First Drive: 2011 Jaguar XJ

Here's one reason not to judge a book by its cover: the outgoing Jaguar XJ8. You look at it and think, "It's a hundred years old."

But a hundred years ago, cars didn't have on-board fiber-optic digital networks or an impossibly light, aircraft-inspired aluminum chassis. Yes, under that antediluvian façade lurks a vehicle that, as recently as yesterday, was thoroughly modern.

Today is a different day. As a new dawn emerges, the sun's angled rays tickle the protracted fastback roofline of tomorrow's hope for the storied brand's survival: the 2011 Jaguar XJ. You've heard it before, but the two dimensions of paper are insufficient to capture the shape, proportion, and visual impact of this car in real life. Yes, the XJ looks a bit awkward on paper. But when you see one on the road for the first time, you'll do exactly as we've just witnessed literally hundreds of awe-struck pedestrians do: Stop, stare, and mutter, Pour l'amour du ciel! Cette voiture est vraiment magnifique!

Your particular exclamation may well be in English. But we're in Paris, and there's probably good reason why Jaguar chose this city to let us drive the XJ. Aside from the breathtaking opportunity to ogle the Eiffel Tower by night through the double glass sunroof, that is. Paris is chic central, and the French love rolling drama. And tell me those draping, dramatic taillights couldn't have just as easily found their home on the rump of a Citroën.

We do have one design-related confession to make: we purposely asked Jaguar for a dark-colored XJ to photograph. As you might remember from pictures of the XJ on the auto show stand, the D-pillars are black, no matter what color the car is painted. Purpose: create the effect of a wraparound rear window to de-emphasize the car's relatively tall, narrow proportions. (The new XJ is about the same overall size as the XJ8 it replaces, except it's a significant 1.9 inches narrower.) The effect works - with the blacked-out limo-tint on the rear windows of the European-specification long-wheelbase XJL. As this issue goes to press, Jaguar wasn't sure whether U.S. regulations allow the dark tint, and we're guessing that they won't. The visual trick will be less effective without the tint, and frankly the black pillars may look downright strange on light-colored cars.

But it is a conversation piece. Like the rest of the car. This XJ is a work of art - its design is the key to its success in a market crowded with relatively lookalike, traditional three-box luxury sedans.

Like its predecessor, the XJ uses all-aluminum construction, riveted and bonded together for exceptional structural rigidity and light weight. The body is about eleven percent stiffer in torsion than the XK8, and even though it weighs nearly 300 pounds, it's still hundreds of pounds lighter than most of its competition - including the aluminum space-frame 2011 Audi A8.

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The parking sensor volume can be turned down using the touch screen - vehicle settings. The touch screen makes a good guess at where you are pressing - wrong presses are rare. It would be better if it reacted faster.

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