From the driver's seat, the XJ's weight loss is noticeable as soon as you start moving. You won't mistake the XJ for a Lotus Elise, but neither will it bring to mind a Lincoln Town Car. It's certainly lighter on its feet and feels far more rigid than the X300, and the big cat leaps to action with enthusiasm, especially in XJR guise. It does not have the chassis alertness and roll control of a 7-series BMW or the A8, but its steering is much better than the Audi's. "The best attribute of the new XJ, and the one I'm most proud of, is the steering," says Mike Cross, Jaguar's chief engineer for vehicle integrity. Engineers increased the yaw-gain linearity, or the ratio of on-center to off-center feel, for more linear steering response, and the results are readily apparent in long, gradual sweeping curves, where assistance increases with lock. At low speeds, the steering has good on-center feel yet isn't too heavy. Stopping power is excellent in the XJ8 and the Brembo-equipped XJR, but both suffer from slightly mushy brake pedals.
The outgoing XJ's legendary ride comfort was brought to you in part by the vehicle's considerable sprung weight, which served as a massive steel, glass, and leather bushing between occupants' bodies and the road surface. With its new, lightweight, aluminum body structure, the X350 lost some of that inherent comfort advantage, so a new air suspension system replaces traditional steel coil springs. In combination with S-type-derived, aluminum-intensive, double-wishbone suspension front and rear, the standard air setup provides suitably Jaguaresque ride comfort, but it's no surprise that the XJR's standard sport suspension transmits a little more impact harshness, especially to rear-seat passengers, than the XJ8. At speeds above 100 mph, the air springs automatically lower the XJ's ride height by about a quarter-inch. Jaguar's now-familiar Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS), which controls the dampers electronically in response to road surfaces, acceleration, and braking, is again standard, but it's not quite the equal of the multiadjustable systems in the 7-series and the A8. Midcorner bumps slightly upset the XJR's rear suspension, and CATS sometimes pauses a beat when entering corners before the suspension takes a set.
For every person who thinks the new XJ looks too much like its predecessor, there will be three more who think it looks exactly as the Jaguar of their fantasies should look: like a Jaguar. Company officials hint that we might see envelope-pushing design in the next XK (due in 2005) or in a production version of the R Coupe concept, should such a car ever come to be. Jaguar design chief Ian Callum inherited the X350 more than halfway through development when his predecessor, Geoff Lawson, died suddenly in 1999, and he is too diplomatic to say whether he would have launched the project on the same traditional styling path. The new car is striking, if familiar, from the front, less so as you move around to the side. In the quest for more interior space, the low and lean profile that has characterized the XJ for so long inevitably had to swell, and the resulting higher waistline makes the car look, from the side, like a Buick LeSabre.
The cabin is well crafted and full of wood veneers and leather, but we wish Jaguar would create interior environments using traditional materials in more innovative ways. The switch-gear and the general design theme are both tired. Jaguar also could take a cue from the Lexus SC430 and provide a retractable lid for the big navigation and HVAC screen. Kudos, though, for new options such as adjustable pedals, a rear sunshade, and a DVD player with two screens mounted behind the front headrests. Say goodbye to the long-wheelbase model (likely to return within two or three years) and the rear-seat fold-down picnic tables.
The seventh-generation XJ reaches U.S. dealerships in early June, with pricing likely to stay fairly close to the outgoing range of $57,000 to $72,000. Jaguar expects the XJ8 to account for 55 percent of the model mix, the Vanden Plas 30 percent, and the XJR 15 percent. The XJ is not perfect, but with technology, build quality, safety, creature comforts, and driving dynamics that are at last in the same league as BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Lexus, it no longer has to rest on past laurels. Instead, it can with confidence play the role it created thirty-six years ago: that of a high-performance, prestigious, elegant, and distinctly British luxury car.