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First Look: Jaguar XJ

The Brits strike back at the Germans and Japanese

Greg N. Brown
Jun 3, 2003 SHARE

Strolling through a cavernous building thrumming with huge metal-stamping machines isn't my first choice of entertainment, especially when it comes hard on the heels of a transatlantic red-eye.

Bleary eyes, however, were blasted wide open and an idling brain was kicked into overdrive upon viewing the innovative processes used to build the seventh-generation Jaguar XJ sedan. Stamping was never so fascinating.

This inside look--within a renovated Castle Bromwich plant outside of Birmingham--at the insides of Jaguar's newest version of its flagship revealed a completely new way of building luxury automobiles. And it also showed Jaguar's determination to be a first choice in the high end of the market, not just a secondary alternative to the Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Lexuses of the world.

Even though this XJ is built with aluminum body panels attached to an all-aluminum monocoque chassis (the first production car of its type), don't mistake innovation for revolution. Jaguar dared not alienate a loyal following by moving away from the luxurious motoring experience that's made the XJ the all-time best-selling Jag. Over half of all Jaguars ever built have been XJs, and more than 800,000 have been sold since the model's birth in 1968.

Even though the car breaks new technological ground, its advances were designed to enhance traditional Jag values and--here's the really good news--they transform the big sedan into a legitimate, thoroughly modern driver's car.

But why the expensive and complicated move to aluminum instead of tried and true steel. It's not as if Jaguar were struggling for direction: Five straight years of record sales growth would seem to indicate that doing more of the same might have been the prudent strategy. Why make this quantum leap into new materials and complex manufacturing techniques? Does the typical Jag buyer even care?

The answer was summed up by the XJ's chief program engineer, David Scholes: "We chose a lightweight aluminum vehicle for the new XJ not because it was something new, but because it enabled us to deliver real and significant benefits to our customers."

These attributes include better performance, a more dynamic driving experience, improved fuel economy, lower emissions and greater safety.

The new XJ is longer, taller and wider than before and its body structure 60% stiffer, yet it's also 40% lighter (about 200 lb). Interior room, never a Jag bragging point, is more spacious in all dimensions, and even the trunk is 25% larger; it can now handle much more gear, including the requisite four sets of golf clubs.

The criteria for the decision to approach the new XJ from this new direction arose from the profiles and expectations of today's luxury car customer, and from such external pressures as government safety legislation, fuel costs and, at least in Europe, taxation issues. As people have become wealthier, healthier and taller, they want more space, for bodies and toys, and they want the performance to keep up with the wealthier, healthier and taller folks down the block.

And if the typical XJ buyer cares little about the innards of the vehicle, or that the traditional welding together of steel panels has been replaced by aluminum sheets joined by rivets and space-age bonding, they will certainly appreciate the results.

In Europe, the XJ comes with four engines (we won't get the 3.0-liter V6 or 3.5-liter V8); U.S. buyers have a choice of a 300-bhp 4.2-liter V8 in XJ8 and Vanden Plas models and, in the XKR, its identically sized 400-bhp supercharged variant. Based on the 4.2 found in the S-Type, much detail work was done to make its performance and sonic feedback more rewarding. And it works: Jag states the new XJ8, compared to the outgoing model, can run from 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 sec. compared to 6.9 sec. The XJR cuts its former 5.4-sec. time in the same sprint to a heady 5.0 sec.

Pricing of the base XJ8 is $59,995, the even more luxuriously appointed Vanden Plas is $68,995, and the hippest cat of them all, the blown XJR, is $74,995.

All models transfer power, seamlessly, to the rear wheels through one of the best transmissions around, a six-speed ZF unit (final-drive ratios vary by model). And the infamous J-gate has been vastly improved through electronic control, shorter throws and better placement in the center console.

Without a doubt, the most impressive aspect of the new XJ is its road control. Both models ride on a new air suspension that helps give the big cat the ability to claw its way through the toughest corners and pad silently over the roughest roads.

It's joined underneath by a wealth of new technology, including a double wishbone setup front and rear; an enhanced version of Jag's CATS adaptive damper system; a new Dynamic Stability Control program, which uses selective braking of any of the four wheels to prevent understeer or oversteer (and it can be turned off for those who might want to hot-shoe it); and a new speed-sensitive steering rack. This is a wonderful system that indeed "makes the car feel smaller," as pointed out by XJ chief engineer David Scholes.

Becoming de rigueur for the top luxury cars--and a growing number of SUVs--the air spring/damper system gives the suspension a latitude of effect impossible with the old steel spring/damper configuration. Ride height is adjusted automatically up or down based on speed and road conditions (plus there are additional modes for leveling the car when it's parked or being jacked). It's especially brilliant over long-wave undulations in the pavement, controlling re-bound far more effectively than the old steel suspension and thus preventing that floaty softness that makes some big cars so tiring to drive. Over rougher surfaces, which would have had the previous XJ chattering nervously, the air springs dampen the jolts to slight nudges, retaining the sweet ride quality that luxury car buyers have come to expect. And that Jag owners have traditionally enjoyed.

But where the new underpinnings really prove their mettle, and where the new XJ is such a radical departure from its predecessor, is in its newfound handling and cornering abilities. The car displays the sort of stability that lets you keep your foot in it through the apex and out the other side, and body roll is kept to a minimum. Credit for this sporting character has to be shared with CATS, Jag's Computer Active Technology Suspension, which now carries an "Enhanced" prefix, denoting its updating. The two-stage adaptive damping is so quick and quiet that the driver knows it's working only by the car's refined road manners no matter the conditions. The XKR's system is specially tuned for sportier response.

And there's plenty else new to help keep the XJ on a quiet, even keel: The double wishbone suspension, front and rear, is mounted on steel subframes for greater noise isolation. Attention to the geometry of the forged aluminum upper control arm and two-piece forged aluminum lower control arms result in enhanced ride comfort and reduced camber changes during cornering and dive during heavy braking.

The excellent new braking system reinforces the XJ's theme of being for drivers who do more than motor to the spa. For the XJ8 and Vanden Plas, there are 12.6-in. ventilated discs up front with two-piston floating aluminum calipers (yet another example of a successful strategy to reduce unsprung weight), and in back are 11.3-in. ventilated discs with single, floating aluminum calipers. The XJR's binders were developed with Brembo: Up front are giant 14.4-in. ventilated discs with Brembo aluminum, four-piston monobloc calipers; at the rear are solid 13.-in. discs with aluminum two-piece, fixed, opposed four-piston calipers. The four-channel ABS is augmented by Emergency Brake Assist, helping the driver apply maximum braking during emergency stops.

I could go on for six more pages describing additional technology and features of this remarkably good luxury sedan. That will have to wait for a U.S. test drive, which we look forward to with great anticipation.

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By Greg N. Brown
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