The world of luxury sedans would be a lonelier, less interesting place without Jaguar. Since the seminal 1968 XJ6, the Coventry flagship has spoken the language of elegance, speed, and refinement to more than 800,000 owners. Against the ever-changing tide of competition from Germany, Detroit, and Japan, the Jaguar XJ has changed relatively little, remaining an immediately recognizable, global symbol of timeless good taste, as welcome and well tailored as a Savile Row suit, even if at times it has been a bit frayed about the edges.
And we all know about the loose threads in the XJ’s fabric, vast quality and production problems not sewn up until well after Ford took possession of the then-decrepit Browns Lane factory in 1989. “We’ve come an awfully long way since 1992,” remarks Ford president and chief operating officer Nick Scheele, “which was a low point for Jaguar, when we sold only 8052 cars in the United States.” (Plumped partly by inexpensive X-types, and the S-type as well, U.S. sales in 2002 were about 60,000 units.) Think back to the early ’90s: The Lexus LS400 seemed to be everyone’s answer to the luxury-sedan question, and the XJ was a charming anachronism for hopeless Anglophiles. Even the most stalwart loyalists within Ford sometimes must have doubted that Jaguar would make it over the millennial hump, let alone introduce a 2004 flagship built with a unique, high-tech production process.
That process is rivet-bonding. Aluminum underbody componentssome cast, some stamped, some extruded in molten metal like toothpaste from a tubeare fastened together with aerospace-grade epoxy adhesives and some 3200 self-piercing rivets to create the new XJ’s unibody. Body panels are stamped from aluminum as well; the roof and rear quarter-panels are glued and welded into place as load-bearing structural elements; and the front fenders, doors, hood, and trunk lid are bolted on. There is nothing new about this technology per se: The Audi A8 has an aluminum spaceframe and body panels, and the Acura NSX has all-aluminum unibody construction. Jaguar itself has used aluminum extensively, from the 1922 Swallow motorcycle sidecar that started the company, to the 1954 D-type racing car, to the 1990 XJ220 supercar, but no automaker has attempted a bonded and riveted aluminum unibody in a high-volume application.
Jaguar claims that 95 percent of XJ owners will be within an hour of a bump shop with technicians specially trained to deal with the XJ’s aluminum structure and skin. Every Jaguar dealership can handle about 75 percent of accident repairs, because most of the exterior body panels can be removed and replaced easily. Says development engineer Mark White: “Much accident damage in the new XJ actually will be simpler to repair than it would have been before. For instance, a front fender that used to require thirty hours of labor to repair will now require only about fourteen hours.” A bolt-on, aluminum-extruded module behind the front bumper absorbs impacts of up to 10 mph without causing structural damage to the car and is designed to be easy and relatively cheap to replace.
The XJ body structure is 40 percent lighter and 60 percent stiffer than before, and overall the car is several hundred pounds lighter than both its predecessor and its German competitors, even though it’s bigger and has more equipment than the outgoing model. One of the main reasons Jaguar turned to aluminum was its desire to increase the size of the car substantially without a concomitant increase in weight. Ford Scientific Research had developed an experimental Aluminum-Intensive Vehicle in the mid-1990s, so the groundwork was already laid when development started on the 2004 XJ (code name X350). Compared with the outgoing X300, the new car is three inches taller and two inches longer and wider, with one more inch of front headroom and shoulder room and two more inches of legroom. Where-as the previous XJ’s cabin was unacceptably snug, the new car is comfortable, but it’s still certainly not overly roomy, with nowhere near as much rear-seat space as in the new Audi A8 L. But the trunk is bigger, capable of ferrying four sets of golf clubs.
North American customers again get the XJ8 and XJR models, with, respectively, a normally aspirated or supercharged AJ-V8 engine. A wire-mesh grille, Brembo brakes, and available twenty-inch wheels visually differentiate the XJR, and the XJ8 is also offered in more luxurious Vanden Plas trim. Expanded last year from 4.0 to 4.2 liters for the revamped S-type, the V-8 produces 294 horsepower in the XJ8 and 390 horsepower in the XJR. Both versions boast improved performance and fuel economy. The supercharged XJR’s 0-to-60-mph time is now 5.0 seconds versus 5.4, and fuel economy is up from 16/22 mpg city/highway to 17/24. The normally aspirated XJ8 reaches 60 mph in 6.3 seconds versus the previous 6.9, and its 18/28 mpg betters the previous 17/24. The standard V-8 is powerful enough but unlikely to cause shortness of breath in any driver. We, of course, far prefer the XJR’s wonderful supercharger whine and effortless ability to summon more power all the way to the electronically limited 155-mph top speed. Owners of older Jags might pine for the unmistakable catapult of a V-12, but, for now, there are no plans for an increased cylinder count, and few XJRs are going to be left sitting at stoplights. Both engines mate to the six-speed automatic transmission that also was introduced for the S-type. The ZF box holds the gear you need as long as it possibly can and finds the next one expeditiously. When you hit the accelerator at speed, downshifting is as quick and smooth as an answer from White House spokesman Ari Fleischerand infinitely more satisfying. Jaguar is sticking with its fussy and outdated J-shaped transmission gate but has given it electronic controls and a shorter-throw lever.
