Not so long ago, Jaguar's flagship XJ sedan was like a pair of $500 Manolo Blahnik shoes: sexy, gorgeous, but hardly comfortable. No one has yet figured out how to make four-inch stiletto heels easy on the feet. Happily, though, the Jaguar XJ introduced this year retains its looks while losing nearly all of its shortcomings.
The new Jag is more powerful, quieter, roomier, and handles better. No longer do drivers have to tolerate awkwardly placed controls as quirks of the car's British heritage or balky performance as the price of style. Cockpit controls are now logical and intuitive -- and still swathed in buttery leather and glossy walnut burl. Both the rear seat and trunk get decent space, and sliding in and out of the car is considerably easier.
The real joy, though, is in the driving. All three versions of the seventh-generation XJ -- the XJ8, sportier XJR, and luxe Vanden Plas -- benefit from an aluminum body fastened with aircraft-style rivets and adhesives. That cut the XJ's body weight by 40%, allowing Jag to add all kinds of high-tech extras without getting too heavy. The change also gives the car 60% greater stiffness for improved ride and handling. A computerized air suspension, dynamic stability control, six-speed gearbox, and a 294-horsepower V-8 make the XJ8, which starts at $59,995, a delight on the open road. In fact, the effortless acceleration, smooth ride, and hushed interior made it all too easy to exceed the speed limit without noticing.
As for the super-charged XJR, a nudge is all it takes to unleash its 390 horses. The car's five-second zero-to-60 acceleration creates enough G-force to push you firmly back into the well-bolstered leather seats. The XJR joins the sportiest high-end BMWs and Mercedes Benzes at a comparatively affordable $74,995 base price. The XJ Vanden Plas, starting at $68,995, offers heated seats, lamb's-wool rugs, fancy tires, and a high-end sound system.
Jaguar -- and parent Ford Motor (F) -- have a lot riding on the new sedan. Delays in launching the XJ, as its British factory struggled with the intricacies of shaping aluminum, contributed to the division's $500 million loss last year. Ford CEO Bill Ford Jr. is counting on premium brands to contribute one-third of corporate profits within a few years. The new XJ should help. By Kathleen Kerwin