Here's one reason not to judge a book by its cover: the outgoing Jaguar XJ8. You look at it and think, "It's a hundred years old."
But a hundred years ago, cars didn't have on-board fiber-optic digital networks or an impossibly light, aircraft-inspired aluminum chassis. Yes, under that antediluvian façade lurks a vehicle that, as recently as yesterday, was thoroughly modern.
Today is a different day. As a new dawn emerges, the sun's angled rays tickle the protracted fastback roofline of tomorrow's hope for the storied brand's survival: the 2011 Jaguar XJ. You've heard it before, but the two dimensions of paper are insufficient to capture the shape, proportion, and visual impact of this car in real life. Yes, the XJ looks a bit awkward on paper. But when you see one on the road for the first time, you'll do exactly as we've just witnessed literally hundreds of awe-struck pedestrians do: Stop, stare, and mutter, Pour l'amour du ciel! Cette voiture est vraiment magnifique!
Your particular exclamation may well be in English. But we're in Paris, and there's probably good reason why Jaguar chose this city to let us drive the XJ. Aside from the breathtaking opportunity to ogle the Eiffel Tower by night through the double glass sunroof, that is. Paris is chic central, and the French love rolling drama. And tell me those draping, dramatic taillights couldn't have just as easily found their home on the rump of a Citroën.
We do have one design-related confession to make: we purposely asked Jaguar for a dark-colored XJ to photograph. As you might remember from pictures of the XJ on the auto show stand, the D-pillars are black, no matter what color the car is painted. Purpose: create the effect of a wraparound rear window to de-emphasize the car's relatively tall, narrow proportions. (The new XJ is about the same overall size as the XJ8 it replaces, except it's a significant 1.9 inches narrower.) The effect works - with the blacked-out limo-tint on the rear windows of the European-specification long-wheelbase XJL. As this issue goes to press, Jaguar wasn't sure whether U.S. regulations allow the dark tint, and we're guessing that they won't. The visual trick will be less effective without the tint, and frankly the black pillars may look downright strange on light-colored cars.
But it is a conversation piece. Like the rest of the car. This XJ is a work of art - its design is the key to its success in a market crowded with relatively lookalike, traditional three-box luxury sedans.
Like its predecessor, the XJ uses all-aluminum construction, riveted and bonded together for exceptional structural rigidity and light weight. The body is about eleven percent stiffer in torsion than the XK8, and even though it weighs nearly 300 pounds, it's still hundreds of pounds lighter than most of its competition - including the aluminum space-frame 2011 Audi A8.
The XJ's underfloor structure is derived from the XJ8, but the new car's mechanicals come from the XF. The front and rear suspension are similar to the XF in design but use active air suspension instead of conventional coil springs. The similarities between Jaguar's two sedans don't end there: if you're familiar with the XF, you'll feel right at home the moment you sit in the XJ. That's because the driving position is exactly the same - the proportions of the imaginary triangle formed between the driver's heels, hips, and hands were lifted straight from the XF, which isn't a bad thing.
Thanks to the aluminum, the XJ weighs about the same as the 6.4-inch-shorter XF, so as you can begin to imagine, the cars feel quite similar on the road, too. The ZF steering rack (taken straight from the hot-rod XFR) is unusually quick, and the brakes are so immediately responsive that they verge on grabby - but the combination makes the XJ feel surprisingly agile and light on its feet.
Powertrains, too, are carried over from the XF, so the XJ offers a choice between normally aspirated (385-hp) and supercharged (470-hp) V-8s. You won't find one sitting on the dealer lots, but if you special order your XJ, you can check the Supersport option, which instructs the engine management software to allow 510 hp of thrust. On paper, the difference between the base engine and the Supersport doesn't seem nearly as gargantuan as it feels. Jaguar says the 385-hp car will accelerate to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds; the Supersport in 4.7. That's the biggest 0.7 second you can imagine - the base car is lively, but the Supersport is fast enough to illicit a string of four-letter words from a nun.
