Coventry Climax

Jaguar wants to expand its market; crispier, sharper Sport models aim to lure the more ambitious driver

Try telling Jaguar owners that their XJ is perhaps getting rather long in the tooth and they will not have a bit of it. In truth, they would have a point: its shape fits the hand of time like an elegant glove and it gets better looking with each generation. In its latest form every panel has been re-sculpted; the subtle re-working of the headlamps in particular harks back to the days when a vinyl roof was all the rage, and inefficient gas-guzzling V12s were something to boast about. Further honing of the XJ40's cumbersome bumper detailing finalises the accomplishment, making this the most handsome Jaguar since the Series III. Jaguar calls the style "retrolutionary"; the word is horrible, but the result deserves applause. This is a beautiful car.

Ford, of course, has added its world class manufacturing process management, but as the proud possessor of a wonderful reputation based on its great motoring heritage the Jaguar XJ series sails almost alone. Although it has the Three-pointed Stars from Stuttgart and the Bavarian Bombers to contend with, neither can compete for sheer prestige and legendary refinement. However, Xls have been known to lack handling and the crispness of steering that drivers of their German counterparts have for many years taken for granted.

Obviously, the XJ versions of most interest to Motor Sport readers are the models with which Jaguar can claim seriously to address these shortcomings the Sport 3.2 and 4.0 litre, and the supercharged monster, the XJR. The 3.2 litres of our road test specimen may not sound sufficient to propel such a behemoth at thrilling speeds, but at 30 grand this model represents possibly the best value in terms of performance/handling versus price.

Under the XJ's sleeker skin, the all new A116 straight-six engine is as purposeful, yet more efficient than previous versions. Its 219 horses and torque are certainly not embarrassed under the long bonnet, but they do have their work cut-out — Jaguar claims a nippy 7.9 to 60mph and a 138mph maximum. With the serious intent of attracting a sportier driver who is also a lover of big British cars, the newly-tweaked allround independent wishbone suspension and the Sport's 8x 1 6in alloy wheels and 225/55 ZR tyres are designed not only to retain the XJ's exemplary ride but to put its handling into another dimension.

The XJ may be big from the outside, but inside it is a different story. Remember Dr Who's Tardis? The window-less telephone box which becomes an enormous room as you enter it? Now imagine the opposite. A grand hotel, perhaps, which looks as though it could sleep a thousand guests in five-star comfort, yet turns out to be no more than luxury motel size when you step into reception. The low build, wide sills and pronounced tumble-home of the glass make it — shall we say snug inside, and even my modest frame needed to perform minor contortions to get in and out. It's a disappointment, and Jaguar have worked hard to redress this shortcoming: there is now more legroom front and rear, and an 'entry/exit' mode on the memory seats which lifts and retracts the wheel and slides the seat back. But compared with its peers, rear passengers will be squeezed when a tall driver is at the wheel.

The Connolly hide and quality fabric is, naturally, still in abundance, though the traditional walnut has been displaced in the Sport by new smoke-stained maple adorning the updated and fuss-free dash, and the ensemble gives the impression of a quality of build and consistency which hasn't emerged from Coventry for years.

Once sitting comfortably at the helm the XJ feels remarkably unlike a saloon. The massive centre console and modest hip-space are more akin to the inside of a TVR than a Mercedes. Equipment levels are generous, certainly well up to the expected standard for this class. The controls and switchgear are especially satisfying, feeling positive and silken, though the gearchange is not quite in the same league: it's precise in its action, but you can't hurry it. The ABS braking system feels powerful and the pedal firm, and with the electronic speed-related steering there's an overall level of driver communication here which might come as a shock to the driver of a soft-steering Seventies Jaguar. The Cat is fighting back.

It would be stretching a point to suggest that the XJ Sport's manners are razor-sharp on the road, but the revised suspension endows it with a new agility and a vigorous tenacity which would have seen previous models frantically scrabbling like a scalded torn on a polished floor. At one time, piercing protests from the high-shouldered tyres would warn of an imminent slide from one end or other of the lengthy chassis, should speed be maintained. Now, the lowprofile chirping is more like a pain barrier, beyond which there is healthy margin before the huge grip of the broad-shouldered tyres is finally relinquished.

There's a perceptible degree of roll, but never enough to upset passengers on a fast drive. In any case, the 3.2 motor isn't quite gutsy enough to exploit this born-again chassis fully. That job falls to its big-bore and supercharged brothers.

In the fast stuff, the 3.2 Sport attains a level of comfortable composure surpassing even previous Jaguar saloons, and the chassis now revels in being driven hard rather than merely coping well under severe stress. If there is still an edge of Bavarian sharpness absent from the XJ Sport's deportment, it is no slur: the final reckoning is that it is no longer wayward when pushed to its limits. It does not exude a sense of boyish fun, but a maturer pleasure, amplified by the knowledge that this is one large car. The communicative steering with 'Positive Centre Feel'!) is a bonus; opposite-lock Slides are possible in the 3.2, but tamed by a traction control system on the 4.0 and XJR.

Such indulgences are of course totally out of character with the way a Jaguar expects to be driven; if you don't feel like playing, all the usual pleasures delivered by XJ saloons are still present, and only a few are slightly compromised by the Sport's firmer nature. Intrusion of both tyre roar and engine noise is more apparent, and the edge has been taken off Sovereign's magnificent ride. This is almost negligible, as mild craters or bumps and ridges can still largely be ignored. The Sport treats British roads with the contempt they deserve. Four-up and with luggage stacked in the cavernous boot it is a consummate mile-eater, for despite the big 3.2 motor, the 17.8 gallon tank and claim of 26mpg suggest a safe range of over 450 miles — though our road-test figures fell as low as 21 mpg. Either way, long hauls may still require frequent stops — for passenger leg-stretching rather than fuel.

Conclusion/p>

Jaguar is making a serious attempt to turn the XJ into a genuine sports saloon, and even with the modestly powered 3.2 it has succeeded. Whether it is good enough in the sporting department to dislodge the faster BMW 5s or the Mercedes E-class on merit alone is debateable. Where it leaves these two floundering in its wake is in showroom appeal. It undercuts the 4-litre BMW 540i by £9000 and the E320 Merc by £5,600, and feels more luxurious than both. In this company, despite being dynamically inferior by a cat's whisker, it seems almost a bargain.