These are daunting days for Jaguar. Ford has yet to earn a penny from the $2.5 billion bet it placed on the venerable British brand fifteen years ago. S- and X-types engineered around corporate components never achieved their sales targets, and the Formula 1 fling was an embarrassment. Jaguar residual values suffer in comparison with other luxury brands, and current cat fanciers are aging, partly because there’s no SUV across the showroom floor.All of which obliges Jaguar’s fresh flagship to leap forth and growl with a vengeance. Introduced at the 2002 Paris show on the birthday of the 1968 original, the fifth-generation XJ was a scrupulous blend of old and new. Inside a larger but familiar-looking envelope, a roomier interior is furnished with traditional burled wood and lavish leather. Powertrains were refreshed, and computer-controlled air springs replaced steel coils. The headline attraction is a unibody consisting of more than 300 aluminum components bonded, riveted, and welded to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That unibody is 40 percent stiffer and 60 percent lighter than the steel structure it replaced.
Senior editor Joe DeMatio reported from the XJ8‘s launch that it finally had caught up to dynamic standards established by aggressive German competitors. Four months later, we pitted the newly arrived Jag against an Audi A8L, a BMW 745Li, and a Mercedes-Benz S430 4Matic, concluding that the Audi was our overall favorite, the Mercedes was most likely to provide a pleasant ownership experience, but the XJ8 was the foursome’s true athlete. Author David E. Davis, Jr., called it the most fun of the bunch.
But could that endorsement stand a Four Seasons thrashing? To find out, we ordered an XJ8 and sent it on a twelve-month, 33,780-mile mission that would touch a third of these United States plus the odd Canadian province. Debate simmered season after season: Is this a dated and doddering old fogey’s ride or a pleasant respite from the cold efficiency wrought by the Germans and the Japanese?
One logbook contributor admitted that the new Jaguar drew more than its share of admiring glances, but it was not his cup of orange pekoe. He dubbed the XJ8 ancient-looking, cramped to ride in, and floaty in flight, before expressing strong preference for the BMW 745i. Others acknowledged the tendency for the body to waft about at speed while chiming in with praise in defense of the XJ8’s honor. “Wheel control on impacts is terrific,” one commentator pointed out before chastising the cut of this Jaguar’s headliner, which he deemed “appropriate for a ’70s cheapskate, not a $70,000 luxury car.”
Executive editor Mark Gillies strongly disagreed: “My complaints stop after the ho-hum exterior and an interior that lacks character. The driving experience is excellent thanks to a supple ride, just-so brakes, beautifully linear steering, and handling that’s both composed and athletic. Where a German car crushes the pavement, the Jaguar XJ8 floats serenely.”
Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings’s enthusiasm began with a favorable overview of the interior: “This is my new fave nav system. It’s easy to use and full of information. Likewise, the wheel-mounted cruise control is perfect; hit the ‘set’ button, and your velocity is locked. While the gauges and the clock are dated-looking, they are at least clearly legible.
“During a trip to New Hampshire fraught with wind and blizzards, we loved the smooth ride. You hear the suspension working, but the cabin remains unflustered. I’m not feeling ‘floaty.’ The wheel is padded in the right places, and the steering feels tightly connected. Front-seat roominess and comfort remind me of a British Airways business-class lounger. The headliner looks like nice wool to me. Long stints at the wheel didn’t wear us out.”
On a winter trip to Detroit for a play, DeMatio and three friends enjoyed a delightful evening in the Jaguar’s cozy confines. “I found myself blasting out of intersections leaving everyone in this car’s dust. But if you take it easy, you can achieve 25 mpg on the freeway.”
This XJ8‘s commendably light weight-a 600-pound advantage over its competitors-was at the root of favorable remarks about around-town agility. More remarkably, logbook comments repeatedly praised the lack of rattles after 30,000 miles of hammering. Jaguar‘s aluminum construction also pays efficiency dividends. Thanks to its excellent highway mileage-more than 25 mpg at times-the XJ8’s 22.5-gallon tank often provided 500 miles of range.
The most notable service concern we experienced began at 12,000 miles with a flat tire caused by a nail. Apparently in sympathy, a second tire blew catastrophically a few hundred miles later, leaving New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman stranded on a dark and dreary January night. Adding insult to injury was a wrench useful only for rounding off the lug nuts. Upon close inspection, that tool appeared to have been improperly heat-treated, so its lug socket was too soft to maintain shape during use (and, inevitably, misuse). The service manager at our local dealership admitted that “Ford has pulled the part.” We replaced the damaged nuts and used a tougher impact socket levered by a breaker bar until the service manager was able to supply an improved factory lug wrench.
Before our tire troubles ended, the Jag suffered another blowout, and a third tire needed replacement because of excess wear. In light of these failures and low scores achieved in cornering and braking tests, the conclusion is that the $800 spent for optional wheels and tires should have been invested in something other than H-rated Continental touring radials.
Other service concerns were warning lamps lighting now and again. The automatic parking brake acted up early on, the low-coolant light cried wolf incessantly, and there was a minor driver’s air-bag problem at the end of the third season. Not surprisingly, we warped the brake rotors and inflicted surface cracks in the rear pads after 30,000 miles of heavy-pedal driving.
Considering the intrinsic complexity of the modern ultraluxury car and this generation XJ8’s youth, we feel that its reliability was acceptable. We’re not alone in that judgment. In J. D. Power’s 2004 Initial Quality Study, the XJ was Jag’s star player. After the first ninety days of ownership, buyers reported fewer than one problem on average, a score topped only by the Lexus LS430.
Meanwhile, back to the logbook ranting. Road test coordinator Jason Bradley termed the XJ8 an anachronism, fraught with vintage Lincoln DNA. Nonetheless, he preferred this car’s overall character to the excessively teched BMW 7-series whose Four Seasons flog overlapped the XJ8’s run through our gauntlet. Contributor Kirk Seaman and others compared the quality of interior plastics, especially switchgear, to various low-market Ford vehicles.
Contributor Ronald Ahrens, who lived with the car for thousands of miles, was beset by puppy love. He deemed the XJ8 a true classic-comparable to his favorite Bach cello sonatas-embodying the highest standards of power and roadgoing sex appeal. A feature he admired was the nav system and its voice, which he likened to that of Victoria Tennant. One he loathed, along with most of us, was the Jag’s clumsy J-gate shift labyrinth.
Online editor Mike Dushane expressed delight in the Jag’s 4.2-liter V-8: “What it lacks in refinement it makes up for with great noise and a flexible power band. There’s just enough personality to remind you that you’re not in a Lexus. Compared with BMW’s iDrive, the nav system is a breath of fresh air. Pushing a button-even a chintzy one-steals my heart.”
In the end, the yeas and nays for this car were keyed to the age of the beholder. While everyone appreciated the XJ8’s refined driving behavior, the younger staff members were distressed by the interior lapses and dated exterior design. Dushane summarized that point of view by calling this car “a modern knight dressed as a sad, old dowager.” The more mature respondents were sufficiently enthusiastic about the XJ8’s brilliant road manners, deep-seated comfort, and instant recognition that they considered this car’s many foibles less consequential. Gillies concluded, “The Jaguar XJ8‘s interior isn’t as well appointed as that of the BMW 7-series, and it’s not as capable when driven hard, but I prefer the Jag for everyday use because it’s more intuitive to drive and has a superior ride.”