Today is Jaguar's last chance to make a splash in the luxury sport sedan arena before the automaker is packed up and sent to live with its new family. Yes, Ford has thrown in the towel after seventeen years of - to be kind - spotty management of this storied marque. Rather than belabor the sorry procession of bad corporate decisions and compromised products that marred Ford's tenure as keeper of the Big Cat, let's just be here now, sliding for the first time behind the wheel of the new Jaguar XF.
Even as time has run out for Ford, the Jaguar design renaissance has begun to take root. What caught our imagination in the sensuous XK coupe and convertible is about to be proved out in this controversial, new-wave sport sedan conceptualized by Ian Callum, one of the world's great classic sports car designers. "The XF is a stage in a personal journey for me," he explains in his gnarly Scots burr. Callum's journey includes being inspired by the Jaguars of his childhood to become a car designer, a dream that led him from the Royal College of Art to Ford, to Ghia's design studio in Turin, and to TWR Design, where his most famous projects were the Aston Martin DB7 and DB7 Vantage. He landed at Jaguar - his dream job - in 1999, smoothed a couple cars in the pipeline, then had his first smash hit with the XK. There is nothing more important to Callum than building on that success with the XF: "It has always been my career goal to return Jaguar to its rightful place as a leader in automotive design. Cars like the original XJ6 left a lasting legacy, and my ambition has been to create something as seminal. The XF is that car."
His opinion isn't universal. The blogs have been barking since the curtain was pulled from the XF in Frankfurt last fall; a spirited back-and-forth has filled the car mags, including this one, alternately blasting the XF for not being a Jaguar and slavering over its luscious modernity. Hate the front, love the rear? Well, shades of the XK's design debate at launch. But if the arc of the XK's design acceptability and then dominance is anything to go by, the XF will indeed triumph, and Callum will rule once again.
Our money's on Callum.
We came to Arizona prepared to judge the XF out in the real world, where all cars should finally be judged. Parked in front of Paradise Valley's elite Sanctuary Resort & Spa on Camelback Mountain, surrounded by the Benzes, Bimmers, and Audis of the well-heeled clientele, the XF stopped traffic, turned heads, and looked the freshest, the most chic, the most dramatically and dynamically elegant of anything on its wavelength. Perhaps you think this sounds lame, but photos don't begin to do the XF's complex shape justice. It's longer, sleeker, and snarkier in person, with wide, high haunches taut with unreleased energy. The windshield and the C-pillar are impossibly raked, giving the XF the profile of a sport coupe and contributing to a low 0.29 coefficient of drag. At the Sanctuary, the XF proved eminently worthy. The XF is one of the most gorgeous five-passenger sedans on the market today, although long-legged riders will want to call dibs early on the shotgun position, or they'll find themselves negotiating with the front-seat occupants for legroom. There is no dearth of trunk space, however, especially when you flop down the rear seats and expand cargo space into near-infinity.
The Brits will be the first to tell you that they do luxury cabins better than anyone. We'll be the second. The XF breaks some pretty heavy ground in this respect. If you've seen a Motorola Razr phone, you'll recognize the inspiration for interior designer Alister Whelan's aluminum-finished dials, Tungsten-colored switches and buttons, and "phosphor" blue halo lighting throughout the cabin. What you'll undoubtedly notice first, though, is the pulsing red engine-start button. You'll push it and watch a large, knurled knob in the narrow center console - looking every bit like BMW's dreaded iDrive controller - rise up and present itself. As you realize that it's a rotary gear selector, the parked vents on the dash will be rolling open and a seven-inch touch screen will blink to life.
Two things. First, the touch screen controlling the navigation, audio, temperature, and other car systems is much faster than it is in the XK. It works very well and is backed by a bank of redundant button controls. Second, the gear selector is less stupid than it seems at first blush. It quickly and neatly selects a gear and, being fully electronic, takes up so little space (just above an equally electric and tidy half-moon parking brake switch) that the bulk of the center console is left for massive cupholders and a storage bin (which has a power outlet, plus USB and iPod hookups). If you're like us, you'll be using the wide Formula 1 - style, steering-wheel-mounted paddleshifters to manage your own gear changes anyway.
This is the fine wood and leather club lounge of British legend, but freshly executed by a relatively youthful team. Your choice of wood trim merely accents a more prominent swath of aluminum. The padded leather cowl is low and tight, with double stitching that matches soft, lovely, leather seats. When you sit behind the wheel, with your elbows on the high center console and the door-mounted armrest, it feels as if you are commanding the road from your favorite reading chair. If your chair could do four-wheel drifts, that is.
Mike Cross, Jaguar's chief engineer, greeted us not only in person but also on the flat-screen TV in the hotel room on our arrival. The Jaguar public relations team had thoughtfully in-stalled a DVD starring handling wizard Cross at the wheel of an XF executing endless heroic four-wheel drifts on a wet, twisty track. Provocative stuff to be showing a bunch of journalists before letting them take your cars into the Arizona hills for a day. Thank you very much.