The Battle of Britain was waged in the skies above England in the summer and fall of 1940, the stakes being no less mo-mentous, in Winston Churchill's rousing formulation, than "the survival of Christian civilization . . . our own British life . . . and our Empire."
Sixty-five years later, we're here to witness another Battle of Britain, this time on a whole different continent, at the edge of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, a place where one looks down, not up. But we're doing neither, gazing instead straight ahead at the all-new-for-2007 Jaguar XK coupe and convertible. Later, as the sun is setting, we survey the landscape spreading out before us, framed through the windshield by the Jaguar's long, sloping hood. Suddenly, the battle ahead seems fraught with danger and emotion.
OK, our prose is trending deeply purple. We admit it, the stakes today are less critical than those Churchill faced, such as the future of the free world. So sue us. We're correspondents in the battle we fear will decide the continued viability of Jaguar Cars. Which may not be a matter of life and death for most folks, but it's certainly a top-of-the-list item of concern for the entirety of the auto-enthusiast world.
For, it so happens, Jaguar exists to mark the time and place where Christian civilization, the British Empire, and British life once came together (and sometimes still come) to give their Lord and their lords, as well as the rest of the free world, some of our most evocative sports cars, our most timeless and romantic automotive ideals. The plan, as laid down by Sir William Lyons, was also to make some bleedin' money along the way. Regrettably, that last part is proving even more elusive than the first.
Jaguar's proprietor (since 1990) hails from Dearborn, Michigan, so the firm is technically no longer a British concern. Yet Jaguar, the money-losing-est division of Ford's Premier Automotive Group, has also become the world's leading volume maker of very British cars. An accolade that sounds more encouraging than it is, really.
Which may be part of why there was unease in the air when we got to the XK launch in Scottsdale. It wasn't just the smog inversion in the Phoenix basin that had put the city on air-pollution high alert. And while it could have been my aftershave, a couple of precedent facts emitted a stronger odor. The X-type has tanked. The very fine XJ has wallowed. Would not any kind of duff XK launch constitute strike three and you're out? Was Shaguar losing its mojo for good? It was something to think about, at least.
It seems pertinent to mention here that Jaguar has not actually made money in decades and has suffered some of its greatest losses only recently. It is clearly a most magical brand, however, the truth of which fact is proven by another fact-that's a mighty long time for any company to lose money yet still attract investment. Jaguar is that company.
One of capitalism's great anomalies, Jaguar hasn't made Ford a tuppance in the sixteen years they've owned it. It wouldn't be strange for them to sell it. On the other hand, it wouldn't be strange if they kept it, either. Jaguar's name, as noted, is magic, fully electric, larger than life, and, as an engineering entity, the company-like PAG's Volvo and Land Rover but unlike General Motors' eviscerated Saab-really does have some special chops it can call its own.
Nonetheless, Ford's best-laid plans for the British luxury maker, such as the ones that involved quadrupling sales to 200,000 cars per annum, officially lie in tatters, as Jaguar missed the lofty sales target set for it by nearly half. It's easy to see why. After the predictable non-success of the not-special-enough X-type of 2001 was established, checked, and then checked again, the revolutionary and excellent XJ sedan made of aluminum was unaccountably sent to market in 2003 with vibe-killer styling, which caused sales to lag from the start.
In the cruelest irony, Jaguar's quality has been hitting unimaginable highs (earning a counterintuitive number-one ranking in new- car sales satisfaction from J. D. Power for two years running plus a number-two ranking in the 2005 Initial Quality Study), but factories-including Jaguar's legendary facility at Browns Lane, Coventry-are being closed down.
Back when Ford was enjoying fat times of its own, Jaguar's practice of incinerating sterling by the shedload was tolerated by the parent company with reasonable cheer. Ford let Jaguar engineers get on and be Jaguar engineers with the XJ and, again, with the XK. With both they've proven they still have the touch. Ford's financial wherewithal and the trust it placed in Jaguar has, as its reward, two excellent automobiles.
In a sense, these are absolutely the best Jaguars ever. But, as we ponder the XK in the morning sun, we know the styling is not quite there on this one, either. On the way up from Phoenix, people haven't been pointing or staring at us in the way that says this car's a hit. We like the way it looks, we respect it, but we don't love it.
At the rear haunches, its hottest point, the XK reminds us of the Aston Martin DB9, one of the prettiest cars we know. We love the shape of the rear hatch in the coupe, and the gills on the side tickle us, but the front of the car is so impossibly corporate, the grille so eerily reminiscent of the face of the Ford Taurus. Pedestrian safety regulations in Europe provide designers with a difficult challenge, we know, but surely this bland effort from the people who once loosed the E-type on the world was a misstep that can be revisited in the very near future. To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 debate with Dan Quayle, I knew Jack Kennedy, and the XK is no Jack Kennedy. Um, I mean, E-type.
Fortunately, as a driving tool, the new XK makes its appeal known within the first fifty yards. This is a rocking machine in the best British idiom. It's fast, it's fun, and its interior is but a few fathoms shy of light-years better than its predecessor's. It's still distinctly British in ambience, but it competes with the industry's finest for quality of material, fit, and finish. It drives beautifully and has better steering, with more precision and advanced conversational skills, than any Jaguar in memory, despite the optional twenty-inch wheels and enormous Dunlops on the cars we drove (Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, and nineteen-inchers are also available.) Bigger brakes and better pedal feel help thrust the new XK deeper into the fight.
The XK is proof that money was well spent by Ford and also will be by those who buy one. As good as we'd hoped and more, it's a car that can stand up next to the BMW 6-series, the Mercedes SL, and the Cadillac XLR with its J. Lo butt (most noticeable in convertible form) jacked high. If nothing else, Ian Callum's rear-end design for the XKs marks a change from creeping "Bangle-butt"-ism, decried around the world yet spreading like wildfire anyway.
Aluminum preserves structural stiffness and confers boasting rights on its users while achieving the light weight that has allowed Jaguar to maintain and extend in the XK its traditional exceptionalism in ride and handling. The stiff shell is kitted out with the company's time-honored, but still winning, independent suspension, a combination of unequal-length control arms front and rear, sprung by coils. What can we say, except it works for us? CATS-Jaguar's Computer Active Technology Suspension, not the embarrassingly long-lived musical-has also returned, offering two-stage adaptive damping to control roll and pitch.
The Grand Canyon is an ancient American monument, the Jaguar XK merely a long-lived British one. Less than sixty years old, it comprises a veritable mountain range of England's great automotive peaks and valleys, beginning with the epochal XK120 of 1948, moving up to the XK-E (or E-type, as it was known at home) of 1961, before descending to lesser heights as the incredibly long-lived XJ-S (1975) and the outgoing XK8 (1996). For longer than some readers will have been alive, these last two full-figured British sports cars have served as the heart and soul of the Jaguar mystique. For some time, XKs have been seriously outdated. But not any longer: the new XK is a genuine modern.
Unlike Lotus and Aston Martin, other stalwart bearers that make the most of aluminum tubs, the XK has, as noted, a full aluminum unibody. It's derived from the XJ's, with different, and more numerous, aluminum extrusions and castings topped by pressed aluminum panels. The entire structure is bonded and riveted, with the exception of one weld in the roof seam of the coupe. Even in convertible form, the impressively rigid XK needs no additional gusseting. Jaguar further avers that its aluminum structure provides greater safety as well as a service life double that of steel. The only problem is that it is hugely expensive to manufacture. We say it's worth it.
Jaguar claims best-in-class torsional rigidity for its new coupe and a 32 percent improvement over the outgoing model, while the convertible is half again more rigid than the decidedly wobbly structure it replaces. Yet bucking the trend toward ever-heavier cars, both XKs are lighter than the models they replace, with the coupe tipping the scales at a robust but not disgusting 3671 pounds and the convertible at 3759 pounds (versus 3779 and 3980 pounds for the outgoing cars).
Deploying the latest, 300-hp version of Jaguar's proven 4.2-liter AJ-V8 (up a mere 6 hp from its predecessor, courtesy of modified fuel injectors), the svelter XKs post power-to-weight ratio improvements of five (coupe) and eight (convertible) percent, enabling the coupe to reach 60 mph from rest in 5.9 seconds while turning the quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds (factory figures). That's but half a second slower than the outgoing XKR with all 390 of its supercharged locomotion units. Look for a new XKR-and the best-accelerating production Jaguar ever-in approximately a year's time.
Throttle-by-wire technology helps cut emissions to meet ULEV-II standards but, as always, blunts excitement, with throttle response that is smooth but not crisp. Underscoring the remarkable silence achieved inside the car, induction roar has been muzzled out so completely that it has been judged necessary to actually pump some of the sucking noises back into the cabin via a rubber sound hose in order to enhance aural pleasure. It's a start, but the XK's exhaust note (which sounds bitching from outside the car) is experienced as a somewhat subdued version of the classic V-8 woofle inside the cockpit. We could deal with something a little rootier, tootier, and fruitier, but maybe that's just us.
In recognition of the outgoing XK8's lack of credibility in several key areas of tactile luxury interface, the company worked hard to keep the bean counters at bay in the cabin, the result being a new standard for modern Jaguar interiors. Although for this old-timer's money you'll never beat the wood, leather, black metal, and chrome simplicity of the old ones, a completely new design language for the XK and a new set of suppliers have resulted in an understatedly handsome yet truly luxurious office for a driver and one well-cared-for passenger. As in the past, those who find themselves relegated to either of the two incredibly tiny back seats are advised before attempting to sit down to be either dead or heavily sedated. Or they'll soon be wishing they were.
