Cool Cat

June, 2010 (Bloomberg Markets) -- The redesigned 2011 Jaguar XJ should burnish the brand’s fusty image.

Parked on a pebbly shoulder, nose pointed down a country lane, the new Jaguar XJ gleams in the sunshine. I punch a button that puts the XJ into a sportier mode, and the seat belt tightens automatically across my chest. It’s both a promise and a threat.

The car’s talking, and my pulse responds.

Did I just get excited about a Jag?

While it once made extremely cool cars such as the XK120, Jaguar, now owned by India’s Tata Motors Ltd., has long been a mere facsimile of cool, whose typical buyers are Florida blue hairs and Long Island podiatrists. Now, suddenly, this. My 2011 test XJL is long and lean, dressed in tuxedo black, with darkened rear windows. A glass roof floats delicately above a solid body.

“Fast-forward decades from the original 1968 XJ, and this is what you would have ended up with,” says Ian Callum, Jaguar’s design director. “It’s all those years in between where it got messed up.”

Callum, an outspoken Scot, says his team didn’t worry about Jaguar tradition and designed a car they would like for themselves. “Everyone’s got an opinion, but I have a few opinions of my own,” he says.

It shows. Expect to find the XJ parked outside hip restaurants from St. Moritz to Santa Barbara. It was scheduled to be released in the spring in the U.S., with prices ranging from $72,500 to the special-order XJL Supersport for $115,000. It comes with three engine variations and a short or long wheelbase. The longer wheelbase adds as little as $3,000 to the price and 5 inches (13 centimeters) of rear legroom.

The base 5-liter V-8 delivers 385 horsepower and does 0 to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour in 5.4 seconds. If that’s not enough, there are two supercharged versions, with 470 and 510 horses. The Supersport will churn to 60 in a time-warping 4.7 seconds, yet handles meekly enough about town.

The interior is laid out like a sumptuous theater. The curved dashboard sits low, like a stage, with a band of wood rimming the interior edge of the windshield. Callum compares it to the cabin of a yacht. I’ve never seen it in another car. The XJ also has a digital display system with gauges that change or disappear depending on driving mode and informational needs. That feature is definitely the wave of the future.

One shortcoming is the front seats, which lack the supreme bolstering of the Mercedes S-Class and the thronelike comfort of the BMW 7 Series.

Who’s gonna buy this car? Maybe some of those blue hairs. Yet I think this XJ will drill down to a younger, hipper segment. Welcome to the cool crowd, Jag.

Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News in New York at jason@jasonhharper.com.

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