Both engines sound magnificent from inside the car. In the base XJ, an induction tube pipes a satisfyingly snorty intake growl into the cabin when the engine is under load. That type of diaphragm-based resonance tube doesn't work with boosted engines, so instead, the supercharged engine uses what basically amounts to a microphone in the intake tract. The signal is then piped to a speaker in the dash, which faithfully recreates the guttural noise you'd hear if you stuck your head into the intake manifold. Minus the permanent hearing loss.
That sounds vaguely like cheating, especially from a company whose engineers use the word "honest" in describing their cars' performance. Fact is, though, that the cabin of the XJ is so quiet that the missing engine note would be obvious. One suspects that the engine compartment is so well isolated because of the XJ's base European engine: a 271-hp, 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6. That engine - chosen by an astonishing nine out of ten XJ buyers in the U.K. - is almost completely inaudible in the cabin. What you do hear is a pleasant, distant whir absent of almost all vibration, even when the diesel XJ is knocking off a six-second-flat drag-race run to 60 mph. That's a half-second faster than last year's gas-powered 4.2-liter V-8, and the diesel gets 42 mpg on European highway fuel economy tests! That this oil-burner isn't offered in the U.S. is a travesty, an unfortunate consequence of our diesel-unfriendly emissions standards.
Oh well, we'll have to drown our sorrows in horsepower and console our deprived selves with wheel spin. Engage Dynamic mode and the computer sharpens throttle response, reduces steering boost, firms up the suspension and - ooh la la! - pulls the slack out of your seatbelt. Throttle pinned to the plush carpet, the supercharged car lights off the rear tires, making sure it leaves not one but two dark skid marks off the line, courtesy of the computer-controlled mechanical limited slip differential. You bad, bad boy.
Behavior like that will not land you in heaven - which, one imagines, might be lined with some of the materials you'll find in the XJ's cabin. Gorgeous wood, supple leather, rich piano black plastics. Well, there is purgatory-grade cheap plastic shift paddles mounted behind the steering wheel, which has a beautiful, but uncomfortable, seam on the front face. The XJ's touch-screen interface, though, is truly hellish. Its eight-inch screen is generously proportioned, but like the last-generation system, it's slow to react to inputs. And worse, the menus and buttons were clearly designed by someone with fingertips the size of an embroidery needle.
Also from the frustration department: there is no button to permanently disable the parking sensors, which, on our test drive, decided that France is too small a country for this seventeen-foot-long luxury sedan. Each time we were foolish enough to engage reverse, we were blasted with a warning tone loud enough to send running for the hills any Frenchman old enough to remember air-raid sirens from the Second World War.
The XJ also spitefully ignores any normal button press - almost every control requires a long, deliberate actuation, including and especially the act of starting the car. And the front doors require a hefty slam to latch.
Lastly, the optional active cruise control doesn't have a conventional cruise mode, so if you order it, you're at the mercy of a radar system that insists upon slowing you far too far in advance of other cars. And should the heavens open up and interfere the radar sensor's operation, the entire cruise system is disabled, leaving you at the mercy of your right foot, which means a momentary attention lapse could find you driving 20 mph faster than you meant to.
Your defense? The XJ is so quiet - see, look at those double-pane windows! - and you were enjoying the clear and accurate sound reproduction from the twenty-speaker, 1200-watt Bowers + Wilkins stereo system. And you were admiring the world's first fully gaugeless instrument cluster. In front of your badly behaved self is a 12.3-inch LCD screen similar a laptop's, upon which is displayed a computer-generated set of analog gauges. While at first glance this seems like a gimmick, the technology allows the engineers to best make use of the prime real estate in front of the driver's face. In the case of the XJ, that means the tachometer can be displaced by warning messages or setup menus. The temperature/fuel/odometer combination to the left of the speedometer gives way to navigation instructions, or with a gear selection indicator when the transmission is in manual mode.
