Launching its new XJ saloon in Paris was a bold move by Jaguar. The XJ is a big car, and Paris is an unforgiving city. Whether negotiating the ceaseless whirlpool of traffic that encircles the Arc de Triomphe or threading the maze of narrow side-streets that link the broad boulevards, you take your life in your hands wherever
you go. And don’t even mention Parisian parking techniques.
But the new XJ itself represents a bold move, so maybe Paris was an appropriate choice of venue. In recent years Jaguar has started to drag itself away from the 20th century – and, more specifically, the 1960s – and to embrace the 21st. First came the XK coupé and then the XF, each of which marked a progressive loosening of the heritage bonds that have tied Jaguar to the past rather than the future. The new XJ sees Jaguar almost liberated from those shackles. As a classic car person, you may not see that as a positive step, but you might feel rather differently if your job depended on selling the damn things.
All credit, then, to Jaguar for allowing Octane to drive and photograph the new car back-to-back with its 1960s predecessor. Not every car company would have the confidence to do that. In fact, Jaguar design chief Ian Callum is a big fan of the original XJ6 and there are a couple of nods to its lines in the shape of the new car. Pretty subtle nods, it has to be said, but that’s as it should be.
It seems right to renew acquaintance with the older car first, and it would be impossible to find a more appropriate example: PHP 42G was Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons’ personal transport for the first two years of its life. Finished in Sable – a dark brown colour that’s now back in fashion and suits the XJ6’s understated lines – it’s covered fewer than 70,000 miles since new and is part of Jaguar Heritage’s collection.
Heading into Paris from Jaguar’s launch base in Versailles, you’re immediately reminded of just how modern the XJ6 must have seemed in 1968. It was, in fact, a revelation. Motor magazine’s road test the following year said that the XJ6 ‘comes closer to perfection than any other car we have tested, regardless of price’. Autocar reported that ‘the handling was, if anything, better than that of the E-type, and certainly unmatched by anything in the saloon car class’. Car named it their 1969 Car of the Year.
High praise, indeed, and yet in some ways the XJ6 is actually better now than it was then. Over the last 40 years, cars have become generally bigger: safety considerations have fattened them up in every dimension. Windscreen pillars are thick and obstructive. Doors are built like castle walls to resist side impacts. The XJ6 was a very strong car for its time but it also has a remarkable feeling of delicacy. To use the old cliché, it’s a big car that shrinks around you.
You notice that the moment you slip into its leather-faced, armchair-like seats and grasp the thin-rimmed steering wheel in one hand and the equally delicate T-bar gear selector with the other. Actually, you don’t grasp them: you hold them precisely with the tips of your fingers. To drive an XJ6, at least in town, you naturally adopt the posture of someone taking tea with the vicar, except that hard black plastic and chromed steel have replaced the porcelain china.
That lightness of touch is apparent everywhere. The ’screen pillars and door frames are slender strips that hardly interrupt the panorama of glass surrounding you. Despite the car’s considerable bulk and the confidence conveyed by its fat, doughnut-like tyres, it has beautifully understated detailing of a kind you rarely see nowadays, from its pencil-thin door handles to the tiny, lancet-like rear lights, seemingly inspired by the pointed arches found in cathedrals of the Early English period.
And all that has an effect on you, the driver. Comfortably seated in the XJ6’s cosy interior, you feel relaxed and at peace with the outside world. It’s a world you feel secure in because you have superb all-round vision through that large glass area, while the twin peaks of the headlamps are reassurance that, yes, you will miss the beaten-up Mégane that’s hurtling towards you between unbroken lines of parked cars. Under your foot are maybe 200 horses of smooth six-cylinder power (Jaguar claimed 245bhp for the 4.2, but that was wildly optimistic) and they’re harnessed to a Borg Warner automatic transmission that gives smooth if not seamless changes. When that suicidal teenage scooter rider – the original Crazy Frog – cuts across your path, you’ll keep your cool because you know you have four-wheel Girling disc brakes awaiting a stab from your right foot.
More than anything, however, it’s the XJ6’s sublime ride that still impresses after all these years. Jaguar went to enormous trouble with the XJ’s suspension, using a mixture of synthetic and rubber mounts to insulate the shell from vibration and incorporating anti-dive geometry to maintain stability under braking. The result was a car that cushions its occupants from the rumble-thump of Paris cobbled streets while cornering relatively flatly and gripping strongly. What’s more, Jaguar achieved this miracle with Dunlop radial tyres while the likes of Rolls-Royce were still relying on crossplies to maintain ride comfort.
Press the accelerator and the XK engine responds with a muted growl, pushing this big car forward with respectable urge. The antique Borg Warner slush-box blunts the power delivery, extending the manual car’s 0-60 time of 8.7sec to 10.4, but that’s still far from embarrassing. And while you can punt the XJ6 along remarkably quickly if you have a mind to, why bother? Far better to sit back and bask in the appreciative looks of other motorists. Even the French have the good grace to admire this icon of perfidious Albion.
Flaws? It has a few, but then again, too few to mention. Well, almost. The infamous row of rocker switches across the dashboard looks impressive but is horrible to use at night if you’re not totally familiar with the car – or if you drive it only occasionally. And the twist-action, umbrella-handle handbrake under the dash is an unmitigated pain. Taller drivers must lean forward to release it, and half the time you’re not sure you’ve completely pushed it free of its ratchet, leading to obsessive-compulsive checking while on the move.
But these are mere quibbles. The XJ6 is a wonderful, fabulous car. Jaguars were always built down to a price, so they say, but there’s little sense of it in this womb of wood and leather. Although it’s a perfect grand tourer, whistling along at high speeds and low engine rpm with relatively little wind noise, it’s arguably an even better city car. Here the feather-light Adwest Varamatic power steering, so light you can literally operate it with finger and thumb, feels most at home, and the age of the Borg Warner auto ’box is mitigated by lazy, low-rev upshifts. What’s most incredible of all is that you could buy an identical car today – less the William Lyons connection, of course – for just a few thousand pounds. A Series One XJ6 is the classic bargain of the moment.
Jaguar’s new XJ will set you back rather more, of course. The ‘base’ 3-litre V6 diesel version, which actually has a level of luxury unimaginable just a few years ago, will cost £53,775 and is expected to account for 85% of sales in fuel-price-crippled Britain. The car we drove in Paris was the next model up, the 380bhp petrol V8, which starts at £64,355; top of the range is the twin-supercharged 5.0-litre SuperSports, with 503bhp. That will cost you £87,455. (Some markets, but not the UK, also get a 464bhp ‘blown’ XJ.) Long-wheelbase versions of any model add 125mm of extra rear legroom and about three grand to the price.
First things first. What about the styling? It’s a talking point, that’s for sure. There’s nothing retro about New XJ. The front grille is an obvious XJ6 reference, and the roofline was supposedly inspired by the ’60s car’s, but you’d be hard pressed to tell unless someone pointed it out. The thick D-pillars have been disguised with black inserts, which is an old trick (remember the black-painted sills of 1970s Rover P6s?) but one that works. Trust us, you don’t notice them when you see the car in the metal.
New XJ looks sleek, it looks fast and it looks impressive. It doesn’t look like a traditional Jaguar, which as we’ve already explained is rather the point. But it’s a handsome machine and one whose styling will easily hold its own among exalted German company, while remaining distinctly different. Again, just as a Jaguar should be.
The rear lights are intriguing. Sloping vertically inwards, to an imaginative mind their slatted lenses could be suggestive of a cat’s extended claws. A deliberate reference, or just an attractive myth in the making? Other notable features include a long glass sunroof (though divided by a central stiffener) which increases headroom; it lifts out and slides back when opened.
New XJ’s most attractive aspect, however, is the bit you see most of: the interior. It’s beautifully finished and the ‘piano black’ specification of our test car is the one to go for, contrasting with some lightly-applied chrome accents. The high-mounted circular air vents are reminiscent of a Ferrari 599’s but the quality of the detailing is far superior to the Italian car’s: these days the Brits actually do this sort of thing much better. (Talking of Italian exotica, we spotted another XJ press car that had a very appealing tan leather interior and ’30s Bugatti-like flat-dish alloy wheels. With some careful perusing of the options list you could commission a Continental-style Jaguar that would play the Quattroporte at its own game.)
