Jaguar once made the sportiest foreign luxury sedans and fully intends to regain that status, starting with its 2009 XF model, which just hit showrooms. The XF looks so different from other Jaguars that the automaker put its name on a chrome trunk lid strip because it says some people "might not immediately recognize that it's a Jaguar."
Jaguar was king from the 1950s to the early 1970s partly because there was no Japanese competition. BMW and Audi made only small sporty four-seaters, while top Mercedes-Benz sedans were too somber. Jaguar sold the only stylish, sexy sedans because it was, well, JAGUAR.
"The XF is a British car and you thus should have some fun in it," Chris Brazendale, Jaguar North America Product Planning Manager, said at a recent media preview of the XF here.
For starters, the sleek, muscular-looking XF replaces Jaguar's retro-style S-Type sedan. It doesn't look like other Jaguars, although you can see subtle glimpses of the automaker's heritage if you look hard. The XF strongly resembles a sports coupe with the same steep windshield rake of Jaguar's XK sports car, a sweeping silhouette and muscular Jaguar "shoulders" atop large wheels at the far corners of the highly aerodynamic body.
"Jaguar always has been a styling leader. I grew up when Jaguars were the most modern cars, the most contemporary on the road, and that's something we're going to take back. The XF is only the starting point," Jaguar Design Director Ian Callum said at the preview. (Interestingly, Callum owns a classic 1956 Chevrolet. In the 1980s, I saw one of Callum's predecessors roar away from Jaguar's British factory in a 1968 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.)
I mentioned the retro-style Jaguar XJ and S-Type sedans and Callum said, "We've got rivals who keep coming out with new designs. [Jaguar founder] Sir William Lyons never copied a previous car. Jaguars evolved. And our quality is no longer an issue."
Unique XF features include a space-saving keyless start/stop console button that pulsates like a heartbeat. When pressed, the button starts the engine and concealed rotating air vents in the dashboard glide open. Then -- get THIS -- a rotary shift knob for the automatic transmission, which replaces a traditional gear lever, rises quickly from the transmission tunnel and rotates from left to right. Twist the knob to the "Drive" marking from "Park" and you're off. Press "Stop" and the process reverses.
Opening the glove compartment involves pushing a small button with just the right fingertip touch. (It took me six tries.) Phosphor blue "halo" lighting illuminates the center console and switchgear to create "the same kind of ambience you might find in a cool, contemporary bar or restaurant," Jaguar said.
The 0-60 mph time with the standard 4.2-liter 300-horsepower V-8 is 6.2 seconds, while it's 5.l seconds with the supercharged 420-horsepower version of this smooth engine. The 300-horsepower XF tops out at 121 mph, while the supercharged version can do 155 mph. The XF's sporty exhaust note was created in the equivalent of a music recording studio.
The XF has a responsive six-speed automatic transmission. Using the shift knob, the transmission can be switched from "Drive" to a "Sport" mode that allows adaptive shifting for more aggressive driving. And you can use paddle shifters near the steering wheel to manually shift the automatic.
The XF weighs more than 4,000 pounds. Fuel economy thus is 16 mpg in the city and 25 on highways with the regular V-8 and 15 and 23 with the supercharged engine.
Ford has agreed to sell Jaguar to India's giant Tata Group's Tata Motors. The Tata Group has holdings in everything from steel to tea companies and produces low-cost autos. It said it will keep a "hands-off" approach to the revered British automaker, as has been the case with other companies it has acquired.
"Tata will leave us alone unless we screw up," said Jaguar spokesman Tim Watson with a smile that indicated Jaguar has no intention of screwing up. (The 2010 replacement for the XJ is said to be a real stunner.)
There are three XF trim levels. The Luxury model lists for $49,200, while the Premium Luxury version costs $55,200. The Supercharged model is $62,200. Even the Luxury model is packed with sporty/luxury car comfort, convenience and safety features. The Premium Luxury adds heated front seats, upgraded leather upholstery and a navigation system, while the Supercharged model adds a front-obstacle detection system, rearview camera, heated/cooled front seats and an upscale sound system.
A bunch of option packages and stand-alone options let lower-line models have features of top-line versions.
I drove the XF for 150 miles on twisting Southern California mountain roads and San Diego freeways. It felt much like a sedan version of Jaguar's XK sports car. That wasn't surprising because the XF shares the XK's engine, transmission, steering and suspension, with some components modified for the larger, heavier XF.
The XF clings to winding roads with no body lean and is a superb high-speed cruiser. Steering is fast and rather firm in the Supercharged model, a bit lighter in the 300-horsepower models. The Supercharged version has the best handling with its 20-inch wheels and the widest tires. The Luxury model has 18-inch wheels, and the Premium Luxury has 19-inch wheels. There's Jaguar's traditional made-in-heaven ride, and powerful brakes are activated by a progressive-action pedal.
The XF's posh interior swallows five tall adults, although the stiff center of the rear seat is best left to a fold-down armrest. The interior has top-grade materials and the cabin is quiet, although the Supercharged model emits some tire noise. Gauges can be quickly read, and the XF has a screen for touch operation of controls, although there are redundant conventional controls for major functions.
The huge trunk has a rather high opening because of the XF's tall rear end, which helps its high-speed stability and gives it a "ready to pounce" look. Rear seatbacks can be flipped forward for more cargo room.
Jaguar seems pointed in the right direction with the XF. Jaguar officials here said the automaker wouldn't have survived if Ford hadn't bought it in 1989, but some indicated that Ford's bureaucracy could make it difficult to work with that automaker. They seemed to feel that working with Tata will let Jaguar move ahead faster.
JEDLICKA'S TAKE: 2009 JAGUAR XF
Likes: Sleek. High quality. Fast. Superb handling. Roomy. Decent highway fuel economy.
Dislikes: Rather high trunk opening. Mid-teens city fuel economy.