What the XJ doesn't do, however, is take full advantage of the unlimited display opportunities afforded by the LCD panel. Jaguar doesn't (yet) offer the ability to customize the display to the driver's wishes. Why not have a display that could be changed, at the press of a button, to look like the simple, elegant gauges of an old X300-series XJ? Or, for farsighted drivers, an extra-large digital speed readout. Or an enormous navigation map with a small speed readout.
There's nothing small about the Jaguar's rear quarters. The short-wheelbase XJ has about the same legroom as the old XJ8 did, and that means it's enough for full-sized adults. The long-wheelbase version adds 4.9 inches in length but gives 5.2 more inches in which to stretch out. The XJL's back seat is enormous, with as much legroom as its largest competitors.
In terms of size and price, the XJ competes with the BMW 7-series, the Mercedes-Benz S-class, and the Lexus LS. And even though the XJ is priced near the bottom of that group, it looks and feels as though it should be at the expensive end. That's an incredible accomplishment, especially considering the expense of aluminum construction. Moreover, from behind the wheel, the Jaguar XJ is reminiscent of the significantly more expensive Maserati Quattroporte.
Jaguar has always been a luxury brand in the United States, but talk to the engineers, and you'll hear a crystal-clear emphasis on speed and handling. Jaguar realized some time ago that most drivers actually mean "steering" when they talk about a car's "handling," and the resulting obsession with steering precision makes for an interesting phenomenon: The XJ's luxury had better come from beautiful materials and exquisite styling, because traditional luxury cues - excess cushiness and isolation - are unacceptable.
What makes the XJ so positively brilliant to drive is that it doesn't try to be sporty - that word implies a contrived connection between man and machine; that the sport was somehow added back in after it was isolated out. Engine intake noise aside, the XJ doesn't partake of that particular sin. This Jaguar is better described as lean, lithe, and athletic - the connection is baked-in, partially due to the lightweight, stiff structure, but mostly because of its creators' fanatical obsession with suspension tuning and steering calibration.
The XJ is luxury without the excess plush. It's performance without being abrasive. Elegant without being derivative. Modern without being ostentatious. Sinful without being illegal. And now, finally, it's wrapped in a cover that tells exactly the story of what's inside.
Series I, 1968-73
The last completely new-looking XJ was in fact the first. Penned by Sir William Lyons, the 1968 XJ6 featured all the basic traits that would define the big sedan over the ensuing decades, including its sleek yet proper sheetmetal, silky road manners, and spotty reliability. The only element missing was effortless performance, which Jaguar addressed in 1972 with the 241-hp XJ12.
Engines: 4.2L I-6; 5.3L V-12
Series II, 1973-79
Minor surface changes-a smaller grille and raised bumpers-obscured more substantial mechanical changes including more efficient but less powerful engines and, for the first time, a long-wheelbase version.
Engines: 4.2L I-6; 5.3L V-12
Series III, 1979-86 (1979-92, V12)
A Pininfarina redesign incorporated U.S. bumper requirements, flattened the roofline, and generally modernized the XJ without changing its character. Jaguar introduced fuel injection on the more potent I-6.
Engines: 4.2L I-6; 5.3L V-12
Squared-off headlight surrounds (debased even further on U.S. models with single-unit lamps) seemed to signal cheaper execution, but build quality improved on this XJ, and it received thoroughly updated engines and electronics.
Engines: 4.0L I-6; 6.0L V-12
The first XJ designed under Ford ownership returned to the more classic front end. The V-12 went away in 1997, replaced atop the Jaguar heap by the supercharged, 322-hp XJR.
Engines: 4.0L supercharged I-6; 4.0L I-6; 6.0L V-12
New V-8 engines replaced the traditional straight sixes, but in many respects, the "X308" was the last of the idiosyncratic,
Engines: 4.0L V-8; 4.0L supercharged V-8
All the creases and curves may have looked familiar, but they were stamped on an aluminum unibody, which rode on air springs at all four corners (the new XJ has rear-only air suspension).
Engines: 4.2L V-8; 4.2L supercharged V-8