ -- arrived almost twenty years later.
Sadly, Jaguar's unparalleled gift for groundbreaking good looks never really made it out of the '60s, a worrisome trend its Dearborn caretakers never fully corrected and often compounded. And unsurprisingly, Ford missed hitting the ambitious sales goal -- 200,000 cars a year -- it had set for Jaguar by several cricket pitches and a spacious county or two.
But after I've spent a few hundred miles in the newest Jaguar XJ, plus some additional time at various auto shows soaking in its luxurious interior -- at once old-world cosseting and gloriously modern -- it seems clear in retrospect that Ford's tenure, which officially ended in 2008 when Jaguar was sold along with Land Rover to Indian industrialist Ratan Tata, was more benign than not. The new XJ -- largely developed on Ford's dime -- is not the prettiest car we've ever seen, but it ain't bad at all. And it is an unalloyed delight to drive. Without Ford's extreme -- arguably misguided -- investment, it might not be the almost unbelievably wonderful luxury automobile that it is.
The good that Ford did stands in clear relief when one reflects on Detroit's history of botched lobotomies and assisted suicides where its foreign wards are concerned, such as the number GM performed on Saab. Ford's huge investments allowed Jaguar to modernize its factories and engine designs while adopting cutting-edge aluminum architecture for its XK grand tourer and its biggest sedan, and its control systems also helped the marque achieve massive quality gains, as exemplified in last year's J. D. Power awards for dependability and owner satisfaction among luxury brands.
The question now, of course, is whether the new Jaguar, with its humbler sales goals, can make a go of it on its own. Tata's pockets are not inconsiderable, but the huge, albeit theoretical, synergies of a PAG are no longer there. While a new five-year, 50,000-mile, all-maintenance-included "platinum" warranty program will help back up the Power surveys in potential customers' minds, it's the car that will have to close the deal. In the near term, that's good news, for the new XJ showcases all of the best Jaguar virtues -- supreme speed, amazing quiet, and big fun to drive, with sharp steering, prodigious roadholding, and a better ride than any of its competitors, even those that build a lot more cars.
How could that be?
Perhaps it was the Ford money. Allied, of course, to some serious engineering wizardry. But, then again, as Lyons proved way back when, there's something about a gambler whose very existence depends on success that increases the odds of succeeding. When you have to care, dare you must. Big isn't necessarily better.
Written by: Jamie Kitman Illustration by: Tim Marrs