Will this car save Jaguar?

By the time you read this, but not as I write, it is possible you will already know the identity of Jaguar and Land-Rover’s new owners. If not, the announcement is but weeks away. For a while, the running has been headed by the Indian company, Tata. Were this to come to pass I’d be hopeful for the future of the marques not only because Tata has the money to invest in them properly, it is also likely to listen to advice concerning how the brands can best be managed. But now a consortium headed by Jac Nasser, a former Ford CEO who resigned amid some considerable controversy in 2001, appears to be making a late charge for the winning post.

Whoever wins will have been paying even greater than usual attention to the media over the last few days, for the global press reception to the new Jaguar XF will have a substantial impact on the success or otherwise of a car that is generally acknowledged to hold the future of one of our proudest marques in its hands. Nor is Jaguar’s current chairman, Mike O’Driscoll, being coy about it. When it was first introduced to a small number of media in the Arizona desert in the middle of December, he described the last decade as “seriously traumatic” for Jaguar and described the success of the XF as “critical”.

The XF is Jaguar’s new mid-sized saloon, the replacement for the slow-selling and little-loved S-type. Given that it is certain there will be no direct successor to the smaller and even less lovable X-type, its importance is clear. While the wildly successful XK coupé is a great device for making people feel good about Jaguar again, it is the XF that needs to sell in sufficient quantities to turn around a business which has been in decline since the start of the century.

I’ll say now that disappointment tinged my first impressions. I’d always thought the XF looked odd in photographs but hoped that, just like the XK, it would all make sense once I saw it on the move. But it doesn’t. From the front wheels rearward, it’s an excellent piece of work, as you’d expect from Aston DB7 designer Ian Callum. The shape is clean, taut, modern and purposeful, which is everything you can hope for from a 21st century Jaguar. But the nose is substantially spoiled by an incongruous choice of ugly headlights that seem simply not to belong to the rest of the car. Headlights may seem like minor components in the overall scheme of things, but as the eyes of the car, they affect its look more than anything else.

I was disappointed to see, too, that while Jaguar claims a great improvement in rear leg and headroom, it is still too cramped in the back for an executive express. I happened to have a BMW 5-series on hand – a car I’ve never thought of as particularly spacious – and it offers those in the back substantially more leg and headroom.

But once you’re settled into the driver’s seat, the XF starts at once to make a case for itself, for you don’t need to do much more than look around to know you’re in the best cabin in the class. The dashboard architecture is particularly appealing, and Callum’s team has been able to make wood, leather and aluminium co-exist in a harmony I’ve not seen in any similar car. There are some real theatrical touches here too: press the starter button and air vents rotate out of the dash as a transmission controller rises up from the centre console. Some will doubtless regard this as needless gimmickry and more things to go wrong, but I’m only slightly ashamed to say I enjoyed the whole sense of occasion this unique greeting imparted.

There’s better news still in that most of the major mechanical components, including the two 4.2-litre V8 motors, transmission and suspension have been taken straight from the XK coupé and tuned to suit the XF. When sales begin in the spring there will also be a 2.7-litre diesel that will account for the vast majority of UK sales, and a 3-litre V6 petrol model, but out here in the desert, the choice was V8, with or without supercharger.

It should be said now that one of the few things no one ever criticised about the old S-type was the way it went down a road, and the XF, which still retains a lot of S-type underpinnings, has taken its already high dynamic standards and moved them on to a new plane. Both the normal and the blown Super V8 flowed across the state with that same relaxed yet controlled gait that makes the XK such a superlative long-distance weapon. The ride is firmer than you’d expect, but so well damped it never becomes harsh, however horrid the road surface may be.

Both models steer exceptionally well for cars weighing over 1700kg but, of the two, it was the standard V8 – at £45,500 costing £9400 less than the supercharged version – that I preferred. It may have a mere 294bhp compared to 410bhp with forced induction, but it revs beautifully, sounds gorgeous and thanks to quite the best conventional automatic transmission I have ever encountered, covers its relative lack of low-down torque exceptionally well. And it’s hardly slow, as its 6.3sec 0-60mph time and limited 155mph top speed attest. And while its skinnier tyres and softer springs will doubtless mean it won’t corner quite as fast as its more powerful sister, I preferred its steering feel, ride quality and, on those rare occasions when you can drive on the limit in Arizona, its balance, too.

The truth is that both are fine cars, but flawed. Some will like the way the XF drives but won’t be able to cope with the lack of interior space, while others may stay away simply because it looks rather strange from some angles. But both groups will be passing by a fine car; it’s probably not quite as great an achievement today as was the XK two years ago, but while there are cars in the XF’s class that are clearly better by objective measurement, I can’t think of another with quite so much charm and character. Its aim was best summed up by the man who knows it best, its chief engineer, Mick Mohan. “We’re not in the transportation business,” he said to us. “If you just want to get from one place to another, buy something else. We are in the entertainment business.” And after a long day in the XF, all I can add to that is that the mission seems to have been accomplished.