Grace, pace and now space
The new Jaguar XJ8 looks fantastic, drives well and tackles the accommodation problem that plagued its predecessors.
Imagine the burly Deputy Prime Minister, John "Two Jags" Prescott, sitting in his favourite Jaguar with his ministerial red boxes. Got that? Now mentally remove Prescott and his luggage and think what that weight reduction does for the car's performance and economy, not to mention its appearance. But hey, why stop at one? Why not take two Prescotts out of the Jag? How good is this game?
Progress: the new Jaguar XJ8 improves on the original's good looks and is very entertaining to drive
This is exactly at Jaguar has done with its latest XJ8 - slimmed it by the equivalent of two "Two Jags", or 440lb. And the secret to the XJ8's fat-busting programme is a diet of neat aluminium-alloy, just like its main rival, the Audi A8.
Eschewing the Germans' complicated and labour-intensive space-frame construction, however, the Browns Lane engineers have tapped into advanced research from Ford and swapped body steel for aluminium to make a full monocoque structure. Designed right, this is potentially lighter, cheaper and less complex. So if the heavyweight Prescott is now unsuitable, which slim-line politician will suitably endorse Jaguar's new XJ? Peter Mandelson, perhaps?
It's unlikely to be super-slimming ex-chancellor Nigel Lawson. The new Jag presents a picture far from the cadaverous Lawson after his similarly dramatic weight-shedding. In fact, it has grown discernibly. The new XJ8 is a bigger car in every dimension compared with its predecessor. Which is just as well, for a lack of interior space has dogged the XJ series ever since the first XJ6 of 1968.
The shape of earlier XJ models was undeniably beautiful, but the accommodation was dreadful. Rivals offered far greater headroom, luggage space and rear legroom; even bank robbers shunned the Jag as a getaway car. "Jags? We couldn't get into or out of them," said 1960s crime boss Freddie Foreman, who preferred to do his business from a GPO Dormobile van with sliding doors.
This accommodation problem has become critical in the competitive super-limousine market. German rivals such as the Mercedes S-class, Audi A8 and BMW
7-series can now match the Jag for grace and pace (OK, I lied about the graceless 7-series), but they also have more space. The XJ was beginning to look like an anachronism, a modern classic car.
Until now. Jaguar's talented styling head, Ian Callum, faced a tricky inheritance from his predecessor, the late Geoff Lawson, but he has managed to design a proper Jaguar that is also bigger inside, with more headroom and boot space than its predecessor. Spend more than half an hour with the new Jaguar and it's hard to remember what the old one looked like.
There's also enough mass and gravitas on the XJ to carry off a curvaceous style that makes its smaller sister, the X-type, look ridiculous. From its oval grille (a theme picked up for the dashboard's central air vent), through its double-curved rear screen (just like the original XJ6), down to its hump-backed rear wheelarch curves, the XJ pleases the eye. Unlike the X-type, or the original S-type, this is Jaguar on home turf; as it should be after 35 years and more than 800,000 XJs. Strange, then, that Ford boss Bill Ford is understood to be upset with Jaguar, claiming it has mucked up the launch of this car. With more than half the sales likely to be in America, there is also a concern about the effects of a war in Iraq. Not surprisingly, there was a degree of tension at the launch of the new XJ in Seville, Spain.
Straight out of the airport and into the car, you need a few moments to get the seat, steering wheel and pedals set right. Pedals? Like the wheel and seat, they are electrically adjustable, by 2.5in fore and aft. This is more than a gimmick for smaller drivers, who, because they need to sit close to the steering wheel to reach the pedals, are constantly t risk of sustaining injuries from inflating airbags. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and other safety organisations have called for adjustable pedals to reduce the dangers for shorter folk. I found the adjustment useful, too - to move the pedals away from me.
Comfortably ensconced, the Jag's interior wraps itself around you. There are storage spaces, a centre console, a fully equipped dashboard and all the accoutrements of a modern luxury saloon, but never the impression of acres of space. It's a brave decision on the part of Callum to design an interior that cocoons like this, but he's probably right when he observes that much of the space in modern limos is wasted and needless. "The interior is what you really fall in love with," he says. "It epitomises what a Jaguar interior should be - warm, inviting and not imposing."
This slimmed-down Jag can now support the return of a six-cylinder engine (and the famous XJ6 boot badge) with what is deemed acceptable performance. These were not available on the test drive, so we started with the basic V8 model, the £48,000 3.5V8 SE. This is a new engine, which replaces the old 3.2 eight-cylinder.
"Left, no, right, erm, wait a minute; it's that way... I think. Um, can we start again?" Jaguar PR
Paul Chadderton's idiosyncratic route instructions called for hard acceleration, tissue-box-in-the-neck braking and snap lane-changing, all within the first three minutes. Kicked down, with all 262 horses clamouring for attention, the big cat certainly moves.
A couple of things surprised me, though, as we raced around trying to find our way out of the airport. Hurled on to a tight entry ramp, the tyres never gave as much as a squeak of protest and the nose simply went where it was pointed. Smoking away from the lights to get across five lanes of traffic before the next left, the rear didn't squat down as much as I would have expected from a Jag and the ZF automatic whizzed up and down its six ratios with a smoothness and alacrity wholly missing from its five-speed predecessor. As we drove over the airport's rippled speed bands, however, I noticed a tiny sympathetic ripple from the rear suspension. Hmm, that's interesting, I thought as we headed into bandit country.
