2009 Jaguar XF Review – First Impressions
Diehard fans of these chronicles may recall that I am a Jaguar owner and a staunch traditionalist in design matters. I own an S-Type, which I love because it looks like the original S-Type Mark II of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which in turn looked like the SS saloon of the ‘30s, which contained design cues evocative of the carriage lamps and landaus of the reign of Victoria, which no doubt whispered memories of the sedan chairs of the Regency, or (especially now) of the Anglo-Indian Raj.
All right, one can get carried away with this kind of thing. But, my fondness for the old-style Jags isn’t just because I’m a reactionary; it’s an aesthetic response. Just as I admire a Van Gogh canvas for its distinctive power and beauty, and just as no other artist’s work can be mistaken for a Van Gogh, so I’ve always felt that Jaguars embody a unique poetic dimension of design that represents both an art form in itself and a homage to the artistry of the past. No Jaguar could ever be mistaken for anything else—until now. For this is where the dazzling new company-saving XF breaks with tradition: It doesn’t look like a Jag. Even Ian Callum, the presiding genius at Jaguar’s design department, concedes this. Asked why the name “JAGUAR” is etched into the chrome strip across the XF’s trunk lid, he explains that it’s to identify the car, because “a lot of people will look but might not immediately recognize what it is.” Question, then: Is a Jag not instantly recognizable as a Jag still a Jag?
Then I saw my first XF, in the showroom at Charles Maund Jaguar, the local dealer here in Austin, Texas. As the cliché has it, the car’s pictures don’t do it justice. Happily, it’s less Lexus- or Hyundai-like in the flesh. Low and sleek like the 4-door coupe it essentially is (it’s the XK’s big brother, after all), the car fairly quivers with hidden strength. The grill mimes a snarl; the slanted headlights exude new-design purposefulness. There’s a power bulge in the long sloping hood. It’s a dramatic-looking machine, no question. Far from recoiling, I caught myself thinking, “What a beautiful car.” Not “a beautiful Jag”; “a beautiful car.” This was suggestive: Maybe I could admire the thing without getting uptight and finicky about its aesthetic heritage and nameplate? Very well, I said to myself, I’ll put aside my biases and regard it as a car first and foremost. And as a car, it spoke to me. It said, “Hello. Take me for a drive.”
So I did just that, with the help of the able Ed Gordesky, a veteran of the Maund sales force and walking encyclopedia of Jaguar lore. Ed provided the car, and I provided the driver. My tester was a silver “base” model—if a car in this range can be said to have a base model. It’s the one they’re giving away at $49K; they call it the “Luxury.” The next trim level up is “Premium Luxury,” an odd system of nomenclature, a bit like “perfect” and “very perfect.” Top tier isn’t Luxury at all, but “Supercharged.” But my “Luxury” model, base or not, bristled with all the hi-tech gadgets I could ever want, and more…much more, actually. I have little interest in gadgetry per se, and I generally want to communicate with the outside world as little as possible, so all the MP3/Ipod/Nano/Bluetooth hookups left me cold, as did the nav screen. All very state-of-the-art, no doubt, but as far as music is concerned I’m quite happy with the in-dash 6-CD player, and I usually balk at using nav screens anyway, with their irritating implication that there are more interesting things than that boring old road for the driver to look at while he’s sitting there. But at least the screen in the XF is unobtrusive, and once you set it on the audio function it sort of fades to a bland gray and withdraws from your field of vision. Then you can focus on the highway coming at you at… legal speed.
But I liked other features. The round, chrome-ringed start-and-stop button, for instance, which you activate with your Smart Key fob gizmo from outside the car, looks like a floor-selection button on a ‘50s elevator. It’s fun to push a button and start a car. To the left of the smooth walnut-covered center console is another retro design cue, this one from the days when everything mechanical, like my dad’s Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders, boasted big round dials: the transmission shifter or “drive selector,” a big shiny knob that–in the unctuous prose of the Jaguar brochure–“rises to meet the palm” when you start the car. It works well, too, which is the important part. Just dial in P,R,N,D, or S for Sport (i.e., Warp Drive), and you’re off.
