If the auto industry were a college literature course, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi would be those tight-pony-tailed girls who sit right up front taking color coded notes and organizing study groups for every chapter. Jaguar would be that guy who walks in late with Cheetos on his sweatshirt, apologizes for bringing the wrong novel, and then scores the highest on the final exam.
Yes, Jaguar has a spotty track record. Yes, it faces some serious challenges. And, yes, it builds a luxury sedan that absolutely betters its German rivals. Let there be no doubt: our editors drove the Jaguar XJ back-to-back with the excellent new Audi A8 during last year's All-Star testing. The Jaguar made the list; the Audi did not. It wasn't that close.
The XJ manages this feat by oozing style, charm, and presence from every pore. The much-discussed new sheetmetal absolutely grabs your attention. I find myself studying it, thinking about it. I still hesitate to call it beautiful, especially in long-wheelbase form, but this is one case where I can certainly cede that there's more to a car design than mere prettiness. Car reviewers have a habit of calling every luxury car interior gorgeous and stunning, but the XJ's cabin truly is. It integrates a healthy helping of technology - an LCD instrument panel and touch screen controls - into a very organic and warm environment rich with leather and wood. The Jag's interface scored last in our recent four-way comparison ("Interface-off," January 2011, page 14) but is by no means a terrible system. It's reasonably user friendly, if a bit slow, and synchs painlessly with an iPhone. One example of how Jaguar simply "gets it" is the driver's seat. Whereas others in this segment employ all sorts of adjustability and active bolstering, the XJ's thin and elegant seat fits like a glove with few adjustments required.
Jaguar has long mastered the black art of suspension tuning and continues to do so here. The XJ rides better than the softly sprung Mercedes S-class and yet handles as well as the BMW 7-series. Same deal with the steering: it's almost as effortless as in a Toyota Camry but is as accurate and communicative as that in just about any sport sedan. And those trying to wean themselves off of fossil fuel should avoid getting within earshot of this 5.0-liter V-8. It serves up its 385 hp more smoothly than any turbocharged engine could and sounds like a 1960s American big-block that's been to finishing school. The automatic shifts smartly even in regular drive mode, but I mostly left it in Sport to hear the engine snap into lower gears.
For all this acclaim, the XJ still isn't perfect. Some of the body panel gaps, for instance, wouldn't make it out of the Honda Civic manufacturing plant. And although Jaguar does seem to be getting its act together, there's no guarantee this relatively tiny, Indian-owned automaker will survive in an industry dependent on economies of scale.
I'd buy an XJ, anyway.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor