If the Jeremy Clarkson School of Automotive Journalism has taught me one thing, it’s that any good car review needs a metaphor. They serve to add a tangible anchor to a story, they add humor, they add relevance and, more importantly, they create an easy formula with which us car reviewers can crank out reviews in no time flat about a car most readers will likely never drive. So in keeping with the teachings of Professor Clarkson, we’re picking a metaphor for the 2009 Jaguar XF: Seinfeld’s pretty/ugly girl.
Since network television hasn’t been able to come up with a show that’s equally universal in its blandness or equally inoffensive in its humor since it went off-air in 1998, Seinfeld reruns can be seen at any given time on at least two channels — a kind of comedy bookend to the Law & Order probability theory. So I probably don’t need remind you who the pretty/ugly girl is, but just for posterity’s sake: she’s a girl Jerry dates that, depending on the angle of lighting, is either really pretty or really ugly. And that’s exactly the case with this mid-size Jag. During my weekly escape to my Fortress of Solitude in the Pennsylvania mountains, I couldn’t have been happier with the XF. Driving there late on a Friday evening, the view over its bulged bonnet evoked a sense of immense power backed up by the 4.2-liter V8’s 310 lb-ft of torque. Inside, the glow of the classy instruments and warm dash evoked old-world luxury. Both the power and the luxury were backed up on the outside too. People turned to look, but not in the bitter way that I’ve grown used to in flashier cars. From the rear, the XF looked like a four-door Aston Martin, from the front, like a modern take on the original 1968 XJ; the whole thing was classy and understated. I felt like visiting royalty. All of this was carried over to the drive as well. Swooping along the freshly repaved mountain roads in manual mode, the XF felt like a Bentley: big, heavy, powerful and smooth. The steering, which was vague on the highway, firmed up on turn-in, resulting in surprising agility. Pushed, the V8 sounded like an Aston (it should: Jag and Aston use tweaked versions of the same engine), resulting in a rewarding drive that blended clubhouse luxury with performance in a way that only the English know how to do. And then the lighting changed. I don’t think Seinfeld had either the ability or vision to go this deep with its characters, but to me, the pretty/ugly girl represents more than just looks; it also represents the duality of both personality and attraction. Certain settings and certain people act like fun-house mirrors, altering your perception of someone’s appeal in a way that goes beyond looks. Take the sexy girl from last night’s party to breakfast, and all of a sudden her pouting lips and willing personality transform into a leathery face and abject stupidity. Back in dirty, nasty Brooklyn, the XF’s lithe looks were just a memory, replaced with something Ray describes as “Dodge Intrepid.” Personally, I think it looks more like an Infinity I30, but all of a sudden, any hint of classic Aston or Jag is gone. So too is the luxurious interior. In the light of day, the occasionally suspect materials, poor control damping and cheap leather seats grab your attention more than the gimmicky transmission and soft blue mood lighting do. Out too is the imperious driving ability, replaced with something that feels distinctly Ford-like. Driving to Jalopnik’s top-secret test track through Brooklyn traffic, the well-weighted steering is suddenly ponderously slow instead. Once there, with the ability to push the car to its limits, the XF just feels ponderous, only reluctantly transitioning to oversteer, even with all the 300 horses feeding into the rear tires. All of this just leaves us really confused about the XF. Is it the contemporary upper-class English muscle car it wants to be or the wallowy, cheap imitator it felt like right before we gave it back? Like the pretty/ugly girl, it’s probably both, depending on its environment; able to either flatter or offend. And like Jerry Seinfeld, that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re too picky to settle for occasional beauty; we want a driving experience we know will be there no matter what the lighting.