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Jaguar enthusiasts who regularly read our site may wonder why we are testing yet another Jaguar X-Type. After all, this car just came out two years ago and we've already driven itfour times. And the reviews have been mixed, lauding the car for its solid performance, classy style and luxurious cabin ambience and dinging it for questionable build and materials quality and a lofty (when optioned out) price tag.
But since we've driven those 2002 models (three were actually preproduction cars), Jaguar claims to have made serious improvements in overall quality. And for 2004, the company has lowered the price considerably on the 3.0 model. For those unfamiliar with the X-Type lineup, there are just two models, the 2.5 and the 3.0, with those numbers referring to the respective size (in liters) of the V6 engine found under the leaper-adorned hood.
With Jaguar officials all but admitting that the 2.5 will be dropped, they've concentrated their efforts on making the 3.0 version more appealing when compared against BMW's 330i and Mercedes-Benz's C320. An effective price reduction of $5,000 (a combination of a $3,000 drop in base price plus the addition of former options such as a moonroof, a wood/leather steering wheel and a split-fold rear seat to the standard equipment list) now makes the X-Type 3.0 $4,000 to $4,500 less expensive than its German rivals. And don't forget that the X-Type has all-wheel drive as standard, a costly upgrade on the Bimmer and Benz. The company has also been addressing build quality issues since the X-Type's debut in 2002 and last year boasted a 22-percent improvement in initial quality according to a J.D. Power survey.
Once apprised of the various improvements, we concentrated on the 3.0 equipped with the Sport Package that adds a firmer suspension, sport seats with increased lateral support, color-keyed grille and bumper inserts, stability control, xenon headlamps and two new features for 2004 18-inch wheels (with 225/40ZR Pirelli P Zeros) and a 320-watt, 10-speaker sound system. A five-speed automatic is standard on the 3.0, with a five-speed manual gearbox being a no-cost option. We drove a stick-shift Sport with 17-inch wheels shod with all-season rubber (a no-cost option over the 18s and one we recommend to those living in inclement areas of the country).
Our itinerary consisted of a day at a winter driving school as well as a picturesque driving route around the environs of Vail, Colo. At the driving school, we were able to safely push the cars aggressively around the track so we could evaluate the X-Type's all-wheel-drive setup as well as the effectiveness of the stability control system. At first, we gingerly felt our way around the course, getting a handle on how much (or how little) grip was available. The course was essentially a small track carved out of a snowfield with plenty of turns and a short straight, and the surface was covered in both snow and ice. The best approach (as anyone who has driven or skied in New England knows) is to avoid large sections of ice if possible and take a line over the fluffy snow, which affords some traction. We were advised by the driving instructors to avoid trying to brake and steer at the same time, as it will usually overstep what little grip is there. Once we were comfortable, many of us were zipping around the course at a good clip, knowing where we could step into the power and where we should gently guide the car around a given turn.
As far as the Jags, what was most impressive was how seamless and unobtrusive the stability control system (DSC) was in action. When the car started to slide, the DSC would smoothly step in and, without any untoward lurching or loud noises, keep the car headed in the intended direction. But on the most slippery areas of the track (with glare ice that offered traction about equal to driving on oily marbles) the car would slide, as all the technology in the world can't repeal the laws of physics. As a result, a few drivers ended up spinning 'round or in the soft snowbanks that lined the track. Fortunately, the only thing hurt was their egos.
Out on the open road, we discovered that the 3.0 Sport with the manual is a delight. The gear ratios are well matched to the 227-horse V6, and the precise gear changes and eager acceleration should gladden the hearts of most enthusiasts. Noise and vibration levels are commendably low, which, combined with low wind and road noise, make for a quiet cabin at speed. Driving enthusiasts will want to get the Sport Package, as it tightens up the X-Type's handling considerably over the standard car, making for a fun time when running through twisty mountain roads. The steering has a nice heft in the wheel, but still lacks the benchmark road feel of BMW's 3 Series and it could be a little quicker considering the Sport moniker. Overall, however, this X-Type does a nice job of keeping a comfy Jaguar ride while providing an enjoyable experience for the driver. Considering the other perks you get with the $2,500 Sport Package (the safety-enhancing stability control system, the brighter xenon lights and the upgraded audio system), we wouldn't get a 3.0 without it.
Beyond the price cut and tweaks to the Sport Package, the 2004 X-Type seemed a big improvement over the 2002 models we last drove in terms of build quality everything fit tightly and there were no squeaks and rattles to be heard. Even the headliner was upgraded in an attempt to imbue the cabin with a greater sense of luxury. More practical considerations included a simple climate control system and user-friendly steering wheel controls for the stereo that delighted us. But the lack of dark tinting (or a middle visor) between the standard visors sometimes irked us when the sun's glare snuck through that little space and zapped us in the eyes. The old quibbles of a tight backseat and an outdated trunk-mounted location for the optional CD changer remain, but overall, the X-Type 3.0 is an easy car to live with.
Whereas the previous, early X-Types we drove impressed us (or rather didn't impress us) with flimsy build quality and a price tag that could quickly hit $40,000, it's obvious that the Jaguar folks were paying attention. The company has taken aggressive action with the 2004 version of the X-Type to make it more competitive against its German and Japanese rivals. And now that the baby Jaguar has gotten over its teething pains and sports a sticker price that's a whopping $5,000 less than last year, it merits stronger consideration from those shopping for something a little more elegant than the status quo in the entry-level luxury sedan marketplace.