A Jag That Roars -- and Coddles

Something about the Jaguar XJ8. Just looking at the car, I immediately imagine it speeding north up the M1 highway from London, perhaps ferrying a British Cabinet Minister or corporate chief executive to a long weekend in the country. A chauffeur is behind the wheel, and the VIP is lounging in one of the spacious back seats with the little airline-style seat tray flipped down, sipping a Scotch and soda and catching up on some last-minute work. But sometimes, he (or she) has decided to dispense with the chauffeur and take the wheel, because this car is a blast to drive.

Mid-life crises take many forms, but if yours is the kind where you just can no longer tolerate life's little hassles, this Jag a good set of wheels to consider. It's big and luxurious -- what the British refer to as a "saloon" car because it's so spacious, luxurious, and powerful. No less an authority than the legendary auto writer David E. Davis, founder of Automobile magazine, has declared the XJ8 more fun to drive than the Audi A8, BMW 745Li, and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

The 2005 XJ Super V8 I drove -- with the extra-long wheel base (five inches more than the regular XJ8) and a supercharged 4.2-liter V8 engine -- really motors. If you punch the gas doing 70 on the interstate, this car leaps forward.


  Naturally, the XJ8 has all the amenities of a classic luxury car. My test model, which was in a rich shade of Burgundy that Jaguar calls "radiance red," had a two-tone leather (chocolate and light tan) interior with highlights in walnut veneer. The parking brake is electronic, so it goes on and off at the flip of a switch. Naturally, the seats -- front and rear -- and the accelerator and brake pedals are electronically adjustable. And, of course, this Jag has a heating system to warm the seats and steering wheel during winter driving.

Like every luxury car these days, the XJ8 comes with so many electronic gee-gaws that it needs a separate owner's manual to explain how they all work. And in the Jag, most of controls actually do work pretty well.

My favorites included the touch-screen system for the radio and CD player, mobile phone, and navigation system. With a touch screen, you can input new destinations and change the map parameters quickly and intuitively. The navigation found all the obscure little Pennsylvania towns I entered, though I advise plugging in specific street addresses. Otherwise, a disembodied voice announces -- presumably at some smaller township's legal as opposed to physical border -- that you've arrived at your destination when you're still a mile or two away.


  If, like me, you've had most of your fender-benders while backing up, you'll find the XJ8's front and rear parking-assist system annoying but practical. When it's on, sensors in the bumpers cause a warning to sound if you're getting too close to an obstacle.

I was less enamored of the adaptive speed-control system. It warns you if you're getting too close to the car ahead of you on the highway -- but can also be set to follow the car ahead at a specific distance. I set it up to follow an 18-wheeler on a winding country highway where the speed limit was 45 -- and was quite disconcerted when the truck driver sped up to nearly 60 and the XJ8 stayed glued to his tail.

Of course, this probably wouldn't have happened if I had remembered to reset the speed control. Moral: Don't use the thing before you really study the manual first.


  Sitting in the back seat of the XJ8 made me yearn for a chauffeur. Leg room in the long version of the car is roughly equivalent to business class in an airplane. The little airliner-style tables fold down out of the backs of the front seats, and control panels are built into the backs of the front-seat headrests that allow passengers to run the navigation system from the back seat.

A separate heating and air-conditioning control panel is also built into the back of the center console and a console in the armrest that allows you to listen on headphones to your own CDs and radio programs. Home, James.

The XJ8's steering is as sharp and its cornering as supple as that of the Mercedes S Class and Audi A8 -- which is to say it handles very well. If speed is your thing, the Jaguar's six-speed automatic transmission has a "sport" function that changes the gearing and, as the owner's manual puts it, allows the car to "make full use of the engine's power reserves." It also has a clutchless quasi-manual shifting system in which you can move the car through second, third, fourth, and fifth gears yourself to squeeze even more oomph out of the engine.


  You pay for all this luxury and performance, of course. An XJ8 like the one I drove goes for $90,000, though that includes just about every option you can imagine. But under Ford Motor (F), which has owned Jaguar since 1989, quality has been on par with that of rival luxury cars. Long past are the bad old days when owners used to joke that Jags should come with their own mechanic because they broke down so often.

The Jag's British styling is more sensuous than that of its German and Japanese rivals, but it's also a little over the top for my taste. The chrome door handles and accoutrements seem a tad garish, and I could really do without the XJ8's shag carpeting, which brought back unfortunate memories of an apartment I once lived in as a graduate student. I also found the ride a little too luxury-liner-like. I prefer the BMW's slightly harder, sports-car feel.

Then again. I'd love to own a car with the leaping chrome Jaguar emblem on its hood -- and the snarling Jaguar against a background of British racing green in the center of each of its chrome wheels. There's a romantic appeal to a Jag that most other cars can't rival. And these days the Jag's performance lives up to its history.

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