2004 Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
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2004 Jaguar XJ-Series Sedan

(4.2L V8 6-speed Automatic)

Reinventing the XJ

Although it's been a long time coming, Jaguar has finally redesigned the XJ from the ground up. If any automaker should be able to rest on its laurels, it's Jaguar. The company has a real and impressive heritage in the world of luxury cars and motor sports, but the reality of today is that all that heritage doesn't amount to much when comparing the old XJ to the much newer and less expensive crop of Asian and American luxury cars.

So much about automobiles, and technology in general, is contextual or relative to the time period in which it's viewed. It seems like only a few summers ago that my Soundesign hand-held AM radio was cutting-edge technology. OK, so it was 1972 but still, that wasn't so long ago, was it? Nevertheless, that little radio was basically the iPod of its day — you could even get it in cool colors. Mine was blue. If I were to listen to that radio today (that is, assuming I hadn't chucked it at my older brother in a five-year-old fit of rage), I'm sure I would find the sound quality to be seriously lacking and downright primitive compared to a modern $25 portable radio.

In a similar vein, I can recall driving a then-new 1988 Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas. At the time, the car seemed impressive for a number of reasons. The interior offered real luxury, plus the prestige of owning a Jaguar really meant something. Only Mercedes-Benz and BMW approached the Jag in terms of opulence, but even the best from the Germans felt cold inside compared to the warm look and feel of the British XJ. Lexus and Infiniti didn't exist yet, and Jaguar cars seemed almost comparable to Rolls-Royce in terms of lavish interiors and public perception.

Years later, I drove a 2002 Jaguar XJ and had almost the exact opposite experience. "Sixty grand and all I get is too much wind noise, a cramped driver's compartment and a CD changer that isn't in the dash?" I mumbled. Like that little radio, the Jaguar XJ seemed, at one time, to be the height of technology and luxury, yet only a few years later that same car was woefully lacking when compared to more recent offerings from Japanese, European and even American companies.

Luckily, Jaguar took note of its flagship's deficiencies, and now it has raised the bar in the luxury car and luxury performance car categories with the innovative 2004 XJ (one could argue that the company did so because it had to, but such is the glory of capitalism). As we noted in our first drive of the 2004 Jaguar XJ, the real dilemma for Jag may have been how to change and dramatically improve a car with as much history and recognition as the XJ without alienating core buyers. The problem is that carmakers need to attract new customers while still giving loyalists the product they've grown accustomed to. As a result the new XJ will be instantly recognized for what it is — a Jaguar.

Although the new XJ looks only slightly different than its predecessor, there are significant improvements under the skin — and in this case even the skin itself is revolutionary. In order to save weight while increasing the car's overall size, the new Jaguar XJ utilizes aluminum for its body panels and unibody architecture. It's a smart move. Increased safety equipment, combined with stricter emissions requirements, has the potential to really bog down modern gasoline-powered automobiles. The one area that can always be improved upon to offer better performance and better fuel economy is weight. Anyone who knows anything about performance knows that the power-to-weight ratio is far more important than engine size or horsepower or any number of frequently cited figures. In this respect, Jaguar "gets it" — perhaps all those years of Le Mans racing are starting to pay off.

"Ahh, but won't all that aluminum be much more costly to repair?" you may be asking. Jaguar officials were asking the same thing, and accordingly, the company has taken measures to make sure the repair of an aluminum-bodied XJ is almost as painless and hassle-free to the owner as if he owned a more common steel-bodied car. Jaguar currently has over 160 sites that dealers can use to fix minor dents and dings, while major damage will be tackled by one of 24 repair centers — Jaguar pays the transportation costs.

The fact that the new Jag XJ uses all-aluminum body panels will be lost on most consumers — they simply won't care. What they will notice and be happy about is the improved performance due to the car's lighter weight. With 14 more horsepower and 13 more pound-feet of torque, the new XJ feels much livelier and more powerful. The V8 has grown to 4.2 liters, up from 4.0 liters, but the performance advantage feels more substantial than the modest numbers would suggest.

