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First Drive! 2007 Jaguar C-XF Concept

Steve CropleywriterWynn Rujiphotographers

The best view of Jaguar's future is the one seen through the windshield of the C-XF concept car. As you're driving down Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, you're surrounded by the very people who have it most in their power to make the 2008 production version a resounding success.

For more than fifty years, every Jaguar model to make the big time has been an early hit in California--and no Jaguar that's failed here has ever been a true winner. Not for nothing is Jaguar's North American headquarters in nearby Irvine. This is as good a place as any to measure the strength of the Jaguar heartbeat.

This seminal concept car, launched in Detroit in January, is meant to begin the rest of Jaguar's life. It's the precursor to the XF production car, the 2008 S-type replacement whose awesome responsibility is, first, to score the sales success that has eluded Jaguar for many years, and second, to show how Jaguar design would have evolved had it not diverted for a quarter-century into producing pastiches of Sir William Lyons's fine designs. Both the C-XF and its production derivative are the work of a youthful team put together by design director Ian Callum and advanced styling boss Julian Thomson, on whose shoulders an almost intolerable weight of responsibility has rested for the past five years.

If you'd been able to cruise across L.A. as we did, first in the C-XF and then in a current S-type, two things would have struck you. One, that the C-XF has indeed succeeded in jumping the two model generations that Callum and his henchmen knew from the outset it would have to, and two, that even in a town so used to extraordinary sights, this new Jaguar is very, very special.

It's worth remembering that the S-type was a Jaguar pioneer in its own right. We got our first glimpse of it in 1998. Before then, Jaguar had spent a long, long time building only the XJ sedan and the XJ-S coupe, a one-and-a-half-model range for which a total sales volume of more than 40,000 units was considered healthy. Under the skin, the S-type was closely linked to the Lincoln LS and was supposed to be Jaguar's ticket to sales approaching 100,000 units. But it failed to impress, and many critics (including Europeans) said the Lincoln was the better car. Worst of all, the Jag was born looking old.

The C-XF looks new. And exciting. See it close up or from a distance of several hundred yards, and you'll agree. The long, confident lines running the length of the body give it an instant grace and a resolved look that eludes most of today's cars, especially the flame-surfaced variety, and the slammed roof is almost as radical as that of a custom sedan. Perhaps that's why Californians understand it so well. There's a confidence, a quality about the C-XF, that suggests no difficult compromises were made in its shape--even though today's car designers must contend with infinitely more conflicting design requirements than their counterparts of earlier eras. Callum and company have caught flack for taking so long to produce "Jaguars of tomorrow," but the honed quality of the C-XF, inside and out, shows that the time has been well spent.

Approach the car, and you're instantly aware of the lowness of the roof and the comparative height of the beltline. That, and the voluptuous depth of the body shoulder, which runs right along the body sides at hip height. Open the door, step over the wide sill, slip your right leg under the steering wheel, and plant your rump into (not merely on) the deeply contoured black leather bucket seat, and you'll notice two things: how much headroom there is in this seemingly chopped-top car (the production XF will be slightly taller, mainly to improve rear headroom) and how high the window sills are. You instantly feel supported and cosseted.

This is a concept car: its interior is meant to be special. There are opulent and exotic textures that won't make it into the production vehicle. But the basic architectural elements of the car--things such as the steeply raked A-pillars that say so much about the XF's sportiness and total modernity; the confident curves that arc on both sides of the cabin from the base of the windshield right over your head to the bottom of the rear window; the deceptively simple sweep of the dash top brilliantly catching light without reflecting it into your eyes; and the front and rear door casings whose designs dovetail across the intervening B-pillar to make a confident whole--will be there in the real XF.

On the materials side, there are some notable achievements that, with development, will surely make production. As the XF's chief interior designer, Adriana Monk, explains, Jaguar's design team has "found new ways to do wood and leather." The high-quality leather is embossed with the pattern of a carbon-fiber weave, a ruse that gives selected areas (door caps, dashboard tops) an elegant, matte-finished, technical look of carbon fiber without the glossiness of the real thing.

The wood, quite different from any other forest finish, consists of poplar inserts that have been scorched black with a blowtorch to lift the grain and provide an organic, silky black surface on the doors and the console.

Enough description. We're here to drive, settled now behind the wheel. It's twilight, and we're bathed in a phosphorescent blue light, both from the light ribbon that runs around the car's interior (in daytime it's white, to lighten the black interior) and from the fabric headliner, which at present is also glowing blue. The instruments are slightly obscured at the tops of their dials by the wheel rim, because this is a concept car without a tilt column. But you get the idea. This car provides luxurious seating for people who love driving. There are large aluminum paddles for the six-speed transmission, but it can also be left in Drive. There's more aluminum beneath your feet: a wide brake pedal, perfectly sited. To its right, a ribbed accelerator pedal, and on the left, a footrest.

When you touch the large starter button, prominent at the front of the console and already flashing red, several things happen. The starter rotates smoothly. The blue lights start to fade, leaving only the soft lighting of the instruments. And the center dial--the 7000-rpm tachometer (whose needle reposes at twelve o'clock and rotates counterclockwise)--slides boldly out of the dash to take preeminence over the flanking gauges, speedometer at the left and ancillaries on the right. And while that's happening, five concentric rings surrounding a plain metal disc on the console top sink and spin into the surface itself to reveal the disc as a knob that controls the PRNDS (where S is for sport) functions of the transmission.

The combination of a hair-trigger throttle for the extremely healthy, 420-hp supercharged V-8 a few inches ahead of your feet and the complete absence of sound deadening materials results in an explosion of sound. The loud V-8 roar is overlaid with a succession of thinly veiled, barking explosions you don't often hear this side of a drag strip. It sounds wonderful.

After a few acclimatizing blips, you select Drive and gingerly squeeze on some power. The car abruptly leaps forward, so you hastily reduce what you've given it. This multi-million-dollar concept car is really a sawed-up S-type with a lot of body members removed; you wouldn't want to strain the structure or leave any pieces behind.

Let it roll for a bit, down South Grand Avenue, past the Los Angeles Philharmonic's extraordinary Walt Disney Concert Hall. We're riding on low-profile, twenty-one-inch, Pirelli PZero rubber (255 wide in front and 295 behind), so although this is one of the smoother streets in Los Angeles, you couldn't call the ride coddling. Bumps jolt the car the way they never would a production vehicle, especially now that Jaguar has rediscovered its expertise at giving supple-riding cars great body control.

Boot it, just a bit. Sure, it's against the explicit instructions of the car's custodian, but you've got to feel the horses. Behind the din, there's a curious familiarity. This engine was born in Coventry, and it's still the soul of smoothness. The steering is familiar, too: smooth, powered responses and the same intimate gearing.

You head back to base, but not before a succession of L.A. folk have gawked (and a few have applauded) and not before you're suffused with a kind of tentative euphoria--on behalf of Jaguar's battling engineers and designers--for the way this car can effortlessly stop traffic.

Great Jaguars evoke instant desire. That was Ian Callum's litany all through those years when he couldn't show us anything to back it up. All true, we thought, but can they ever do it again? Here, among the seen-it-all residents of L.A., came positive proof that they can.