Overall, I thought the interior was a resounding success. The seats (simple leather on the base model, perforated leather on the über-models) are unusually comfortable for a car with sporting pretensions. Shoulder and headroom are ample. The dash is smooth and flowing, austerely elegant in a rather more Scandinavian than a British way, all brushed-aluminum and discreet burled walnut beneath a stitched-leather canopy of muted hue. Rotating air vents rotate silently in and out, according to the dictates of the automatic climate control. In front of the driver is a very trad-style semicircular cowling, which I suspect harks back to just such a cowling on the XK120 (or even the Spitfire fighter), housing two simple, elegant gauges ringed in chrome: speedo on the left, tach on the right, just where they should be. No excess there. In front of the gauges, as one would expect, is the steering wheel, and it’s just about perfect: compact, leather-bound, and satisfying to the grip. You never want to let go, and you don’t have to, even if for some reason you want to interfere with the silky smooth transmission by playing with the wheel-mounted shifter paddles that are increasingly common these days and are a silly affectation, in my opinion. One commutes to the office, one is not Michael Schumacher at Monza. But in the XF, if you don’t want them, you can forget they exist and let the superb ZF 6-speed tranny work its magic.
And on the road, where a Jag should be king of the beasts? Well, the XF rules OK. It’s a great highway cruiser. I found it tight, taut, tossable, and solid, with great brakes and an almighty punch from under the hood. There are no surprises there; it’s powered by the same 4.2 litre V8 found in the XJ, XK, and S-Type, but the pleasure at rediscovering that engine’s mighty torque, 300 horses, and feline snarl was enhanced when I demonstrated the XF’s acceleration to an insolent Infiniti that was buzzing around like a horsefly. (It buzzed off.) While doing my own sub-Schumacher imitation, I kept a weather eye out for troopers as I piloted the XF up and down and around the undulating ribbon of the Capital of Texas Highway, known as Loop 360, Austin’s western beltway, a pretty good test route, dipping and rising as it does through gorgeous and precipitous Hill Country outcroppings.
Driving along 360 calls for precisely the right balance of steering, acceleration, and braking that one should bring to a test drive. Naturally, abiding by the dictum that a good driver never brakes unless he has to, I used the brakes as infrequently as possible; but when I did, they responded very well, grasping firmly and instantly but not grabbing, and without the old-fashioned clunk of the S-Type’s. The XF’s handling is superb, too. Guided by that wonderful little steering wheel, the car is instantly responsive to driver input, never off kilter or reluctant. And, despite all this high-performance capability it’s a relaxing drive; the cabin is a very comfortable place to be, and not just because of the ergonomic seats which are, as already noted, quite amazingly comfortable, like lounge chairs designed for the lumbar regions. The rear seats are equally comfortable and notably more spacious than those in the S-Type.
The car is a quiet place to spend time, too. It was a windy day when I drove the XF, but inside I only noticed wind noise by its absence, not the case with my S-Type, in which wind noise can be blustery and intrusive. But the XF’s cabin is silent, apart from the usual Jag noises: the hum of the radials, the growl of the engine, and the burbling of whatever’s on the audio system.
So, you ask, what’s the verdict? Does the XF drive like a Jag? The answer is an unqualified yes. But it wasn’t until I’d been out on the highway for awhile, varying my speed, enjoying the grippiness of the steering wheel and experiencing the car’s limpet-like roadholding, that it began to sink in: If, I mused, I suddenly found myself plunked down inside the car without knowing what kind of car it was, because of its graceful maneuverability and that inimitable feeling of connection to the road—and the cat’s growl of the great engine–I would soon know: This is a Jaguar. This is the new Jaguar, as the company’s publicity has it. And so it is; and I think they got the most important part right.
The XF is stunning to look at, a hoot to drive, and a pleasure to ride in. It’s a splendid machine, and if I were in the market I’d take one any day over its BMW or Benz rivals, and not just because of the savings. (The MSRP of the base “Luxury” comes in $5k or more below its competitors.) It just has more personality than the Germans. That’s a good thing. And, crucially for Jaguar Cars, it has the right stuff at the right time, and it’s going to save the company: a very good thing. (That’ll be one in the eye for Ford, who did many things right during their tenure, but somehow they could never strike the right balance between interfering and keeping hands off, and they never figured out how to sell Jags. Let’s hope Tata can do better.)
But as I drove away in my antediluvian but poetic S-Type, it occurred to me that I’d driven a spanking-new, gleaming silver XF from one end of hi-tech, machine-obsessed Austin to the other and back, through city streets, along freeways, and up residential byways, and that (apart from that pesky Infiniti driver) not a single person had taken notice of it; whereas it’s an odd day when my S-Type doesn’t turn a couple of heads. Habit, I guess. In time, we’ll all get used to the new-Jag look, so that someday it will be as unmistakable from a distance as the old one is today. And car-loving old-timers will express outrage when the traditional design standards of the old XF are betrayed by some new-fangled designer, just to make money.
But wasn’t it ever thus?
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