Of course, the XJR with its 390-hp, supercharged V8 is the real thrill ride, but the XJ8 and Vanden Plas can hold their own. The outgoing XJ8 had a bit of a sluggish feel at times, but the redesigned version feels much lighter on its feet. Even our stately Vanden Plas test car offered excellent power off the line and, according to Jaguar, it racks up an impressive 0-to-60-mph time of 6.3 seconds. Under heavy acceleration, the V8 has a nice, subtle purr, but around town barely a peep comes from under the hood.

Normally with a car like the XJ, we'd be perfectly content to discuss the power and refinement of the engine and perhaps just touch on the miserable fuel economy associated with luxury cars. But the new engine raises the fuel economy to a respectable 18 city and 28 highway — keep in mind this is a V8-powered luxury sedan cranking out almost 300 hp. A Toyota Camry with a V6 and five-speed automatic transmission is rated at 20 city/28 highway. Certainly we're not implying that the Jaguar XJ and Toyota Camry are competitors, but it is worth noting when a V8-powered luxury car can almost match the mileage numbers of a Toyota sedan.

No discussion of acceleration and fuel economy would be complete without mention of the XJ's new six-speed automatic transmission. This is the same ZF unit found in the XK coupe and convertible and Jaguar S-Type. We had no complaints about the six-speed XKR , calling it "noticeably better" than the unit it replaced. The same is true for the XJ — upshifts are virtually instantaneous and very smooth. Unlike the previous five-speed unit, the new gearbox never seems confused and always chooses the right gear for each situation — even blatant attempts to confuse the transmission by quickly stabbing the accelerator didn't work. For Jaguar purists, the J-gate shifter is still a part of the XJ experience, although like in other Jags, the manual-shift portion of the J-gate lacks precise notches. This makes it far too easy to miss the gear you intended and sort of saps the fun out of the shift-it-yourself feature.

Thanks to the previously mentioned aluminum unibody, the new XJ is not only around 200 pounds lighter, but 60 percent stiffer as well. This translates to a much more sophisticated and smooth ride, which is especially noticeable on the nimble XJR. The Vanden Plas also feels more solid and refined, but the ride can tend toward "floaty." All XJs receive Jaguar's air suspension as standard equipment and that system has its payoffs. We spent considerable time behind the wheel of our Vanden Plas tester, but even a brief lap around the block reveals just how much of the road's imperfections are soaked up by the air suspension. The floaty feeling is generally limited to open stretches of highway — when the car is pushed hard through corners, the more feedback it gives and the flatter it whips through those corners. The CATS (Computer Active Technology Suspension) system automatically firms up the damping, reducing body roll and increasing feedback to the driver.

It's great that Jag has spent so much time and effort on improving the mechanical components of this car, but all that would really be worthless if the interior didn't receive the same level of attention. A major complaint about the previous-generation XJ was the cramped driver's quarters. Sure, Jaguar called it "cockpitlike," but really it was just too small, especially for a car as big as the XJ. The solution was to simply make the interior larger. For 2004 the XJ is taller, wider and longer. As a result, legroom, headroom and shoulder room have all been increased. The XJ still manages to retain the cozy cockpitlike seating arrangement, but now it doesn't feel so cramped.

The seats are comfortable, but the plush Vanden Plas versions don't feel much cushier than the sporty seats found in the XJR. Given the Vanden Plas' lap-of-luxury approach, we'd like to see seats that are a little more forgiving on the backside. Although virtually every dimension of the interior has been increased, some editors complained that the driver seat doesn't move back far enough to accommodate taller drivers.

Interior materials are generally of the highest order, and only a few cheap plastic bits make their way into the otherwise warm, classic and old-world-inspired cabin. Every surface is either smooth, soft or glassy, lending a very high-quality feel throughout.

So much of the new Jag is a tenfold improvement over the old that minor annoyances stand out all the more. The lack of an in-dash CD changer is a glaring oversight in our minds. Actually, it's not so much an oversight on the part of Jaguar engineers as it is a conscious choice. The official reason given for why the CD changer must reside in the trunk was two-fold. First, a unit that would remain reliable for the long haul could not be found — company officials claim that too many changers that were tested simply malfunctioned too often. Realizing that a reputation for unreliability almost killed the brand in the '80s, Jag chose quality over convenience. Second, the glovebox was another option for the CD changer, but Jaguar reports that crash test experiments revealed it could hinder front-passenger safety. We applaud Jaguar's decision to prioritize attributes like safety and reliability, but can't help but wonder how it is that almost every other automaker, including competitors like Infiniti and Lexus, manage to find a safe and reliable way of installing an in-dash six-disc CD changer in their respective cars. On a positive note, there is a single CD player in the dash in addition to the trunk-mounted changer, so you can immediately listen to that new CD you just bought without having to first walk to the trunk.

