Today is Jaguar’s last chance to make a splash in the luxury sport sedan arena before the automaker is packed up and sent to live with its new family. Yes, Ford has thrown in the towel after seventeen years of – to be kind – spotty management of this storied marque. Rather than belabor the sorry procession of bad corporate decisions and compromised products that marred Ford’s tenure as keeper of the Big Cat, let’s just be here now, sliding for the first time behind the wheel of the new Jaguar XF.
Even as time has run out for Ford, the Jaguar design renaissance has begun to take root. What caught our imagination in the sensuous XK coupe and convertible is about to be proved out in this controversial, new-wave sport sedan conceptualized by Ian Callum, one of the world’s great classic sports car designers. “The XF is a stage in a personal journey for me,” he explains in his gnarly Scots burr. Callum’s journey includes being inspired by the Jaguars of his childhood to become a car designer, a dream that led him from the Royal College of Art to Ford, to Ghia’s design studio in Turin, and to TWR Design, where his most famous projects were the Aston Martin DB7 and DB7 Vantage. He landed at Jaguar – his dream job – in 1999, smoothed a couple cars in the pipeline, then had his first smash hit with the XK. There is nothing more important to Callum than building on that success with the XF: “It has always been my career goal to return Jaguar to its rightful place as a leader in automotive design. Cars like the original XJ6 left a lasting legacy, and my ambition has been to create something as seminal. The XF is that car.”
His opinion isn’t universal. The blogs have been barking since the curtain was pulled from the XF in Frankfurt last fall; a spirited back-and-forth has filled the car mags, including this one, alternately blasting the XF for not being a Jaguar and slavering over its luscious modernity. Hate the front, love the rear? Well, shades of the XK’s design debate at launch. But if the arc of the XK’s design acceptability and then dominance is anything to go by, the XF will indeed triumph, and Callum will rule once again.
Our money’s on Callum.
We came to Arizona prepared to judge the XF out in the real world, where all cars should finally be judged. Parked in front of Paradise Valley’s elite Sanctuary Resort & Spa on Camelback Mountain, surrounded by the Benzes, Bimmers, and Audis of the well-heeled clientele, the XF stopped traffic, turned heads, and looked the freshest, the most chic, the most dramatically and dynamically elegant of anything on its wavelength. Perhaps you think this sounds lame, but photos don’t begin to do the XF’s complex shape justice. It’s longer, sleeker, and snarkier in person, with wide, high haunches taut with unreleased energy. The windshield and the C-pillar are impossibly raked, giving the XF the profile of a sport coupe and contributing to a low 0.29 coefficient of drag. At the Sanctuary, the XF proved eminently worthy. The XF is one of the most gorgeous five-passenger sedans on the market today, although long-legged riders will want to call dibs early on the shotgun position, or they’ll find themselves negotiating with the front-seat occupants for legroom. There is no dearth of trunk space, however, especially when you flop down the rear seats and expand cargo space into near-infinity.
The Brits will be the first to tell you that they do luxury cabins better than anyone. We’ll be the second. The XF breaks some pretty heavy ground in this respect. If you’ve seen a Motorola Razr phone, you’ll recognize the inspiration for interior designer Alister Whelan’s aluminum-finished dials, Tungsten-colored switches and buttons, and “phosphor” blue halo lighting throughout the cabin. What you’ll undoubtedly notice first, though, is the pulsing red engine-start button. You’ll push it and watch a large, knurled knob in the narrow center console – looking every bit like BMW’s dreaded iDrive controller – rise up and present itself. As you realize that it’s a rotary gear selector, the parked vents on the dash will be rolling open and a seven-inch touch screen will blink to life.
Two things. First, the touch screen controlling the navigation, audio, temperature, and other car systems is much faster than it is in the XK. It works very well and is backed by a bank of redundant button controls. Second, the gear selector is less stupid than it seems at first blush. It quickly and neatly selects a gear and, being fully electronic, takes up so little space (just above an equally electric and tidy half-moon parking brake switch) that the bulk of the center console is left for massive cupholders and a storage bin (which has a power outlet, plus USB and iPod hookups). If you’re like us, you’ll be using the wide Formula 1 – style, steering-wheel-mounted paddleshifters to manage your own gear changes anyway.