In the regal chairs up front, drivers benefit from more than just the higher-quality materials, although the stitched, leather-covered dash and door panels are among the first upgrades one notices. Wood veneers, in one's choice of burl walnut or light poplar, instantly, cosmically surpass the overly shiny plasticized stuff that graced the XK8. Add top-quality woolen carpets, and the new XK bespeaks English civilization of a higher order, giving BMW and Mercedes-Benz a run for their money for the first time in decades yet still managing to move the clock forward. It is decidedly not fake retro. One can choose aluminum accents in place of wood, and these harmonize just as convincingly.
The hugely adjustable seats are as comfortable as they look. Backaches were never the better part of valor, but they were a part of the outgoing XK. The new seats work with the rest of the car to deliver what must be one of the most relaxing sports-car experiences known to man. Improved head, leg, and shoulder room heighten the sense of luxury, while the decision to move the electric seats' control panels to the door-Mercedes-Benz style-addresses our other major gripe with the old car's seating provisions.
Jaguars were always chockablock with gauges-panels of toggles and big black dials that deliberately led one to imagine that one was firing up an Avro Lancaster for a midnight bombing raid. With just a speedo, a tach, and a fuel gauge, the 2007 XK runs contra to this tradition of more instruments, not fewer, each one capable of relaying the information that all is well along with all of the minute and drastic variations thereof, any one of which may indicate at any time that all is less than well, and indeed that a crash landing might be in one's near future. Today, idiot lights handle the chores, and when they go off-should they go off, which is statistically less likely than in the past-it will usually be too late.
Car manufacturing is a different ballgame than it used to be. Many companies share suppliers, drawing from the same palettes of components and add-on gizmos of the electric and chip-driven variety. Jaguar has availed itself liberally of the good stuff that's out there-touch-screen controls and onboard data center, adaptive cruise control, parking sensors, automatic lights (with bixenon, optionally active headlamps) and wipers. But this time it has demanded higher quality. So while one's natural knee-jerk inclination would be to doubt the reliability and worthiness of the equipment like anything else British and electrical, we come away from our two days with the XK convinced that a conscious effort was made to get them right.
They are not unlike the XK convertible's roof, which takes but eighteen seconds to raise or lower and fits neatly under a hinged aluminum lid. This sleek metal tonneau relegates the old folded top's vision-cheating bustle to memory. It is better trimmed on the inside, triple-layered, quieter, and altogether more luxurious. When lowered, wind noise is less intrusive, with a noticeable reduction in buffeting. Where conversation pretty much hit the wall in the old car at 80 mph, I was able to bore my passenger at speeds well over 100 mph without raising my voice.
Jaguar defends its decision to forego a metal folding roof by noting that such a device would add weight and complexity while eliminating what is already minimal luggage space (although the coupe's trunk is reasonable) and, heaven forfend, the plus-two rear seating. Meaning you'd have to leave your dead or sedated friends and relations at home.
The hefty handbrake pull, another Jaguar signifier of half a century's duration, is no more. In its place, a discreet, electronically actuated chrome lever on the console. A parking brake, yes, but a brake that can no longer be utilized in emergencies or car-control exercises. While you can't help out by tugging on the handbrake, times being what they are, all four brakes will work for you under the guidance of a computer to provide helpful things such as four-channel ABS, traction control, and stability control. A sportier DSC setting may be selected by he-man drivers to permit more sideways slip before the nanny starts driving for you.
In the mountain roads leading up to and down from Jerome, Arizona, we find the AJ-V8 at its most delightful between 3500 and 4500 rpm. The intuitive paddle controls make it easy to keep the revs in the pleasure zone. Jaguar claims the adaptive, six-speed ZF box, which has normal and sport modes, is the fastest shifter in the business. Who knows? There's so much horsepower out there nowadays that, while the new XK certainly feels fast enough, it's not what you'd call brutally fast. For that, we await the upcoming XKR.
Innovative use of aluminum has proven a defining asset for Jaguar, a unifying engineering theme that's arrived just in time to imbue the marque with renewed credibility and substance. If we are to be honest, Jaguar had been coasting on the technology front for some time. The J-gate shifter of 1987 wasn't a very good idea to start with, but as a defining technological centerpiece for a company that claimed greatness, it didn't age well. The J-gate, incidentally, is no more, replaced in the new XK by the aforementioned paddles and a conventional shift gate for the new automatic. It's a small thing, but somehow neatly symbolic of the darker periods of the past that Jaguar would prefer to leave behind.
Yet on the eve of this delectable aluminum range-topper's arrival comes word that Jaguar's ambitious lineup for an all-aluminum fighting force has been scratched. Aluminum-bodied replacements for the X-type and the S-type have been canceled in favor of minor redesigns. This means the S-type will retain the lardy underpinnings and related chassis liabilities it shares with the soon-to-be-euthanized Lincoln LS.
As a halo car, as an example of what a Jaguar must do to remain special, that leaves the XK to succeed.
The battle faced by Jaguar today has at least one thing in common with what Britain confronted in 1940: failing means falling to mighty German competitors and their Japanese co-horts. To the victor go the spoils.