Sometimes, your heart simply wins out. The best all-around luxury car on the market is the Audi A8L, but it’s a machine that you admire rather than love. Instead, I’d choose the long wheelbase Jaguar XJ8 with the supercharged V-8 engine option. The Audi is an almost flawless package: a beautiful interior, a super powertrain, dramatic looks, and sensational ground-covering ability. The problem with the Audi is that it connects only when you’re covering ground at suicidal speed, right on the ragged edge. At low speeds, it feels inert. As do all Audis, in fact.
In many ways, the Jag is a far more flawed proposition. (Although we will discount the fact that the all-aluminum Audi weighs fully 400 pounds more than the alloy Jag.) The interior looks like a generic Britcar-wood and leather and wool-but without the touches that make British cars so special. Sure, the gloss black surround for the navigation screen is cool, and the rubber/chrome wheels for the air vents, the picnic tables in the back of the front seats, and the chrome trim around the power window lifts are nice, but much of the plastic trim is sub-par and the leather looks like plastic.
Yet in use, you forgive the Jag these faults, because it has some of the most intuitive controls on a modern luxury car. The audio, HVAC, and navigation actuation via the touch screen is so simple, even I can do it. The laser cruise control makes the 7-series and S-class versions look dumb. The rear-seat DVD/info center is superb, and my six-year-old twins delighted in the individual screens in the back of the front seat headrests. Very business class. Where the Germans add complexity, the Jag is as easy as a Lexus, which is actually the highest of praise.
The XJ8 doesn’t look as special as Jags of yore, yet by adding five inches onto the wheelbase, the LWB version looks a lot classier, more elegant, and more finished, as if the carmaker started with this one and then chopped the wheelbase for the regular car. No, it isn’t the best car to gaze at in its class, and it lacks a Jag’s supreme grace, but the looks are growing on me.
Where the Jag is the class of the field is in the way it drives. First, most of its competitors can’t decide how they want their cars to drive, so you, the driver, have a choice of comfort or sport or automatic damping. Jaguar, which also uses electronic damping, gives you its opinion-which, it turns out, is the best compromise in class between ride and handling. Despite low profile tires on 19-inch wheels, the Jag rides the worst imperfections like a magic carpet, but when you start throwing it around the body control is sensational. The steering is your friend, lively and well weighted, and the car is a joy to pilot around any corner. It is connected, involving, and fun, adjectives that elude Audi, Mercedes, and Lexus.
The 390-hp supercharged V-8 engine isn’t as refined as the Lexus’s engine, but it has more grunt, an enduring muted whine under hard acceleration, and a perfectly matched six-speed that doesn’t need fancy manu-matic shifting. With this much torque and a smart ZF transmission, who needs to outthink the electronics? Speaking of which, you can caress the brake pedal and squeeze the throttle at the same time in the Jag without the engine management system deciding it will rob you, the driver, of all power. Has anyone told BMW and Merc engineers that left-foot braking is the quick way in an automatic? Have they not got F1 programs?
The stretched XJ8 shows us the benefits of taking weight out of cars. By going light, Jaguar enabled the XJ8 to have a better balance between ride and handling than its opposition enjoys. The Jag lacks in some areas, but in providing a balance between sport and luxury, relaxed first-class travel and fun, it does a better job than its competitors. All it needs now is the kind of style that William Lyons would have ensured it got.