This is the fine wood and leather club lounge of British legend, but freshly executed by a relatively youthful team. Your choice of wood trim merely accents a more prominent swath of aluminum. The padded leather cowl is low and tight, with double stitching that matches soft, lovely, leather seats. When you sit behind the wheel, with your elbows on the high center console and the door-mounted armrest, it feels as if you are commanding the road from your favorite reading chair. If your chair could do four-wheel drifts, that is.
Mike Cross, Jaguar’s chief engineer, greeted us not only in person but also on the flat-screen TV in the hotel room on our arrival. The Jaguar public relations team had thoughtfully in-stalled a DVD starring handling wizard Cross at the wheel of an XF executing endless heroic four-wheel drifts on a wet, twisty track. Provocative stuff to be showing a bunch of journalists before letting them take your cars into the Arizona hills for a day. Thank you very much.
We chose the top-of-the-line Supercharged XF for our tour. (Something about that extra 120 hp over the Luxury XF’s basic 300-hp, 4.2-liter V-8, yes?) Not that the richly trimmed Luxury base model, at $49,975, skimps on features. It’s nicely appointed but has eighteen-inch instead of twenty-inch aluminum wheels and less aggressive rubber, not a bad thing if you’re going for a magic-carpet ride. Also, a few of the more exotic luxuries that are standard on the Premium Luxury ($55,975) and Supercharged ($62,975) XFs cost extra for Luxury customers. Tops on the list of desirable options must be the Supercharged XF’s standard 440-watt, fourteen-speaker Bowers & Wilkins surround-sound audio system. It will make you incontinent.
Our drive route led us north out of Paradise Valley through rain on Arizona 87, a fast and twisting climb to Payson. Quiet and composed in town, the XF Supercharged was in its glory when it hit the highway. We like this blown V-8 in both the S-type R and the XKR, and it is as enticing in the XF – a full second quicker than the normally aspirated engine, at 5.1 seconds from 0 to 60 mph, with a 155-mph governed top speed. It’s moving a big car – more than two tons – which makes those 5.1 seconds fly by. The real joy, though, is found in its healthy 408 lb-ft of torque, which peaks at 3500 rpm.
The ZF six-speed automatic transmission with paddleshifters – found in all XF models – is improved from its launch in the XK, with an instantaneous connection between transmission and engine. The XF’s (and XJ’s) chief program engineer, Mick Mohan, insists that it’s “one of the quickest responding transmissions on the market today.” It may very well be. There are three shift modes, the first being the everyday Drive automatic setting. Rotate the selector one notch to S, and the automatic mode becomes more responsive, with adaptive shifting to more aggressive driving. When you’re really pushing it, though, you can shift yourself. Holding the upshift paddle for two seconds resets the transmission to Drive mode.
The Supercharged also has its own dynamic stability control mode, in addition to the standard stability control mode and a winter setting, which allows some wheel slip when you need it in low-traction conditions. Dynamic mode gets your driving party started by permitting full manual upshifts, late upshifts, and early downshifts, and it lets you know where you are with a big, amber shift indicator as you near redline.
The XF is a quiet and serene luxury cruiser when you don’t want to be a driving hero. And then it leaps into action when the right piece of road finds you in the right frame of mind. The rain had lightened after lunch, and we shot back down on the more rough-and-tumble Highway 188 past the Roosevelt Dam to Globe, giving the XF a thorough workout. With a unibody based on that of the competent S-type, a suspension using the XK’s setup front and rear with Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS) damping, the XK’s vented disc brakes, and the magic ministrations of Mike Cross and his crack development team, the XF was bound to be brilliant to drive. It carved those canyon roads with precise inputs from the thickly padded steering wheel. A bit of lift throttle helped nudge the front-heavy XF Supercharged through tighter turns, while it rode all the while with amazing grace, even on its twenty-inch wheels. Gotta love those Pirelli PZeros – 255/35YR fronts and 285/30YR rears.
After our six-hour day behind the wheel, we were ready to drive the XF home to Michigan, which is exactly how all good Jaguars feel. We’re also confident that the XF will prove to be the seminal design that Ian Callum believes it is. Moving on from the XK and this new XF, Callum’s string of pearls grows with a striking new aluminum-bodied XJ, due in 2010.
