Clarkson on: Jaguar
As I write I write, Eddie Irvine is stuck behind a Berlingo bread van, in an almighty traffic jam at Ste Devote in Monte Carlo. But team boss Niki Lauda is hopeful the feisty Irishman will finish the Grand Prix by next Wednesday.
Next year, the team is hopeful its cars will be able to finish races ‘within a week' of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari but pit lane observers reckon this might be optimistic.
Meanwhile, a Jaguar dealer told me last week that every race in which the green team takes part costs him another sale. "People don't want to be associated with losers," he said.
Jaguar. Losers. It must be galling for the people who work at the plant. I spoke to one of them last week. "Not really," he replied. "We just don't talk about it."
Maybe they should. Or maybe they've got better things to gas about at the water cooler. Like: "Where are we going?".
I was stuck behind a bus yesterday which sported the most recent advert that Jag is running: ‘A new Jaguar from £19,995'.
Now price campaigns might work for supermarkets and tampons but when it comes to big plush saloon cars with squidgy carpets and burr walnut facias, the appeal is based on something more important than money.
Surely you want a Jag because you want to buy into the whole Jag deal. The old race wins. The E-Type. The D-Type. Lofty England's pipe and Dr Finlay's Casebook. A £19,995 front-wheel-drive X-Type may well make this dream more realisable for more people, but for how long?
How long will it be before we see Jaguar as the maker of cheap cars and the owner of a grand prix team that keeps losing?
There was always hope, of course, that the F-Type would silence the doubters, that this mid-engined convertible from the man who gave us the Aston DB7 would ride through the dream like a white charger, restoring honour and doing good deeds.
But they've canned that, saying they need the resources to make a diesel engine. Oh for ****'s sake. I'm sure a diesel will increase sales by 0.4 per cent in Germany, in the same way that a £19,995 X-Type will make up for the sales of XKs lost due to Lauda's green machines. But who, in Coventry, has an eye on the future?
When I was little, I wanted a Jaguar because they made the E-Type. And because I liked Steed's wide-bodied XJ in The Avengers. My son, however, wants a Subaru. I have never once heard him say: "Dad. When I'm big, I want a diesel X-Type".
I wasn't even holding out much hope for the new XJ. I'd seen spy shots of it, and occasionally I'd seen one tooling round the Millbrook Proving Ground disguised with nothing more than a false moustache and a flat hat. And I thought "hmmm".
It seemed to have lost the feline grace which makes the current XJ one of the best looking saloon cars in the world. I sometimes look at my XJR in the drive and can't believe that the basic architecture goes back to the mid-Seventies. What other creature of the decade that taste forgot has fared so well?
However, I've now sat in the new car and I'm delighted to admit I was wrong. It's a beauty. Most of it was the work of Geoff Lawson, Jaguar's former designer - who's now dead - but you can see elements of Ian Callum in the mix. He's lowered the back of the roof, and increased the size of the haunches. So it's still a cat. But now, it's a big one.
How big? Well it's longer than the new 7-Series. It's longer than an Audi A8. In fact, it's only a centimetre shy of the S-Class. So naturally, there's now a lot more space in the back, and the boot.
"I look at my XJR and can't believe that the basic architecture goes back to the mid-Seventies"
However, in the front, they've been jolly clever, because although it's obviously bigger (the seat is no longer level with the B-pillar so you can rest your arm on the door while driving) it still feels cosy, like a cocoon.
And then there's the dash. They must have been tempted to follow in the footsteps of the Range Rover and make it looks like a fusion restaurant in Notting Hill. But they've stuck with the melted Mars Bar wood, and the leather. They've made it look like an alderman's sideboard - and that's probably right.
Jags aren't supposed to be sun-dried tomatoes drizzled with jus. They're supposed to be spotted dick with custard. Which is why I'm staggered by the weight loss. It's made from aluminium, and even magnesium in places, and is a fifth of a tonne lighter than the old car. Not even Vanessa Feltz lost that much.
This is a bloody good car, modern and spacious where it needs to be but still sleek and cosy and wooden in all the right places. An old and much loved record, now available as an MP3 download.
The problem is, of course, that you're buying into a brand that does ‘Win! Free! Save! Pile 'em high sell 'em cheap' ads for front-wheel-drive diesel Mondeo saloons and only finishes grand prix races just in time for the next one to start. (And don't say ‘What about the Italian GP?' By the next race they'll be last again - that third place was a fluke.) And that's an issue.
Or is it? My son wants a Subaru not because its made by Fuji Heavy Industries but because it's a damn good car. I've just bought a Mercedes not because of Germany's record on world peace but because I like it. And lots of people are buying Hyundai Coupes (rightly so) even though half of them don't even know where they're made.
The fact is: they could call this new XJ a Grapefruit. And I'd still give it space in my garage.
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I have mixed feelings about the new look for Jaguar. Call me old fashioned, but there is a lot to be said for an XJR made in Coventry when it wasn't owned by Tata, and was still adorned with the legendary leaper. I am no fan of the X-Type, but more akin to the recent restyling of the XK to appear like a classic E-type. That said, I love driving my decade old 410bhp XJR to work each day, and hearing a real supercharged v8 cat growl through an aftermarket 2.5inch exhaust system. The only cars that pass me are ZR1 Corvettes!