Interior improvements include real and usable front storage space and a DVD-based navigation system that is now on par with some of the best in the industry. There is also a new DVD entertainment system available for rear-seat occupants (replete with twin seat back monitors) while newly available dual- and four-zone climate control systems keep everyone at the right temperature. You'll find active cruise control, a feature that is quickly becoming a luxury staple, on the options list.

With wealth comes additional privileges. Like it or not, expensive luxury cars are generally the place you'll find the most advanced safety features, and a luxury car that does not offer industry-leading safety is really not living up to its full potential. Jaguar has done a great job of equipping the new XJ with plenty of active safety features — such as ABS with emergency BrakeAssist, traction control and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) — that help the driver to avoid a collision in the first place. But in the real world, accidents are simply a fact of life. Should the XJ be in an accident, there are many systems all working together to protect the occupants. And isn't that really the ultimate luxury?

Outfitted with Jaguar's Adaptive Restraint Technology System (ARTS), the XJ uses several criteria to best protect passengers in the event of an accident. Of course, there are dual-stage front airbags, as well as side airbags for front-seat occupants and three-point seatbelts with pyrotechnic pre-tensioners for all seating positions. There are also side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers. But that's just the beginning, as ARTS uses a seat weight sensor for the front-passenger position to determine if the passenger-side front airbag should or should not deploy in a frontal impact. If the sensor detects a lightweight occupant, the airbag is automatically deactivated. There is also an occupant position-sensing system that uses ultrasonic sensors to monitor the position of said passenger, the position of the seat and whether the person is wearing his seatbelt.

Since 1968, the XJ has literally defined the brand name Jaguar. Now in its seventh generation, the new XJ is by far the best yet. While the outgoing XJ has a certain old-world charm, the new one retains that charm but offers all the refinement, luxury, safety and performance befitting a 21st century luxury/performance sedan. Certainly the 2004 Jaguar XJ is not the perfect car, but its minor irritations seem to fade away with the reassuring growl of the V8. It raises the bar for other luxury makes to the point where one could almost justify spending more money in order to enjoy all that Jaguar stands for. But just a hair under $60,000 for the XJ8, Jaguar has seen to it that you won't have to spend more to get more.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: Although not perfect, the audio system in the new XJ does offer better-than-average performance. This is especially true with regard to sound quality.

The XJ8 offers an eight-speaker Jaguar sound system, but the Vanden Plas comes standard with an upgraded Alpine Premium system which gives you a total of 12 speakers and 320 watts. Surprise-and-delight features include an easy-to-use touchscreen display through which most of the stereo functions are routed, a large notched volume knob that gives a great tactile feel and a variable DSP function that allows the user to play with the acoustics of the system. However, because of the touchscreen, many of the remaining functions for the stereo are too low in the dash, and are represented by icons that are rather small.

The only thing wrong with this Alpine-branded system is that some features are hard to find. Specifically, the button for changing tracks on a CD or tuning preset radio stations. It's easy enough to change modes, but changing functions inside that mode requires you to hold down that same mode selection button for a few seconds, and that isn't clear without asking your sales rep or reading the manual.

Performance: The 12-speaker system offers excellent sound quality and is clearly among the better systems found in many of today's luxury cars. Not quite as good as the stellar Mark Levinson system available in Lexus products, the Alpine Premium system does rival the best from Audi, BMW and Cadillac.

Bass response is excellent and can almost be overwhelming if the adjustable subwoofer is set too high. Even with the bass cranked up and the subwoofer turned up a little, the speakers never lose their composure, but it's just too much thumping.

Vocals and stringed instruments sound great as well — the center channel and subwoofer help to keep everything acoustically separated but only to a point. One of the system's strong points is that it has the capacity for incredible volume, but as the sound level climbs, the nice separation lessens. Admittedly, the volume at which this occurs is so high that no human being could possibly listen to it for longer than the duration of one song.

