Whenever and wherever the conversation turns to the Jaguar XF, it's all about the design. Even today, when we show up to drive the thing, the talk begins with the shape of the sheet metal, and the furnishings within.
I won't dwell on it though, save to say two things. First, it looks terrific on the road. Seeing it in pictures and at motor shows, I was tempted to judge the nose as slightly overworked, and the tail as slightly over-subtle. But actually that's the right way to go. Consider: if a car comes the other way, you see its face go by in a handful of seconds. The only time you get the chance to study a car at length on the road is when you're following it, either directly or in an adjacent motorway lane. This means the frontal aspect has to be assertive to make a quick impression, while the rear end can be more subtle but has to be flawless.
The second thing is that, for what it's worth, I really fancy myself in an XF. And I don't actually like saloons. Four-doors are simply too grown-up and establishment for the person I romantically picture myself to be, and I could never see myself in any of XF's rivals. But somehow Ian Callum's new car avoids that stigma. I reckon people who don't like establishment cars will still be able to imagine themselves into this Jaguar.
And that is a gigantic leap from the company associated with the fusty-looking S-Type and X-Type. Indeed, gigantic might be too small a word.
OK, that's out of the way then. Let's drive. Mind you, another reason the conversation hasn't gone too far beyond the design so far is that the mechanical bits are pretty much as per Jaguar's familiar stuff. This is absolutely no bad thing. The XF V8 S/C's supercharged4.2-litre engine and six-speed autobox are out of the delightful XKR. The suspension is very closely related. What the XF team did was take these elements and calibrate them and finesse them for the strong new saloon body.
Oh, and they added a little fairy dust too. It's called the JaguarDrive transmission selector. It's a fist-sized cylinder that starts flush with the centre console and rises a couple of inches when you start the engine. Of course this rising cylinder invites a range of similes. Phallic arousal?A missile out of its stack? All sounds a bit toe-curlingly aggressive, but really it's more like a muffin orlittle soufflé arriving at done-ness. Anyway, you twist the drum through R and N and D and D-sport, instead of moving forward and aft. It's a small wrist-flick movement, because it's by-wire control for the six-speed auto. For over-ride, every XF - even the diesel - has steering-wheel paddles.
I don't usually make such a fuss of the transmission, but there you are, this control solution is one of the XF's main novelties. And the way the engine and box co-operate to get the best out of each otheris one of the car's several dynamic stand-outs, too. That's the thing about using familiar components: the Jag guys clearly know how to wring the best from them. The automatic changes seem to happen pretty much when you want them. The paddle-shifts happen fast and fusslessly too. Best of all, they're nearly always blissfully smooth, up or down, and then the lock-up clutch proceeds to engage, giving you proper connection from throttle to road.
On the supercharged car, there's also a button with a chequered flag on it. Press this and the shifts get slightly quicker, the throttle response becomes wonderfully zingy, the adaptive damping gets a little more aggressive and the stability control loosens its grip somewhat. And the matrix display in the instruments turns itself over entirely to a big gear-number display that turns orange as you get near the red line. The engineers were having fun with this car.
Jaguar's supercharged V8 has lost its tiresome whining noise. Floor it in the XF, and there's a deep, smoothly rounded sound and, with it, a pretty serious, though not violent, kick forward. This steel-bodied XF is 200-odd kilos heavier than an aluminium XKR, so it's not supercar-fast, but it doesn't hang about. Jaguar says it'll get to 62mph in 5.4 seconds. I believe them.
Just as a car this big and heavy makes demands on the engine, you feel - when you're hauling down from big speeds - that the brakes have got a job on their hands. The pedal needs a lot of shove and gets very slightly spongy.
And yet here's a weird and rather magical thing, another of the shining attributes of the car: if, when accelerating or braking, you always feel its weight, when you arrive at a tight corner - better still a series of them, with challenging dips and crests thrown in - much of the weight seems to disappear. The front end swings eagerly into a bend. Body roll is amazingly well contained. Despite the steering's light-ish weight and the huge 255/35 20 tyres, there's usefulfeel through the wheel as well as absolutely terrific accuracy and progression. You can really leanon the car and get the sense of the front and rear ends sharing the load to best effect. There's also bags of traction for a swift, sure exit. Andif you do get it a bit loose at the back, it can be gathered up as neatly as you'd hope. One tiny, odd thing though. On really fast sweeping corners, the kind you get on a continental motorway swinging down the side of a mountain range, a little after you've turned in, the back end just squats outward a fraction. But then it settles immediately and you're good to go.