The route had been driven to death by Jaguar's PRs and engineers, all the way up to the company's chief test driver, Mike Cross. And it was he who sat beside me for the mix of switchback snakes, high-speed bends and horribly broken-surfaced back roads we encountered. He politely declined to comment on my driving and, in turn, I resisted making a running criticism into my tape recorder.
Dynamically, this is one of the most capable Jaguars ever. Sharing suspension components with the revised S-type, the big XJ can mix it with the best drivers' cars in its class, aka the Germans. What the Jag brings to the party is handling refinement and feedback that always leaves you in control. It does exactly what you want of it, even in extremes. Turning into corners under braking, for instance, which would have had the old model heading straight on, simply slows the new XJ on the line you have chosen. Imperfections at the start of a corner, which would have had the predecessor's front wheels pattering across the road to a new entry line, never divert this car. Blind crests, which would have tested to destruction the high-rebound damper settings of the previous model, with its famed magic-carpet ride, were a mere bump in this one.
Add progressive major controls, like the powerful brakes, tactile steering and the new air suspension that continues to smooth the bumps even when cornering hard, and you have a car that is fast, safe and hugely entertaining to drive.
And so to the ride. Jaguar's magic-carpet ride quality was always a slightly over-egged pudding. True, the big cat smoothed out the route, but this was at the expense of body control. In other words, the old XJ was inclined to wallow and roll a bit when you pressed on.
Well, the old magic carpet has been rolled up and stuffed back into Ali Baba's cave. Not that the XJ will shake your fillings out, or even render The Daily Telegraph's small print unreadable from the back seats; it's just that you are aware of the road surface in a way you wouldn't have been in the old model. On Spanish roads, the XJ's ride seemed as good as the Audi A8's, but we would need to try it on British surfaces to be sure.
Inside, the Jaguar is classy and traditional, with that new-found space, but it lacks the obsessive attention to detail you'll find in the Audi. The sheer tactile quality of the fixtures and fittings isn't the same. Under the bonnet, the Jag isn't as smart as the German car and the coat hooks are an object lesson. While the Audi's are chromium-plated and slide out of the roof lining at the touch of a finger, the Jaguar's are plastic fittings hung like shrivelled grey grapes under the passenger straps. More modest the Jaguar might be in conception, but in execution it is superior; the Audi's abrasive coat hooks ate through my jacket-hanging strap; the Jaguar's didn't.
The XJ's pleated leather front seats are comfortable, as are the rears, but it's a shame someone didn't tuck the front seat mechanisms higher in the frame so rear-seat passengers could slip their feet under the fronts. There's still a lot of legroom, however; access and egress are easier than in the old car and the headroom seems more than adequate for those up to 6ft tall.
Three- and four-letter acronyms abound in the press pack: CATS (Computer Active Technology Suspension); optional ACC (Adaptive Cruise Control); ARTS (Adaptive Restraint Technology System); DSC (Dynamic Stability Control); ABS; and EBA (Electronic Brake Assist). With the exception of the crash-control systems, we tried most of it and it works but, thankfully, you can just get in and drive without poring over the epic owners' manual.
We also had a blast in the £58,500, supercharged XJR model that, although as madly fast as its predecessor, benefits greatly from the new air suspension and steering system.
Full marks, then, to Jaguar. The new XJ8 continues the visual lineage, improving on what was there while revamping the driving experience, all at what seems like good value for money in the class. There are no diesel options yet, although Jaguar claims its XJ6 is more company car tax-efficient than rivals' diesel models.
It's a shame that image is everything in this class. While rivals have their own stereotypical owners, the big Jag is firmly associated with roguish, middle-aged men in suits, such as Arthur Daley, Geoffrey Robinson and John Prescott. Now the car looks so good, perhaps it's the turn of its owners to have a visual makeover. For the moment, though, you'd better pop "Two Jags'' back inside his car. It was only a mental exercise, after all.
Price/availablility: £39,000 for the XJ6 3.0 V6, £48,000 for the 3.5 V8 SE, £51,500 for the 4.2 SE, £58,500 for the XJR and £68,500 for the Super V8. On sale in April.
Engine/transmission: 2,967cc V6 petrol with chain-driven DOHC per bank and four valves per cylinder; 240bhp at 6,800rpm and 221lb ft of torque at 4,100rpm. 3,555cc, V8 petrol with chain-driven DOHC per bank, four valves per cylinder and variable timing on inlet valves; 262bhp at 6,000rpm and 254lb ft at 4,250rpm. 4,196cc V8 petrol with chain-driven DOHC per bank, four valves per cylinder and variable timing on inlet valves; 300bhp at 6,000rpm and 310lb ft of torque at 4,100rpm. 4,196cc V8 petrol with Eaton Roots-type supercharger, chain-driven chain-driven DOHC per bank, four valves per cylinder and variable timing on inlet valves; 400bhp at 6,100rpm and 408lb ft at 3,500rpm. Six speed automatic transmission, rear wheel drive.
Performance: 3.0 V6; top speed 145mph, 0-60mph in 7.8sec, EC urban fuel consumption 18.5mpg, CO2 emissions 249g/km. 3.5 V8; 150mph/7.3sec/17.8mpg/254g/km. 4.2 V8; limited to 155mph/6.3sec/17.7mpg/264g/km. 4.2 supercharged V8; limited to 155mph/5.0sec/15.2mpg/299g/km.