If you were walking that evening, you probably went home with whiplash.
It's not every night when you catch sight of a 2011 Jaguar XJ 5.0L SC, let alone five of them in a row, all in black, more like performance art than a bunch of people on the way to a restaurant. We cross the Seine on the Pont de Grenelle, where the downsize replica of the Statue of Liberty poses against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, then drive past the ironwork of the tower itself, wind through the streets to the cobblestones of the Place de la Concorde, then motor down the Champs-Elysees and finally dive off into Avenue Montaigne.
If you're going to be driving a Jaguar, it might as well be in Paris.
Ian Callum, director of Jaguar Design, laughed when he heard reports of the new XJ being stopped by the police (and even the military) so the curious French could take a closer look. It would have been easy to be self-important, since we were standing in what is pretty much one of the snappiest places to eat in Paris — a restaurant in a glass box on top of the Theatre Des Champs-Elysees called La Maison Blanche — but Callum knows just how much the 2011 Jaguar XJ 5.0L SC means for his company.
"The French understand luxury better than anyone because they don't have it," Callum says. "First they did away with royalty in that big mess they had a couple hundred years ago. Then when cars like those wonderful Talbot-Lagos with Figoni & Falaschi bodies came back in the 1930s, they taxed them into extinction. Even today, you'll notice that there are no French luxury cars. So it's no wonder they have such an eye for luxury, really."
Callum makes no excuses for going for the full artistic presentation with the XJ. "We had to go for it, since everyone else that builds a car for this class has backed off. We stretched the glass front and rear to the very limit to get the sensation of length. And everything else is organized from there to give the car a proper visual hierarchy. You'll notice in profile the proportion of glass to the bodywork, which clarifies in an instant the character of the car. And in the rear, the taillights reinforce the golden mean in the visual proportions, which is something I still believe in.
"It's aerodynamic, because that's what we've always done at Jaguar, starting with the first Swallow motorcycle sidecars that Sir William Lyons did in the 1920s. We still talk about Malcolm Sayer's Jaguar D-Type racing car for Le Mans in the 1950s — those pure mathematical curves with statistical progression."
Tires on the Ground
Back to reality the next morning as we turn onto the autoroute headed out of town and get on it hard. The rear tires squirm against pavement still wet from one of those big storms that blows in off the Atlantic and tries to knock down every tree in France. This particular storm had made a good attempt, as there were branches and debris across every road while a constant crosswind tugged at the 2011 Jaguar XJ as we headed north.
With the supercharged 5.0-liter V8 under the hood of this stretched-wheelbase XJ, we had a certain irresistible force of our own. Just as it has for every engine around, from the Corvette ZR1's LS9 V8 to the Audi A6's 3.0 TFSI V6, the latest four-lobe Eaton TVS supercharger transforms the Jaguar AJ-V8.
There's more to it than just a rating of 464 horsepower at 6,000-6,500 rpm and 424 pound-feet of torque at 2,500-5,500 rpm. Sure, there's all the torque you expect from down low (torque is so the rage in Europe that the locals talk about it all the time, as if they had just discovered NASCAR stock cars), but it's the sheer down-the-road power we notice.
Since this all-aluminum car weighs just 4,323 pounds, the Jaguar XJ L-type leaps when you get into the gas pedal at low speed. After all, it's lighter than a comparable S-Class or 7 Series by the equivalent of three people (three well-fed people at that). Then you become aware of the supercharged V8's ability to power the XJ past the 100-
mph mark and then just keep right on going. We found ourselves whistling across the rolling fields with effortless pace. It's like skiing down a glacier — gravity is on your side and the whole world is downhill.
The Bentley Thing
The view through the windshield of green, rain-soaked farm fields has a certain charm, yet the view inside the 2011 Jaguar XJ proves much better. We've become so used to the restrained, executive-style good taste of the interiors in luxury German sedans that the Jaguar XJ's gorgeous cabin is a bit of a shock. No car company in the world has the instinct for sensuous luxury that Jaguar does, and this mix of leather, wood, aluminum and chrome expresses the typical instinct for natural materials that only the British seem to have. In truth, you'd think you were driving a classic Bentley, only no Bentley was ever as good as this Jaguar.
