2011 Jaguar XJ: First Drive

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This is the 2011 Jaguar XJ. It looks nothing like the XJ that came before it, or the XJ that came before that. Its interior is a temple to the word "shiny." Is this what Jaguar needs to move forward?

Full Disclosure: Jaguar flew me to Los Angeles and put me up in a very nice hotel so that I could bring you this review. While in L.A., I drove past a Top Gear USA set and listened to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Neil play guitar and sing Neil Young songs in a bar. One of these activities prompted three CHP officers to palm their guns and give me the stink eye. I'll leave it to you to figure out which.


I once spent an afternoon driving around L.A. with Henrik Fisker, the Danish designer responsible for the Aston Martin DB9 and most of the BMW Z8. He's an interesting, laid-back kind of guy, and he has a reputation for being both opinionated and outspoken. I was in town to drive one of his coachbuilt products, but we spent enough time together that our conversation turned to other subjects. At one point, stuck in traffic on the 405, we got to talking about Aston Martin, Jaguar, British design, and the notion of inescapable landmarks. Fisker, eloquent man that he is, said something like this:

"Jaguar has spent the past three decades scared of its own shadow, and that shadow is the E-type. The company has the power to do great things, but it has to get its confidence back.

At the time — Jag was still owned by Ford, the current XK had just launched, and most auto journalists thought a capital-T Tata was something you tipped extra for in a strip club — this statement seemed to neatly wrap up Coventry's troubles. Now, with all due respect to Fisker, it seems just a tad off the mark. The XKE may be the largest brick in Jaguar's sexiness wall, but it hasn't kept the company planted in the past for three decades. That honor lies with the XJ, the firm's large sedan.


For forty years, this car looked a certain way. Now it looks entirely different, as if a Maserati Quattroporte was somehow crossbred with the ghost of David Niven and a pair of Victoria Beckham's pants. Taken in isolation, the dichotomy is a little spooky.

This is a good thing.

...And Now For Something Completely Different

Before this year, there were but three versions of the Jaguar XJ. The first was introduced in 1968, carried a version of Jaguar's XK straight six — the same engine that powered the XK120 and E-Type — and looked like the world's most bad-ass tea cake. The second was introduced in 1986 and kind of looked like the first; thanks to repeated face-lifts, it lasted until 2003. The third, an aluminum-bodied wonder that looked like a bloated version of the second (or is that the first?), bowed in '03 and left us last year.


And now we have this.


The XJ was redesigned because the people who run Jaguar are not stupid, and because they have, at long last, grown some balls. The company's customer base is graying faster than the heat-lamp meat at an Old Country Buffet, and its traditional demographic — the man or woman who remembers the marque's 1950-1985 golden age — is beginning to age out of the market. Just 1161 XJs were sold in the United States last year, and 2452 the year before that. Even for a low-production luxury sedan, these are not the kind of numbers you build a future on.

"As the XJ has remained unchanged, in many peoples' eyes, so too has Jaguar." — Mike O'Driscoll, Managing Director, Jaguar Cars


Along those lines, consider the words of legendary GM executive Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen: "You can sell a young man's car to an old man," he once said, "but you cannot sell an old man's car to a young man." With the 2011 XJ, Jaguar has built itself a young man's car.

The obvious basics, to coin a phrase, are obvious: The beltline is up; the roofline is down. The quad-light, humped-fender nose — a trait that dated back to the '68 XJ — is gone, replaced by a rectangular maw and two sinister, eye-shaped headlamps.


Regardless of which paint color you choose, the XJ's C-pillars are painted black; Ian Callum, the car's designer, claims that the black paint provides an elegant, unbroken collar underneath the car's roof. (This treatment can seem a little choppy and polarizing in broad daylight; one journalist on the L.A. launch commented that the pillars made the car look like it had been "assembled from old Legos" by a "drunken five-year-old." We have no comment on the matter save the following: Where were we in kindergarten when they were passing out the booze?)