The Alpine stereo accommodates all kinds of tastes, as anything from pop to classical sounds good through this system. Super heavy or hard rock is not best showcased on this system, but everything else sounds very good with sharp bass, clean and clear highs as well as subtle midrange.

Best Feature: Easy-to-use touchscreen display, sounds awesome, adjustable subwoofer.

Worst Feature: Steering wheel-mounted controls are not intuitive.

Conclusion: A great system overall, but it falls just short of the much touted Mark Levinson line. — Scott Memmer

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I've had an on-again/off-again love affair with Jaguar for many years, though I'm talking admiration that was done from afar. Until very recently, I would've never considered buying one (theoretically, of course), given Jaguar's questionable history as far as reliability was concerned. Yep, I loved the XK-E but hated its successor, the XJ-S. Loved the pre-1988 XJ6 but was ambivalent toward the next generation (1988 to 1994). But in the mid- to late 1990s, Jaguar won my affection back with the classically styled XJ and XK-Series.

So what about the latest version of the XJ? In terms of styling, I think they've softened up the lines too much. The beltline has nearly lost the sensuous curve at the rear flanks, and the greenhouse (the window area) looks somewhat generic, having lost the signature quarter windows and ultra-slim rearmost pillars of previous XJs. No doubt, it's still a handsome car, just not as distinctive as before. The cabin is improved in terms of room and comfort; even just by looking, it's apparent that the interior is more spacious. And I appreciated the adjustable seat cushion length on the driver seat, finding just the right amount of under-thigh support (which can be elusive when you're 5 feet 5 inches). Jaguar sweated other details, too, such as having textured rubber rings on the vent switches and leather wrapping for the grab handles above the doors. But where did the flip-down picnic trays go? How can one have his tea and crumpets whilst ensconced in the Vanden Plas without the bloody trays?

There are still some quirks, such as the too-low climate control display and I'm sure you've read/will read other gripes about the automanual transmission's "traditional" J-gate shifter that slips too easily through its gear positions, making manual-style shifting an exercise in frustration. But in reality, the latter grievance will be a nonissue for most who buy this car; the tranny shifts superbly on its own and Jaguar sedan drivers typically aren't as into changing gears for themselves as, say, the BMW crowd.

Thankfully, Jaguar has, for the most part, kept the XJ's character intact, meaning smooth and quick performance, a polished ride, capable handling and an interior that oozes luxury and class. How do I feel about Jag's latest flagship sedan? Apart from the slightly watered-down styling, this is the company's best XJ by far, and would be on my "to drive" list if I hit the lottery.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Much like the current-generation XK coupe and roadster, the '04 XJ sedan made an immediate impression upon me — of being a beautiful car, one that might be purchased just as a piece of installation art for the driveway. I was particularly fond of our Vanden Plas test car's British Racing Green paint and chrome door handles. Once I got into the driver seat, substance became more important than style, and I was pleased to find that the car was both a quiet, comfortable cruiser and a good handler (even with its soft suspension tuning). Acceleration was brisk, and although I don't like the J-gate shifter or the lack of a gear display in the dash, I just left the six-speed automatic in sport mode and let it do its own thing. Overall, the performance seems competitive for this class, but there's not any one thing about the driving experience that makes me like the Jaguar more than its peers — except fuel economy. Its 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway is outstanding for a large, V8-powered luxury sedan.

As in other Jaguars, the cabin furnishings are showy in their opulence — generously applied leather with contrasting piping, lovely wood inlays and plush shag floor mats. If you start probing your surroundings, you'll find low-grade fuzz on the pillars and headliner and cheapo plastic and vinyl on the door panels — in sum, the kind of stuff you wouldn't find in the car's Audi, BMW and Lexus competitors. Climb in the backseat and you'll wonder if this is really Jaguar's large sedan, as there isn't much more room for feet and toes back here than there is in the midsize S-Type. Of course, if you're the type who sweats the practical stuff, a Jaguar probably isn't for you in the first place. On its own, I don't think an XJ would be a bad choice, but several of its competitors offer a more well-rounded luxury experience — take the time to test-drive them.

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