And on the back of this terrific handling has arrived another miracle. The ride is sublime and so is the quietness of the suspension and tyres, even on the S/C's standard 20-inch hoops. OK, things can get a fraction bobbly at town speeds, but it flattens out amazingly above, say, 40-50mph. Straight-line stability is remarkable, given the agility through bends. At a cruise, as in town, the engine noise dies away nicely, and wind roar isn't an issue, even at really big speeds. Time to deploy the iPod (and USB and Aux-in) audio inputs, which in the case of the test car fed a gorgeous Bowers & Wilkins multi-channel audio.
Though the windscreen and rear screen angles are exactly as low as on the XK, you get decent space in the back and a huge boot, albeit reached though a small opening. But, heck, this shouldn't be a car judged on these dreary practicalities, it should be about wanting to luxuriate in the gorgeous design. Oddly, there's as much wood and leather as in any Jaguar before, but this place gives lie to the notion that they imply ‘traditional'. Everything, from the shapes of the dash to the textures, stitching and the ice-blue ambient lighting down to the radii of the oblong switch-surrounds,it all says 21st century.
And there's fun. The magic gear- selector is just a fraction of the ‘handshake' start-up procedure. Get in, and the start button backlight pulses a red heartbeat. Press it, and the selector awakes. Then the dash air vents, hidden when parked, motor into position. The interior lights have no switches. All you need to do is vaguely stroke them, and they understand. Mind you, it's not all flawless. The touch-screen is a little overloaded. Sometimes, to get from, say, changing albums on your iPod to returning to the navi display, you need to prod the screen more times than you'd hope, or bark a few too many commands into the voice-activation. A couple of shortcut keys would do the trick.
Still, every XF does at least have such niceties. All models, even the 2.7 diesel, have the colour touchscreen navigation, plus the six-speed auto with paddles, and leather. Each of those would cost upwards of £1,500 on a German rival.
I haven't had a go in the 2.7 diesel or 3.0 V6 petrol yet, but the V8 petrol is sweet, with a soft-edged engine woofle right to the red line and performance enough to be getting on with. Though it doesn't have adaptive damping,and mine was on 19-inch wheels, the suspension character isn't alot different. For 300bhp, it's beautifully judged.
It's a symptom of the power race that although this XF has more power than the old S-Type R, it's not called R. The proper hot one, with a 500-plus horsepower direct-injection engine, is due next year.
Hmmmm. By then, Audi will have had direct injection for several years on nearly all its engines. BMW counters with Valvetronic. Mercedes is developing its Diesotto variable-compression engine. Lexus has hybrid. So though the Jag V8 is a lovely engine, it's a long way from the bleeding edge. This doesn't make it any the less fun to use, but the higher-tech opposition can get the same result on less fuel. That matters to people squeezed by consumption and carbon-derived tax.
Such problems will face Jaguar and Land Rover more and more in the coming years, after their imminent separation from Ford. High technology will be harder to come by, because it's insanely expensive to develop. Jaguar's rivals are all part of much bigger car companies, giving them the R&D heft to lash out on the very latest in powertrains, safety systems, driver aids and so on.
Which means Jaguar will have to shift its pitch. It won't be able to rely on expensive technology. It won't be able to claim rational left-brain dominance. Instead Jaguars will have to be cars you just can't stop yourself from wanting.
For that, they need to be beautiful. Modern-looking. Distinctive. And fast, with perfectly matched ride and handling. Now, Jaguar should be able to do this stuff because, to be honest, it isn't madly expensive. It simply relies on having a core of designers and engineers with vision, supernatural skill and gyro-stabilised focus.
Luckily, two days with the XF proves that they have those people. This car isn't complicated, but it's remarkably consistent. It drives like it looks. All the controls are quick and beautifully progressive, so it's easy to be smooth and get the generous best from it, whether you're tiptoeing through town or charging over the hills. It simply feels like it's the product of talented people who loved it. They didn't have to make a car that ticks every single box. But they made one that will please a lot of people who are prepared to be led by the heart. Count us in.