We chose the top-of-the-line Supercharged XF for our tour. (Something about that extra 120 hp over the Luxury XF's basic 300-hp, 4.2-liter V-8, yes?) Not that the richly trimmed Luxury base model, at $49,975, skimps on features. It's nicely appointed but has eighteen-inch instead of twenty-inch aluminum wheels and less aggressive rubber, not a bad thing if you're going for a magic-carpet ride. Also, a few of the more exotic luxuries that are standard on the Premium Luxury ($55,975) and Supercharged ($62,975) XFs cost extra for Luxury customers. Tops on the list of desirable options must be the Supercharged XF's standard 440-watt, fourteen-speaker Bowers & Wilkins surround-sound audio system. It will make you incontinent.
Our drive route led us north out of Paradise Valley through rain on Arizona 87, a fast and twisting climb to Payson. Quiet and composed in town, the XF Supercharged was in its glory when it hit the highway. We like this blown V-8 in both the S-type R and the XKR, and it is as enticing in the XF - a full second quicker than the normally aspirated engine, at 5.1 seconds from 0 to 60 mph, with a 155-mph governed top speed. It's moving a big car - more than two tons - which makes those 5.1 seconds fly by. The real joy, though, is found in its healthy 408 lb-ft of torque, which peaks at 3500 rpm.
The ZF six-speed automatic transmission with paddleshifters - found in all XF models - is improved from its launch in the XK, with an instantaneous connection between transmission and engine. The XF's (and XJ's) chief program engineer, Mick Mohan, insists that it's "one of the quickest responding transmissions on the market today." It may very well be. There are three shift modes, the first being the everyday Drive automatic setting. Rotate the selector one notch to S, and the automatic mode becomes more responsive, with adaptive shifting to more aggressive driving. When you're really pushing it, though, you can shift yourself. Holding the upshift paddle for two seconds resets the transmission to Drive mode.
The Supercharged also has its own dynamic stability control mode, in addition to the standard stability control mode and a winter setting, which allows some wheel slip when you need it in low-traction conditions. Dynamic mode gets your driving party started by permitting full manual upshifts, late upshifts, and early downshifts, and it lets you know where you are with a big, amber shift indicator as you near redline.
The XF is a quiet and serene luxury cruiser when you don't want to be a driving hero. And then it leaps into action when the right piece of road finds you in the right frame of mind. The rain had lightened after lunch, and we shot back down on the more rough-and-tumble Highway 188 past the Roosevelt Dam to Globe, giving the XF a thorough workout. With a unibody based on that of the competent S-type, a suspension using the XK's setup front and rear with Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS) damping, the XK's vented disc brakes, and the magic ministrations of Mike Cross and his crack development team, the XF was bound to be brilliant to drive. It carved those canyon roads with precise inputs from the thickly padded steering wheel. A bit of lift throttle helped nudge the front-heavy XF Supercharged through tighter turns, while it rode all the while with amazing grace, even on its twenty-inch wheels. Gotta love those Pirelli PZeros - 255/35YR fronts and 285/30YR rears.
After our six-hour day behind the wheel, we were ready to drive the XF home to Michigan, which is exactly how all good Jaguars feel. We're also confident that the XF will prove to be the seminal design that Ian Callum believes it is. Moving on from the XK and this new XF, Callum's string of pearls grows with a striking new aluminum-bodied XJ, due in 2010.
"The last ten years have been fairly traumatic, as you know," says managing director and thirty-two-year Jaguar employee Mike O'Driscoll, who has been through all of it and wants to stay on. "When we get things right, we get them terribly right. There's a real camaraderie at Jaguar - a sense that we're all in this and we're going to make it work." As of today, things are looking terribly right.
We're thinking that Tata is looking pretty smart for its reported $2 billion offer. The time is right for a new company to give Jaguar its best shot.