This beautiful sedan is our reward for the billions of dollars that the Ford Motor Company poured into Coventry’s moribund Jaguar before off-loading the brand in 2008. Ford made a lot of mistakes with Jaguar, starting with buying it in the first place, although most of them related to applying Detroit’s rigid mind-set to a company that was its antithesis. But in one respect Ford’s ingrained attitudes brought a major improvement: Jaguar manufacturing quality is better, even if the cars aren’t always up to the standard that their superb appearance implies. With increased reliability and an advanced aluminum structure, Jaguar’s XJ ought to have been our 2004 Design of the Year — except that it hewed so closely to revered 1968 shapes that few perceived the difference between the 2003 steel and 2004 aluminum cars.
There’s no danger of that now. The 2011 model is gloriously, magnificently different from the forty-two-year-old XJ design template. It looks-and is-powerful, refined, and aerodynamic. It retains the aluminum structure of the previous model, picks up XF styling cues, and has its own characteristics that will likely evolve further in succeeding generations, following the highly successful design program of Jaguar founder/stylist Sir William Lyons.
A 1958 book, L’Automobile et ses Grands Problèmes, has a series of illustrations showing how styling features — a fender here, a rear roof profile there — of Jaguar models from the late 1930s onward had been retained and used on later models for a generation or two before being dropped. Lyons used that technique consistently throughout the entire period when he was Jaguar’s primary stylist. When he retired, his successors forgot the evolutionary aspect of his modus operandi and persisted with all past design cues, rather than just some of them.
What Ian Callum and Julian Thomson have done with the XJ is exactly what Lyons did. They kept the double-bump headlamp fairings, for instance, but they dropped the rounded rear roof, used for too long and cribbed by Chrysler for the LHS, and innovated new forms. Their new upper design is good, but for the U.S. its execution is weak because our laws don’t allow extremely dark backlight and rear-door glass, as is permitted in Europe. This explains why XJ D-pillars are black — and why some U.S. buyers are choosing to have their D-pillars painted body color instead. Either way, the car’s profile, whether in short- or long-wheelbase form, is wonderfully sleek with its long roof.
To me, the best part of Jaguar’s total renewal lies inside. Mark Phillips, head of interior design, has totally transformed Jaguar interiors without diluting the essence of what made Jaguars so desirable. There’s still wood, just not as much of it, in arcing narrow bands, not big planks. There are still big round dials, but they’re not real, just clever digital representations. For as much as I admire Carsten Monnerjan’s Bauhaus-caliber Audi interiors, I like the warmth of the XJ’s cabin more. And so do the majority of us at Automobile Magazine. The Jaguar XJ is a truly worthy Design of the Year.