Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi are all parts of huge organizations with vast resources. When developing a new flagship sedan, they can finesse every last detail. (Whether they actually do so is another matter.) Though previously owned by Ford and now owned by Indian conglomerate Tata, Jaguar has had to make do with so much less that it’s almost a miracle it can field a contemporary large luxury sedan at all. And yet we have the new XJ.
To have a chance, a Jaguar must be beautiful. The new XJ passes this test. Though the new sedan bears no resemblance to the classic Series III, the spirit remains the same. While the tape measure will beg to differ, the new XJ looks much lower and sleeker than the German dreadnoughts, with proportions the Audi A8 can only dream of. The Jaguar’s black C-pillar applique doesn’t work—at all—but there are two easy fixes: paint it body color or buy a black car.
The new Jaguar XJ also goes its own way inside, with a gutsy blend of high-tech LCD displays and retro sports car styling. The latter lends the interior a warmth and sportiness absent from the Germans. Though some of the switches feel a touch cheap, the leather and wood are first-rate and a definite step up from the XF. Unfortunately, the LCD instrument display attempts to meld with the retro sports car vibe, and fails. Some video games manage more convincing digital representations of classic, chrome-ringed round instruments. Even if the display was convincing, why invest in a reconfigurable LCD panel, then employ it to mimic classic analog gauges?
The front seats fit like a glove, with relatively soft padding and curves that cosset in a way the Germans refuse to. It’s that warmth thing again, even in black. The rear seats are even more comfortable, at least in the two outboard positions. Thanks largely to its organic design, the cabin seems narrower than those in competing cars, but in the extended wheelbase model there’s legroom to spare—44.1 inches. Wooden fold-down tray tables are another nod to tradition, but it’s hard to imagine them being of much use. If there was a way to level them without the cooperation of the person in the front seat, I couldn’t find it.
In the recent past both Cadillac and Jaguar were scraping by with DOHC V8 engines well past their sell by dates. Jaguar somehow managed what GM could not, and developed a new V8—and at the same time ex-parent Ford was also developing a new V8. The entirely unrelated V8s both displace 5.0 liters. The Jaguar engine isn’t quite as strong or as smooth as the new Mustang mill, but is still quite good on both counts. Cars in this class keeping getting more and more powerful, but we’re not yet to the point where 385 horsepower seems—or feels—remotely weak. Even without the available supercharger, which pumps output to 470 or 510, depending on how much you want to spend, the XJ is quick. It helps that an aluminum body keeps curb weight to a relatively light 4,131 pounds. The new V8’s exhaust note is throatier than that of competing German V8s, and yet refined enough for a Jaguar.
Jaguar continues to employ a six-speed automatic. It’s not a bad transmission, but the new eight-speed ZF in the Audi A8 and BMW 7 is smoother and more responsive. Perhaps the XJ will get the better box next year. Dialing (yes, dialing) the gear selector to S quickens the transmission’s responses at the expense of some smoothness. S also holds a lower gear, rendering this option impractical for continuous use.
Compared to the ultra-firm system in the new Audi A8, the new Jaguar XJ’s steering can initially seem disconcertingly light. Though a little more heft would be welcome, this isn’t entirely a bad thing, as the chassis rewards a delicate touch with precise responses and a surprising amount of agility for such a large car. Especially in “competition mode,” which quickens the responses of the throttle and suspension, but doesn’t affect the steering, the big cat likes to turn. It could teach the smaller (but equally hefty) XF a thing or two. Between this chassis tuning and the styling of the interior, the big Jaguar doesn’t feel so big from the driver’s seat. Until you glance to the side, in which case the high beltline and overly close B-pillar conspire to sap your confidence.
So far, mostly so good. Jaguar had relatively few resources to draw upon, but the car doesn’t seem to have substantially suffered as a result—unless you pay close attention to the ride. Quivers you won’t find in a German supersedan make their way through the XJ’s steering column. Especially in the back seat the ride often feels a touch jittery. Many people won’t notice these minor lapses. But the most discriminating buyers will.
Reliability is a big question mark. The Jaguar XF has been among the least reliable cars in TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, with the second model year no better than the first. Most problems have been electrical. Might the more complex XJ fare better? Not that you’re guaranteed to have problems. With the 2009 XF 43 percent of owners have had no repairs in the past year.
The Jaguar XJ has some shortcomings, but do they really matter? There are benefits to buying a car from a huge organization, but there are also benefits to buying one from a relatively small outfit. Unlike some other luxury brands, Jaguar has never been about perfection. Instead, the marque has long gotten by (if barely) on a unique combination of sportiness, comfort, and charisma. All are present and accounted for in Jaguar’s new flagship. Compared to the technically astounding Audi A8, the new XJ might be harder to admire, but it’s easier to love.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data
Lee “Pete” Canupp of Checkered Flag Jaguar in Virginia Beach, VA, provided the car. Pete can be reached at 757-490-1111.