Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Jaguar's flagship XJ sedan has been of pillar of style, grace and unapologetic luxury for over three decades now. Its timeless exterior design and handcrafted interior have made it a favorite of those who appreciate the sometimes precarious mix of old-world charm and modern technology. The all-new 2004 XJ represents the seventh generation of the breed, and it comes bearing a wealth of notable improvements along with traditional lines and, of course, a pronounced British personality.
After an introductory drive that included a near endless stream of fast, sweeping turns and desolate stretches of open highway, there was no mistaking the breadth of the XJ's improvements. Whether you prefer the coddling of the standard models or the performance of the supercharged variant, this new Jaguar delivers on both fronts. The virtually unchanged styling does little to project an aura of transformation, but traditional buyers will likely find it a proper mix of old and new.
At the core of the XJ's redesign is a new all-aluminum chassis that is both significantly stiffer and lighter than the previous steel structure. The added stiffness translates into better body control and a more precise road feel, while the reduced weight makes for a quicker car that's also more fuel-efficient. All this despite the fact that the car is longer, wider and taller than the previous model a welcome expansion that results in a notably more spacious interior.
As with the previous XJ, there will be three versions available: the standard XJ8, the high-performance XJR and the fully optioned Vanden Plas. All models feature V8 power, a six-speed automatic transmission and a second-generation version of Jaguar's CATS (Computer Active Technology Suspension) system that utilizes infinitely adjustable air dampers for maximum adaptability and performance.
The XJ8 and Vanden Plas models are powered by a slightly larger version of the previous model's 4.0-liter V8. Now displacing 4.2 liters, the engine delivers slightly more horsepower (294 vs. 290) and torque (303 vs. 290 pound-feet) while emitting less harmful emissions. Jaguar claims that the increased horsepower combined with the lighter overall weight results in a 0-to-60 time of just 6.3 seconds. Numerous wide-open straightaways on our test-drive route proved the revised engine a capable motivator of the car's 3,766 pounds.
The power delivery is ultrasmooth as you might expect, and the only stray noise emanating from under the hood is the soothing thrum of the V8 an intrusion that was no doubt purposely allowed to squeeze through. Shifts from the new six-speed automatic come quickly, with an ever-so-slight hesitation between full-throttle upshifts its only noticeable deficiency. A tall overdrive sixth gear not only keeps the engine well rested at speed, it helps the XJ achieve a commendable EPA mileage estimate of 18 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.
Regardless of how fast you're going, the sophisticated air suspension delivers an isolated ride that filters out even the most punishing roads with little intrusion to the cabin. The strict isolation comes at the expense of road feel, however, as the XJ tends to float a bit on the highway. The soft settings also have the detrimental effect of masking the car's stiffer body structure and improved steering system, but if a smooth ride is what you're after these shortcomings will go largely unnoticed.
No such drawbacks plague the high-performance XJR model. It exploits every advantage of the aluminum chassis to the fullest extent, providing excellent road feel, precise steering and lightness on its feet that renders it as sporting as any other Jaguar we've ever driven.
Credit for the added agility can be attributed to the R's more aggressively tuned air suspension, a quicker steering ratio and standard 19-inch wheels and tires. Then there's the supercharged 4.2-liter V8 engine that produces 390 hp and 399 lb-ft of torque. Matched to the same six-speed automatic found in the standard XJ, the R clocks in with a 0-to-60 sprint of just five seconds, according to Jaguar.
From a stop, the XJR leaps forward with the slightest hint of throttle, pulling its way to the redline with no perceptible lag in thrust. Midrange passing power is equally impressive with the six-speed transmission providing ultraquick downshifts that bring the car to triple-digit speeds in a matter of seconds. Although we never found fault with the pervasive supercharger whine of the previous XJR, the new car serves up an equally prominent dose of V8 growl that we found even more satisfying. Weak spots are limited to the continued use of the "J-gate" shifter that makes manual gear changes clumsy and Brembo brakes that, while immensely powerful, can be hard to precisely modulate.
All three cars in the lineup feature revised interiors that offer more passenger room, improved safety mechanisms and numerous new features. The previously cramped rear seats now provide ample head- and legroom for two adults, although the still narrow cabin makes three-abreast seating a tight squeeze. Standard front, side and head curtain airbags provide a level of protection on par with the safest cars in the world. Newly available features include four-zone climate control, adjustable rear seats and a multimedia package that includes two seat back-mounted DVD monitors.
As spacious and luxurious as the interior may be, however, we found its lack of fresh design cues disappointing. From the driver seat, you would be hard-pressed to discern the new model from the previous iteration. The disheartening similarity is exacerbated by the fact that the prior model was hardly the epitome of ergonomic simplicity, leaving the new version wallowing in the same sea of unintuitive controls and insipid design detail. While we're grateful for the absence of an overly complex attempt at technology integration a la BMW's iDrive, we would have liked to have seen a more determined attempt to usher the XJ's cabin into the 21st century.
Sticking with the previous model's overall design theme was certainly no accident. Jaguar officials assert that while the brand must continually move ahead, it can't make the mistake of alienating customers who value its traditional past. The XJ's use of an all-aluminum structure serves it well in this respect, allowing for substantive gains in performance and handling without infringing on its distinct British personality. The XJR is a now a true sport sedan that will satisfy performance enthusiasts more than ever, while the XJ8 and the Vanden Plas have enough performance, safety and spaciousness to compete head-on with any cars in their class.
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