From the driver’s seat, the XJ’s weight loss is noticeable as soon as you start moving. You won’t mistake the XJ for a Lotus Elise, but neither will it bring to mind a Lincoln Town Car. It’s certainly lighter on its feet and feels far more rigid than the X300, and the big cat leaps to action with enthusiasm, especially in XJR guise. It does not have the chassis alertness and roll control of a 7-series BMW or the A8, but its steering is much better than the Audi’s. “The best attribute of the new XJ, and the one I’m most proud of, is the steering,” says Mike Cross, Jaguar’s chief engineer for vehicle integrity. Engineers increased the yaw-gain linearity, or the ratio of on-center to off-center feel, for more linear steering response, and the results are readily apparent in long, gradual sweeping curves, where assistance increases with lock. At low speeds, the steering has good on-center feel yet isn’t too heavy. Stopping power is excellent in the XJ8 and the Brembo-equipped XJR, but both suffer from slightly mushy brake pedals.
The outgoing XJ’s legendary ride comfort was brought to you in part by the vehicle’s considerable sprung weight, which served as a massive steel, glass, and leather bushing between occupants’ bodies and the road surface. With its new, lightweight, aluminum body structure, the X350 lost some of that inherent comfort advantage, so a new air suspension system replaces traditional steel coil springs. In combination with S-type-derived, aluminum-intensive, double-wishbone suspension front and rear, the standard air setup provides suitably Jaguaresque ride comfort, but it’s no surprise that the XJR’s standard sport suspension transmits a little more impact harshness, especially to rear-seat passengers, than the XJ8. At speeds above 100 mph, the air springs automatically lower the XJ’s ride height by about a quarter-inch. Jaguar’s now-familiar Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS), which controls the dampers electronically in response to road surfaces, acceleration, and braking, is again standard, but it’s not quite the equal of the multiadjustable systems in the 7-series and the A8. Midcorner bumps slightly upset the XJR’s rear suspension, and CATS sometimes pauses a beat when entering corners before the suspension takes a set.
For every person who thinks the new XJ looks too much like its predecessor, there will be three more who think it looks exactly as the Jaguar of their fantasies should look: like a Jaguar. Company officials hint that we might see envelope-pushing design in the next XK (due in 2005) or in a production version of the R Coupe concept, should such a car ever come to be. Jaguar design chief Ian Callum inherited the X350 more than halfway through development when his predecessor, Geoff Lawson, died suddenly in 1999, and he is too diplomatic to say whether he would have launched the project on the same traditional styling path. The new car is striking, if familiar, from the front, less so as you move around to the side. In the quest for more interior space, the low and lean profile that has characterized the XJ for so long inevitably had to swell, and the resulting higher waistline makes the car look, from the side, like a Buick Lesabre.
The cabin is well crafted and full of wood veneers and leather, but we wish Jaguar would create interior environments using traditional materials in more innovative ways. The switch-gear and the general design theme are both tired. Jaguar also could take a cue from the Lexus SC430 and provide a retractable lid for the big navigation and HVAC screen. Kudos, though, for new options such as adjustable pedals, a rear sunshade, and a DVD player with two screens mounted behind the front headrests. Say goodbye to the long-wheelbase model (likely to return within two or three years) and the rear-seat fold-down picnic tables.
The seventh-generation XJ reaches U.S. dealerships in early June, with pricing likely to stay fairly close to the outgoing range of $57,000 to $72,000. Jaguar expects the XJ8 to account for 55 percent of the model mix, the Vanden Plas 30 percent, and the XJR 15 percent. The XJ is not perfect, but with technology, build quality, safety, creature comforts, and driving dynamics that are at last in the same league as BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Lexus, it no longer has to rest on past laurels. Instead, it can with confidence play the role it created thirty-six years ago: that of a high-performance, prestigious, elegant, and distinctly British luxury car.