The rest of the Jaguar's looks are less divisive. From the side, sweeping arcs and clean lines remind you of most Audis. From the rear, swooping taillights and broad trunk make the car look vaguely French. At the front, you notice the two round xenon refelectors in each headlight, a design cue shared with the XF and the previous XJ. And then you take a step back... and the whole thing kind of works. It looks British, it looks elegant, and while it occasionally seems a bit forced, it looks modern.


Details, Details, Details

The obligatory section of technical-ish detail statements begins now: The XJ's riveted-and-bonded aluminum unibody shares a floor structure with the previous car but boasts a claimed 11 percent more torsional stiffness. The new car is narrower by almost two inches but sports a slightly wider track. Two wheelbases (XJ and XJL; the latter offers five extra inches of rear-seat space) and three engines (5.0-liter V-8s, either naturally aspirated or supercharged, 385/470/510 hp) are available. Base price ranges from $72,500 to $115,000. The XJ's drivetrains are shared with Jaguar's XF; the blindingly quick ZF steering rack and optional active differential (found only on 510-hp, or Supersport, models) are borrowed from the XFR. A six-speed automatic is standard.


One more thing: Because aluminum is aluminum and progress is wonderful, the XJ is relatively light. The naturally aspirated short-wheelbase model checks in at 3870 4045 pounds. This is several hundred pounds lighter than the aluminum-bodied 2011 Audi A8 or the Maserati Quattroporte. (Random apples-to-oranges reference point: That number also puts the XJ lighter than a Nissan GT-R or Ferrari 599 GTB. What's not to love?) Correction: The 3870-pound curb weight is for the European XJ, not the U.S. model.


Inside: All That Glitters is Piano Black

This is where things get a bit weird. The XJ's interior is an odd meld of continental disco, high gloss, high finish, low finish, sharp English style, self-conscious sharp English style, twee technoglitz, cool retro touches, and the inside of Robbie Williams's jacket.


A 12.3-inch, thin-film-transistor (TFT) screen serves as the gauge cluster, offering up the appearance of a set of analog instruments. As on the XF, both the upper map lights and the glovebox use proximity sensors — just wave your hand in front to actuate — for switching/opening duties. Everything from climate control to seat heating is handled through a central touch screen. Jaguar's "JaguarDrive Selector" rotary knob is used to operate the transmission.


Plus: The inside no longer looks like an ancient English drawing room. Minus: The inside no longer looks like an ancient English drawing room.

The Good:
Fantastically satisfying round eyeball vents pop out of the dash, which sits beneath the car's beltline and looks like someone built a leather-lined dance club in the world's hippest sinkhole. Laminated side glass and enough sound deadening to silence an H-bomb mean that you hear little of the outside world, even at triple-digit speeds. Piano-black trim and chrome — usually plastic, but occasionally metal — is everywhere, and it heightens the sense of occasion. Both front and rear seats are impossibly comfortable. Build quality appears to be impressive. The whole place feels special.


The Unfortunate:
Certain parts of the interior — the chrome, for example — feel shockingly inexpensive. The piano black shows dirt and reminds you of the bathroom walls in the last [redacted] [redacted] bar you were in. The central touch screen is painfully slow; I have no programming training whatsoever, and I could teach myself to write code in Farsi in the time it takes to adjust the stereo volume. The glovebox, as on every XF I've ever driven, did not open easily and quickly — the proximity sensor rarely worked on proximity alone, often required anywhere from a one- to five-second touch, and occasionally refused to work at all. And surprisingly, the 20-speaker, 1200-watt Bowers + Wilkins audio system, which sounds clear, warm, and punchy in the XF, was muddy and cold in the two XJs I tested.