At the same time, there's something about the Jaguar L-model on its extended 124.3-inch wheelbase with its extra 5.3 inches of rear legroom that makes you believe at first that the car will drive like a Bentley as well. You're always aware of the length of the vehicle behind you, as if someone had grafted a rail car behind an otherwise commanding front seat, not the least because the XJ's high rear window doesn't offer much visibility.
And yet as we wound through the narrow streets of 17th-century farming villages, swept over lanes along the banks of rural streams and then scrambled through the transitions into and out of the rural traffic circles as if they were the chicanes on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans, we were surprised to discover that this 206.6-inch sedan doesn't drive like a rail car at all. It steers with such crisp, deliberate commitment that you feel instead as if you're driving a Jaguar XF sport sedan.
Napkins at Chantilly
Andy Dobson, Jaguar's product development chief, explained to us that there is no mystery about the presence of Jaguar XF dynamics within the XJ. As we ate lunch in a small inn not far from the vast grandstands of the Hippodrome de Chantilly (like the 1834 version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, only for thoroughbred horses), Dobson drew it out for us on a napkin.
The new 2011 Jaguar XJ is now in large measure a new-generation all-aluminum unibody, much like the former XJ in its architecture yet now built more like an aluminum structure and less like a steel body simply executed in aluminum. To ensure a crisp steering feel, the front subframe is not isolated and the front shock towers are reinforced. Continuously variable damping as standard equipment keeps the ride supple, yet the combination of XF suspension, wider front and rear tracks, plus larger-diameter tires (20-inchers are optional) provides lots of cornering grip.
Most important, the rear suspension has understeer built into its geometry, which effectively gives the front wheels more dynamic control and enhances the feeling of direct steering. Many other large cars now build oversteer into the rear geometry to deliver livelier handling response, but we can tell you that the price is vague steering that saps driver confidence.
Dobson learned the vehicle dynamics trade from Richard Parry-Jones, the now-legendary engineer who transformed Ford cars over the last 20 years, so it's no wonder that the Jaguar development chief cites "honesty" as a key trait in his company's new generation of cars. And with the assistance of Michelle O'Connor, an American who built and raced her own Chevy II drag car with a 600-hp crate motor (and who has inherited the enthusiasm of Mike Cross, Jaguar's former development chief, a guy who still drives with the crossed-up exuberance of a British Travis Pastrana), these two engineers seem to have embraced a sporting personality for Jaguar cars.
The Future of Luxury
The 2011 Jaguar XJ 5.0L SC is just one of a fleet of alternative versions of the new Jaguar XJ. You have your choice of the $72,500 standard-wheelbase car with the normally aspirated V8; the $87,500 standard-wheelbase car with a supercharged V8; the $79,500 extended-wheelbase car with a naturally aspirated V8 and the $90,500 extended-wheelbase car with the supercharged V8. You can also special-order the $110,000 XJ Supersport with its supercharged 510-hp V8 or the $113,000 extended-wheelbase XJ Supersport with its supercharged 510-hp engine. Here in the U.S., 70 percent of the cars will be the extended-wheelbase version.
This seems like a lot of model variations for a model that sold 8,304 units in 2005 when it had 9.2 percent of the North American market in its segment and sold just 1,161 cars in 2009 for 3.0 percent of the market.
Yet Jaguar Managing Director Mike O'Driscoll has his own point of view. O'Driscoll is a lifer at Jaguar who is pleased to report that never once has the phrase "parts synergy" come up in a conversation with Ratan Tata of Tata Motors, which bought Jaguar from the Ford Motor Company in 2008, and he believes that Jaguar is ready to reassert itself. Most important, O'Driscoll believes the luxury sedan market will come back — and come back to Jaguar in particular — despite the gloomy forecasts of others in response to the recession.
"The market will come back," O'Driscoll says. "People will always spend money on fine things because excellence and beauty give something back to you that simple utility does not. Also, the car itself is a special case. There's a sign on our building, a phrase that Sir William Lyons of Jaguar always used: 'The car is the closest thing we can create to something that is alive.'"
After you drive a Jaguar in Paris, it's easy to believe it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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