“The last ten years have been fairly traumatic, as you know,” says managing director and thirty-two-year Jaguar employee Mike O’Driscoll, who has been through all of it and wants to stay on. “When we get things right, we get them terribly right. There’s a real camaraderie at Jaguar – a sense that we’re all in this and we’re going to make it work.” As of today, things are looking terribly right.
We’re thinking that Tata is looking pretty smart for its reported $2 billion offer. The time is right for a new company to give Jaguar its best shot.
Question & Answer:
Managing Director, Jaguar Cars
What makes a Jag a Jag?
There are clichéd views of Jaguar born of the retro designs that populated the ’80s and the ’90s. To somebody who’s fastened on that period in time, a Jaguar is a certain design that worked in a period in time. But Bill Lyons never in his entire tenure copied a previous car. Cars evolved, cars developed, and then the guillotine came down and he moved in an entirely new direction. That has been forgotten. Our halcyon days I guess were the ’60s, with the E-type, the XJ, the Mark II. What a collection of cars! But each was born of new thinking.
Is the sale affecting you?
The sale process was distracting for a couple of months in the early stages. But we’re past that. Ford is going to make a decision on the sale of the company. Our job is to run the business and to deliver results. Right now, we are totally focused on the XF launch – not worried about what Ford is going to do – because they’re going to sell the company to whomever they’re going to sell it to. The best thing I can do is run this company as well as I can. And if we do a really good job, we’re going to end up in good hands.
What do you owe Jaguar?
To put Jag back on the map, to rebuild this business, no matter who buys it. We’ve got to make people proud again to work at Jaguar, to be driving Jaguars, and we’ll do it.
When does Jag come from the darkness?
Storm clouds are often darkest outside the company when inside, you’ve seen that shaft of light and realize you’re making progress. You know you’ve cracked it, you know you’ve got it figured out, you know you’re back on track. There are still a lot of doubts out there, because you just haven’t been able to demonstrate it. A lot of us who are involved with rebuilding this company have got that sense of confidence since we started work on the XF and realized what we had. The XK was the start, but externally, it only really starts to take off with the launch of the XF.
Tata Bags Jaguar
Like Ford, Tata Motors is a publicly held company that’s still family-controlled. It’s a subsidiary of the $30 billion Tata Group, one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates, with a diverse portfolio of businesses from steel companies to luxury hotels. Its global brands include Tetley Tea, Eight O’Clock Coffee, and New York’s Pierre Hotel.
The Mumbai-based group is run by seventy-year-old Ratan Tata, an American-educated, fifth-generation scion who has held the reins at the 140-year-old firm since 1991. He has an architecture degree from Cornell and is a graduate of Harvard’s Advanced Management Program.
Founded in 1945 as TELCO (Tata Locomotive and Engineering Company), Tata Motors is India’s largest indigenous automaker, as well as the country’s largest manufacturer of trucks, buses, and commercial vehicles. It launched the Indica, the first modern small car designed in India, ten years ago, and has since added companion models called the Indigo and the Marina. It also markets a range of clunky SUVs with names such as Sumo and Safari.
Tata has previously danced with several global automotive partners, including Mercedes-Benz and MG Rover. It currently has a tie-up with Fiat in India and Argentina and is developing a game-changing “people’s car” designed to sell in emerging markets for just over $2500.
Outside of the obvious connection between the two family-controlled automakers, Ford’s management might be impressed by Tata’s deep financial resources, its extensive global holdings, and the personal charisma of chairman Ratan Tata. The Tata Group has successfully acquired and managed a number of well-known international brands. Unlike rival bidder Mahindra, Tata Motors is listed on the NYSE, and its finances are relatively transparent. Plus, Ford clearly prefers the idea of selling to a so-called strategic investor – a company already in the auto business – rather than a private-equity firm like One Equity Partners, another suitor.
It’s uncertain just how Ratan Tata plans to integrate Jaguar and Land Rover into Tata’s portfolio or leverage their platforms and technical resources – or if he intends to keep them totally separate from the Tata brand and product range. The details of his strategy should be revealed shortly.