Still British, Still Nimble, Still a Jaguar

Whether cranking down a winding road or gliding up a freeway, the XJ simply works: It feels comforting and capable, cosseting and crisp. In short, it's a Jaguar. The steering is delicate, buttery, and offers gobs of feedback but blissfully low on-center effort. The standard air suspension sports electronically adjustable dampers and a remarkable amount of travel; the XJ wants to hang with smaller, faster machinery, and it begs you to beat on it. You notice the Jaguar's size in tight quarters, but the excess of real estate never becomes a hassle. (Disclaimer: The event I attended did not have the full XJ range available for test; I was given the opportunity to drive everything except short-wheelbase and Supersport models.) All of the available engines spit out a subtle, expensive-sounding growl; supercharger whine barely intrudes into the cockpit; and the steering loads up nicely at speed.

"We became overly focused on luxury, and we lost touch with our soul: Building sporting fast cars." — Mike O'Driscoll


Behind the wheel, a few things are immediately noticeable: The previous XJ's exceedingly coddling ride is gone, replaced by a significantly stiffer approach that offers little in the way of body roll in normal driving. The velvety brake feel of past XJs is also absent; the massive four-wheel discs are slightly grabby, though they do offer pleasingly short pedal travel. Thankfully, the subtle sporting blood found in every other Jaguar — that laid-back, get-funky-on-a-mountain-road je ne sais quoi jolly good, you moneyed freak, let's dance feeling — is still there.

Whither the old-school cosmetic vibe? Traditionalists may mourn the loss of the evolutionary and conservative Olde English Manor approach, but from a philosophical standpoint, that tack isn't really Jaguar. It's worthwhile to remember that the cars from Coventry's golden era — the SS100, the XK120, the E-Type, the '68 XJ — pushed boundaries and eschewed nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. Sir William Lyons, the company's founder and the man who designed every Jag save the XJ-S and the C-/D-/E-types, believed in the notion of sensible, emotion-driven progress. He believed that tradition mattered, but that revolution was necessary. The car you see here may not please everyone, but ultimately, that's not the point.


Is the XJ a fully formed, end-all answer to Jaguar's current needs? Is it perfect? Will it solve the company's sales and demographic problems? No, maybe, and only time will tell. Regardless, it's a pretty good step in the right direction, and it's a Jaguar. In the end, those things are all that matters.


Footnote: Bill Lyons Sez

On that note, we'd like to introduce a new semi-sort-of-kind-of-not-really-maybe-recurring Jalopnik feature, one we've been thinking about for some time. This story marks the first (and maybe last?) appearance of Bill Lyons Sez, where we ask the ghost of Jaguar's founder what he thinks of various modern sporting and luxury cars. (Yes, we have a strong phone line to dead people, and no, you can't borrow it.)


Seem irrelevant? Of course not! Our patented Made-Up(tm) opinions help bring perspective back to the world of modern car reviews! For reference, here is Mr. Lyons's take on both the 2011 XJ and its competitors, arranged in no particular order. We have been told that he is not biased.

2011 Jaguar XJ: "Bravo," sez Bill.

2011 BMW 7-series: "Rubbish," sez Bill.

2011 Audi A8: "Rubbish," sez Bill.

2011 Maserati Quattroporte: "Rubbish," sez Bill.

2011 Aston Martin Rapide: "Bravo," sez Bill, "but a bit posh for the trimmings."

2011 Bentley Continental Flying Spur: "Rubbish/bravo?" asks Bill, bemused, before eventually harrumphing forth a stout "Rubbish."


Fascinating stuff, Bill! What's that? You're dead and you're kind of tired of talking? No worries — thanks for your time! Say hi to Malcolm Sayer for us!

That's it for this installment of Bill Lyons Sez. Tune in next week, when we'll ask everyone's favorite dead British automotive patriarch the following: "When it comes to English cultural icons, which do you prefer: Spits or Swallows?"

Photo Credits: Branch/car, winding road/mountain, and gauge cluster images courtesy Jaguar Cars North America; all others Sam Smith/Jalopnik.


CORRECTION: The curb weights initially listed were for the European XJ, not the U.S.-spec one. This is what I get for trusting a press conference.

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