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Tuesday, April 6, 2010
By Aaron Robinson, Car & Driver
Above all things, Jaguar desires to be different. That’s why the new 2011 XJ flagship has the flamboyant lines of an Italian torpedo and the driving manners of a German autobahn cruiser and is tuned for Buckingham Palace fleet duty. Cultures collide in spectacular ways in this luxury limo.
The XJ is a cab-rearward design and is incredibly riveting to stare at as it sits back on its haunches with as much cool as James Bond lighting a Chesterfield. In black, with the big-dish 20-inch wheels, the car is sinister enough to warrant its own RICO investigation.
Jaguar Cars managing director Mike O’Driscoll, who’s peddled more than his share of schlock over a 35-year career with the company, is smiling more lately. He says the mission was to recapture the uniqueness of the original 1968 XJ but in a modern form. They looked at the class stalwarts—the Mercedes-Benz S-class, the BMW 7-series, and the Audi A8—and the more driver-oriented oddballs, including the Maserati Quattroporte and Porsche Panamera, and decided to shoot for a middle ground. Passion—but with typical British reserve.
If you focus on those front three-quarter shots, you’ll wrongly dismiss the 2011 XJ as just an XF with a pituitary run amok. Skip down to the side and rear profiles to capture the XJ’s more exotic stance. The beltline is pulled way up, the side glass is pinched narrow, and the flowing taffy stretch of aluminum sheetmetal ends in a high, short trunk.
The C-pillars are clad in wonky glossy black panels that bridge the side glass with the backlight. Styling head Ian Callum—who gave us all of our current Jaguars and a few Aston Martins—demanded it and got his way. You don’t hear odes to the Jensen Interceptor very often, but Callum is fascinated with the way that car’s rear glass wrapped around the body sides to isolate the roof. He wanted to create an unbroken black band around the car’s cranium, like the Lone Ranger’s mask. On lighter colors the effect is more pronounced—and a little forced, frankly—but it’s definitely not something Jaguar’s competitors would ever do.
On sale now, this XJ arrives stateside with two wheelbases and three engines, the latter shared with the smaller XF. The base short XJ with a direct-injection 385-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 starts at $72,500. The XJ Supercharged uses forced air to attain 470 hp and costs an additional $15,000. Both engines are also available in a size-XL (extra long) version that pulls the wheelbase out another 4.9 inches. The base XJL starts at $79,500 and is expected to be the volume player in the U.S., with about half the sales. The XJL Supercharged is $90,500. Finally, by special order only, there’s the XJ Supersport with 510 hp, thanks to revised engine maps similar to those of the XFR. Price: $112,000 in short form, $115,000 with the stretch. Europe also gets a tugboat-ready 3.0-liter turbo-diesel from Peugeot that is unfortunately considered a bit too, uh, European for America.
Improving on a Familiar Structure
Lately, the market’s air has been pretty thin at the XJ’s price point—the company sold just 1161 of the big cats in the U.S. last year, 2452 in 2008—so you can’t blame Jaguar for leaning on existing components where possible. Unexpectedly, it’s the Jaguar XFR that donates the most gear, including its suspension, steering rack, and, in the Supersports, the active electronic differential with few modifications.
The riveted and glue-bonded aluminum unibody shares DNA with the previous XJ, but thanks to a learning curve and a change in priorities, there are substantial changes. Besides the graceful sheetmetal, there are more cast nodes in the new XJ’s skeleton, helping to drive up torsional rigidity by a claimed 11 percent, and the front subframe is now solidly mounted. In the past, Jaguar used rubber isolation bushings, something it found only negatively affected handling while supplying little isolation benefit.
The curb weights reflect aluminum’s great promise: about 4000 to 4300 pounds, practically a trifle these days, especially for a car casting this big a shadow.
High Tech yet Emotional
If there are shared bits with other Jaguars, you won’t find them without pulling up the carpet. Besides the extravagant exterior, the cabin is a fascinating departure for Jaguar. For one thing, unlike most previous XJs, the space is huge, especially in the stretched models. Resembling a California landslide, the dash seems to have sunk a few inches from the windshield, with a band of the requisite burled wood filling in the gap and reminding one of the prow of a handmade yacht. The dropped dash puts everything lower, making the cabin more intimate and deemphasizing the car’s size.
This is no Mayfair drawing room. In the dash center above the eight-inch touch screen, reminiscent of a Ferrari, large, leather-swathed fairings protrude with the giant eight-balls that serve as air vents. The gauges are digital graphic renderings of analog dials on a 12.3-inch thin-film-transistor (TFT) display. Jaguar has some useful fun with this. For example, the numbers immediately around the “needle” glow brighter in what the engineers call a “torch effect,” as though the needle were shining a spotlight on the dial. And the gauges turn red (red mist?) when you put the car in dynamic mode. However, there’s untapped potential here. Why not give the driver several gauge cluster designs to toggle among?
Refined yet Rapid
When goosed, the various V-8s make suitably expensive and deep roars. All versions have acoustic devices that plumb intake noise through the firewall. In the supercharged models, blower whine is miraculously filtered out. The six-speed automatic does its business quickly and with undetectable slack. Figure 0-to-60-mph times from the mid-fours to mid-fives, depending on the model.
With the XFR’s pretty-darn-quick steering rack and the electronically self-adjusting shocks (they rely on electromechanical slider valves to vary their reactions), the XJ wants to pound through corners in hot pursuit of cars half its size. It has the power, the grip, and the steering focus for that, but the suspension, especially in the base version, allows enough body roll and bob that you don’t forget you’re at the reins of two tons of British luxury. On pitching pavement it can rock a bit side to side, but it never feels loose or discombobulated.
Some suspension give is a prerequisite in this class, but all XJs have as standard a dynamic setting that firms up the shocks while adjusting the throttle response and shift points (there are also normal and winter settings). The Supersport, with its firmer suspension and Z-rated summer tires, will stroke a driver’s ego even better. Had we been the designers, we might not have been brave enough to put such a quick steering rack into this car, given the stereotypical XJ buyer. As we said, however, Jaguar wants to be different. We’d also bring over those 20-inch big-dish wheels, the ones Jaguar says are for Europe only and that are so unlike the fine-spoke alloy clones on every other car.
Finally, Something Different
Quiet, dynamically composed, gloriously comfortable, and supremely unusual, the 2011 XJ does exactly what Jaguar hopes it will: give buyers an alternative choice and a reason to consider taking a leap with the leaping cat again.