A New Breed of Jaguar

The troubled luxury auto brand hopes a fresh, modern look will boost sales, and save it from the auction block

The Jaguar brand has a problem—a problem deeper than its current sales slump, though not unrelated. Think Jaguar and what springs to mind? Luxury? Perhaps Britain?

Now try playing word association with a few other luxury car brands. BMW? Performance. Lexus? Quality. Mercedes? Engineering innovation. While those brands all have clear identities, Jaguar lacks the differentiating characteristics to set it apart. The brand is desperately in need off a boost. And it's hoping to get it through design.

Of course Jaguar isn't just now discovering emotive styling. What's new is the obvious departure from the brand's classic look—a change embodied by the C-XF concept car, which debuted at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. All future Jaguar sedans will take their cues from the new C-XF.

Learning the Language of Style

And while the recently redesigned XK-Series sports car will retain its distinctive "Spitfire Wing" face (reminiscent of the famous E-Type), even its profile will share a brand DNA with the sedans. Jaguar knows that traditionalists may absolutely hate the new design, but they're willing to anger some in order to give the brand a fresh, contemporary look they hope will have overall greater customer appeal. And according to Jaguar, consumer reactions to the C-XF (and the subsequent production model) have been positive.

"One thing should be abundantly clear whenever people are discussing Jaguar design," says design chief Ian Callum. "Jaguars should be seen as modern cars, and in the future, people will appreciate them for that." Together with advanced design boss Julian Thompson, Callum has developed a design language emphasizing purity, dynamism, latent power, balance, and modernity.

In the past, Jaguar has been criticized for resting on its design laurels, with each of its models clearly harking back to the company's earliest offerings. With X-Type, S-Type, and XJ-Series saloons (that's Brit for sedan), it is easy to see that vehicle styling has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Subtle design changes over time can work well for brands. Porsche has retained the basic silhouette of its iconic 911 Carrera since the 1964 debut. For Jaguar, though, meager sales indicate that most consumers see its classic, iconic design as simply old.

An Aging Audience

Jaguar sales aren't directly comparable to other mainstream luxury brands because it makes no SUV, but total 2006 luxury car sales data by volume shows Jag trailing its competitors big time. Sales slumped from more than 45,000 units in 2004 to just 20,683 in 2006. Automotive News reports that the brand's 2006 sales were down 32%—the industry's biggest loser—from 2005. This drop translates into a loss of more than $715 million, reports Detroit News. Worse still, the brand is predicted to lose $550 million in 2007.

If profiling current Jaguar shoppers serves as any indicator, then the current design appeals most to older customers. According to an auto dealership floor traffic survey conducted by CNW Research in the fourth quarter of 2006, Jaguar shoppers averaged 65.8 years of age—the oldest of any luxury brand—compared to 60.3 in the same quarter of last year.

Ford (F), which owns Jaguar as part of its Premiere Automotive Group alongside Volvo and Land Rover, says it's sticking with Jaguar despite much industry gossip about a possible sale to outside investors (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/13/07, "After Aston, Could Jaguar Be Next?"). Given Ford's struggles to turn a profit since purchasing Jaguar for $2.82 billion in 1989, the C-XF and other pipeline products likely represent the brand's last chance for redemption.

Could it Be a Winner?

And Jaguar may yet catch on. The C-XF is stunning from every angle. While it's sportier than previous models—with a cutting-edge aesthetic, muscular proportions, and unique color contrasts—the prowling concept car still looks like a Jaguar. C-XF designers emphasized the grille shape, uncluttered shoulders (or haunches), and long, uninterrupted character lines.

The result is a car that exudes confidence without resorting to brash proportions or gaudy accent materials. It pays homage to classic models without blatantly mimicking them. And most importantly, it's forward thinking and different—though only time will tell if consumers embrace the new look.

At a recent press preview in Manhattan, Jaguar displayed the one-of-a-kind C-XF, and Alister Whelan, of Jaguar's Advanced Design Studio, gave BusinessWeek.com contributor Stuart Schwartzapfel a detailed tour of the car. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.

Why has Jaguar moved away from retro styling after all these years?

We have actually been working on very modern interiors for the past six years or so through our previous concept cars, but the C-XF is certainly the most radical to date. We have to, and want to, push forward. As long as we stay true to producing luxurious sports interiors, why shouldn't we explore Jaguar's boundaries?

How does the C-XF embody Jaguar's new design language for sedans?

Jaguar interiors, for me, should always convey a warmth and purity that you can't get from German or Japanese cars. Uncluttered, easy on the eye, homely yet with a twist of adrenaline. Contemporary designs that, when you're sitting inside, just make you want to smile.

How will Jaguar move toward contemporary styling while still paying homage to iconic models of the past?

New technologies and vehicle safety [features] mean that interiors are ever advancing. For me personally, the most iconic Jaguars were from the '60s and '70s, revolutionary and innovative [models] like the E-type and MkII. Throughout the '80s and '90s, design evolved slowly. But we're now breaking that mold and giving our customers something that's really special again.

What makes a Jaguar instantly recognizable?

Jaguars are always about dramatic proportions and pure surfaces. Luxurious materials in contemporary interiors. On first look, our new generation of Jaguars may not seem familiar, but you'll quickly know it's a Jag.

How realistic is the C-XF? What features or elements will likely be cut from the production model slated for 2008?

The C-XF is our blueprint for all future saloons, not just XF. Although the C-XF is very much an extreme version of the production car, when you see the real XF you will immediately see the link and definitely won't be disappointed.

The XK-Series Sports cars will retain the "Spitfire grille" reminiscent of the E-Type, while sedans (S-Type, XJ) will utilize a new, non-oval, face. Will we see any similarities between sedans and sports cars moving forward?

Every car brand knows the importance of a family face. At Jaguar, we're lucky enough to have several trademark grilles that are each distinctive. The geometry of the oval grille naturally suits sports cars because it's low and wide. The grille of the C-XF is pure Jaguar—there's a clear lineage back to renowned designs such as the Series 1 XJ.

Do you worry that the edgy new design language will offend long-time Jaguar owners who prized the softer and more traditional lines?

Hopefully not. Jaguar can, and should appeal to younger drivers. We need to capture their hearts as well as their fathers'!

Where do we see "tailored performance" in the C-XF cabin?

I think particularly the seats and other leather trimmed panels. The seats are beautifully sculpted forms reminiscent of racing bucket seats but designed in a contemporary way. The shapes are tailored to support your back, while ventilation holes keep the structure lightweight and cool. The leather cushions are hand-wrapped with no visible stitching, almost like a molded soft neoprene shell.

Have you done anything new with materials and finishes?

The black "tone on tone" interior was always a favorite to complement the purity of the Meta-sheen liquid silver exterior—a combination that's classically very sporty and honest. We wanted the dark interior to be just as pure, the detailed combinations of black carbon leather, black semi-aniline leather, scorched wood, and high gloss paint all show richness and harmony that's understated and contemporary. This monotone canvas provides an exciting backdrop when the blue cabin lighting is activated.

Click here to view a slide show of the Jaguar C-XF.

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