Still in the front seats, techno-geeks will enjoy the ‘Dual-View’ central touchscreen, which allows driver and front-seat passenger to simultaneously see full-screen images of completely separate displays – sat-nav and a DVD film, for example – because they’re viewing them from different angles. And technology is also on display, literally, for the instruments, which are analogue-style ‘virtual’ dials and needles. You have to wonder whether Jaguar could add some alternative programmes that would allow you to choose your own typefaces and detailing – surely the logical next step in owner customisation, and one that would make a surprising difference to the driving experience.
Ah yes, the driving experience. Two words: bloody good. Our car is ‘only’ the 380bhp version but it’s plenty quick enough for all but the most psychotic. Most of the time you can bumble along in Comfort mode; turn the rotating gear selector to Sport, press the Dynamic vehicle setting button (at which the virtual dials take on an appropriately red tinge) and you can feel the big Jag tense itself for action. Even the seatbelts tighten slightly.
In this guise, New XJ has crushing acceleration – 5.4 seconds from rest to 60mph and an electronically limited 155mph top speed. That’s Ferrari Daytona performance, in our world. Pleasingly, it’s accompanied by a subtle but noticeable V8 throb, which emphasises how Jaguar intends New XJ to be as much a driver’s car as an executive limo. Opt for the Supersport version and the 0-60 time comes down to 4.7 seconds, which is all of a tenth of a second behind a DB9… Jaguar hasn’t quoted any in-gear acceleration times but it’s a pretty safe bet that even a Parisian taxi driver won’t make that gap ahead of you.
Sheer speed is all very well, of course, but it means little if it’s accompanied by F1 levels of suspension compliance. Inevitably, New XJ will be shod with either 19 or 20in alloy wheels (18in for some markets – India, perhaps?) but the engineers have managed to keep the ride, at least, recognisably Jaguar. Continually variable dampers and similar electronic trickery provide a smooth-ish passage at all times; only at low speeds and the worst of surfaces (those Parisian cobbles again) are you aware of its firmness.
But that underlying hint of purpose is in keeping with Jaguar’s new focus, and it’s backed up by steering that is pleasingly sharp and precise.
But we’ve saved the biggest revelation till last. Because it’s mostly made from aluminium and magnesium alloys, New XJ weighs almost exactly the same as the 1968 original, despite being longer, wider, plusher, faster and, yes, safer. That is quite remarkable. After decades of motor industry institutional obesity, Jaguar is taking a lead in fighting the flab.
That’s what makes New XJ just as significant in 2010 as the XJ6 was 42 years earlier. Weight reduction may not be as sexy as lots of horsepower or trick suspension but its importance to creating a true drivers’ car is something that enthusiasts have been harping on about for years. Gordon Murray will be delighted, and so are we.
1968 Jaguar XJ6 4.2
4235cc straight-six, DOHC, two SU HD8 carburettors
245bhp (claimed) @ 5500rpm
283lb ft @ 3750rpm
Three-speed Borg Warner automatic (four-speed manual/overdrive optional), rear-wheel drive
Front: independent by coil and wishbone, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent by paired coil/damper units with lower links and driveshafts serving as upper links, radius arms
Girling discs all round
Top speed 124mph
2010 Jaguar XJ 5.0
5000cc all-alloy V8, fuel injection, normally aspirated, variable inlet manifold and switchable camshaft profile
380bhp @ 6500rpm
380lb ft @ 3500rpm
Six-speed automatic with paddle shift for manual control, Winter/Normal/Sport modes, rear-wheel drive
Front: independent by coils and unequal length wishbones, active variable dampers
Rear: independent, multilink with air springs, active variable dampers
Ventilated discs all round, electronic braking and traction controls
1755kg (1773kg LWB)
Top speed 155mph