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2011 Jaguar XJ Supercharged – Road Test

by The Review CrewSeptember 11, 2010

Sometimes it’s best to begin at the end—in this case, at the XJ’s tail end, where the Jaguar name appears exactly nowhere and those hockey-stick taillights flash a rude middle digit at a lifetime of traditional Jag styling cues. Apply the brakes, and three LED strips illuminate in each taillight, intentionally mimicking the red lacerations that a torqued-off alley cat might visit upon your forearm.

Jaguar asserts that this flagship sedan honors Sir William Lyons’s original XJ of 1968. Bollocks, as they say in Old Blighty. Everything that the original XJ was—fragile, tottering, tentative, as eccentric as Prince Charles’s love life and as toothless as the Queen’s oldest corgi—the new XJ is not. Check out its aggressively  “waisted” beltline, a reference to the doors that are drawn in tightly from the bulging fender arches. The original XJ said to its owner, “I’m up for a pint of shandy at the pub, mate.” This XJ says, “Hey, chief, let’s go kill a BMW and a Benz.”

There are six breeds of this cat. The base sedan offers a 385-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 ($72,500); with a 4.9-inch stretch, it becomes the long-wheelbase XJL ($79,500). Next step is the 470-hp, supercharged engine, in short-wheelbase format, as tested here ($87,500), and also in elongated mode ($90,500). And then you can startle your loan officer by specifying short and long Supersport editions ($110,000 and $113,000), both with blown 510-horse, XFR-spec V-8s. With that XJ lineup, Jaguar has something to go up against Audi’s A8, Lexus’s LS460, and both the BMW 7-series and Benz S-class armadas.

Climb inside, and what you notice first is the curious dash, sunken two inches below the base of the windshield. It lends the cabin an extra measure of airiness. Flawlessly stitched cow skins abound, naturally, as do ubiquitous spears of burled wood—six-inch-tall forests of the stuff, in fact, on the door inserts. The softball-size air vents recall those in a Rolls. The headliner, pillars, and sun visors are all clad in creamy faux suede so rich that it’s hard to resist touching. And the turn signals emit a sleepy, wooden tick-tock reminiscent of a Seth Thomas mantle clock. That, oddly, is pretty much the end of Ye Olde Worlde charm.

What principally mars the interior is the gimmicky, thin-film-transistor LCD gauges, which change colors and shine a white spotlight on current speed and revs and occasionally disappear altogether to warn of, say, low washer fluid. The tach “needle” doesn’t climb or fall fluidly; instead, it ratchets annoyingly. Some old-fashioned Smiths gauges would have looked more at home, though they’d have worked for only about two weeks. A gaudy, blue, chrome-encrusted analog clock adds to the Lady Gaga effect, as does a reckless amount of shiny black wood that looks so much like plastic that it might as well be plastic. “Wasn’t my idea,” Sir William is somewhere muttering. He might also have recommended a manual rotary tuning dial, given the perfectly flat expanse of unused real estate to the right of the radio.

The front seats are sculpted for major marathons, and the driver’s relationship to the primary controls is nearly perfect. We wish the swollen transmission tunnel, which often comes in contact with the driver’s leg, didn’t impinge so obviously on the footwells. The tunnel also makes the cabin feel narrower than it is.

Outboard rear-seat occupants will appreciate the generous headroom, knee­room, side bolstering, and thigh support. A middle rider, alas, will not, his butt barely deflecting the rock-hard center hump and his legs splayed to accommodate that monster tunnel, ten inches wide and nine inches tall. What the hell’s in there, a Civil War cannon? Shouldn’t every sedan in this niche gladly accommodate five? One final beef: The vast, swoopy C-pillars obscure the rear-three-quarter view, and the rear parcel shelf kicks up dramatically to make a gun slit of the backlight. A cop driving the Goodyear blimp could creep up unnoticed.

Around town, the XJ is Miss Manners—serene, polite, the essence of terra-firma jet-setting. But should you dip quickly and deeply into the throttle, make sure there’s a clear runway ahead. Big, elastic push and shove manifest as early as 2000 rpm, a rush that continues in a seamless torrent to redline, accompanied by no blower whine and the sort of basso profundo exhaust note you’d expect from a ’69 COPO Camaro. Sixty mph blows past in 4.4 seconds, 0.4 second quicker than an Aston Martin Rapide, which boasts an identical 470 horsepower. To 150 mph, the XJ trails a 518-hp Mercedes E63 AMG by only one second and is quieter getting there. On the XJ’s track-test sheet, tech editor Mike Austin noted: “Acceleration is a matter of managing wheelspin—or keeping the stability control on and sacrificing about 0.2 second.” We once caused most of a Dodge Ram SRT10 to disappear in its own tire smoke. The XJ will happily match that feat, even as your neighbors are dialing 9-1-1.

The instantaneous power is partly a function of the flawless ZF six-speed, which is uncanny about selecting—and holding—the gear most appropriate to the driver’s level of craziness, especially in sport mode, which aggressively remaps shift points. But the question remains: Why didn’t Jag insert the new ZF eight-speed instead, as have its competitors? That would certainly help boost the XJ’s rather paltry ratings of 15 mpg city and 21 highway. Still, the transmission’s lightning-fast reactions are apparent in the XJ’s top-gear 30-to-50-mph and 50-to-70 times: 2.4 and 2.9 seconds, respectively, versus, say, the E63 AMG’s 2.9 and 3.4. There’s so much omnipresent power, and the transmission is so willing to access it right freakin’ now, that we quit using the paddle shifters entirely.

What’s more, the XJ’s chassis, on our public-road handling loop, effortlessly translated all that power into blurred landscapes. Depress the button for dynamic mode—you’ll know it’s activated when it cinches the seatbelts an extra inch and the gauges glow “red mist”—and you’ll summon firmer shocks and quicker throttle response. Even on rough pavement, path control proved superb, although the steering is maybe a bit too quick just off center. The huge rotors burn off 70 mph in 159 feet—same as a Porsche Panamera Turbo—and pedal feel would likewise satisfy the denizens of Zuffenhausen. In all of its moves, the aluminum-intensive XJ feels more agile than its 4310 pounds suggest.

Although the ride is extremely firm in both normal and dynamic modes, big-displacement impacts are dispatched with a distant “ka-thunk,” and it’s really only the small pavement scabs—frost heaves and expansion joints that catch the front wheels simultaneously—that send a rifle-shot shiver through what otherwise feels like the most rigid, untwistable, and confidence-inspiring platform in Jaguar’s history.

The XJ is hugely involving and gratifying and goes about its business without the slightest strain. It’s luxurious, yet tautly poised. Sleek as a shark, with a hammerhead’s heart. The chassis and drivetrain feel sorted to the nth degree, the work of perfectionist engineers who likely drive their kids and spouses insane. It’s just the interior that could use a little more finessing, and there’s, uh, that plastic baggie containing six spare fuses that is either a thoughtful touch or a worrisome reminder of Jags past.

It’s perilous to make sweeping Churchillian pronouncements about new automobiles. But this is a landmark car for Jaguar, possibly the best sedan the company has ever built. Those glowing blood-red claw marks? Not so goofy after all.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.

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