Jaguar, as a brand, has been struggling under the weight of a poor reputation for decades. For the most part, they earned this reputation. Since the mid 1980s, quality control had been severely lacking, and their cars were regularly plagued with electrical gremlins and persistent mechanical faults. Ford, when they bought the company in 1996, began a complete reworking of the manufacturing processes, and quality control increased dramatically. By 2002, their cars were showing evidence of that work, but the platforms they were based on were showing their age.
In the case of their flagship XJ line, the platform had been virtually unchanged since 1986, aside from cosmetic updates. So when a new XJ was revealed in 2003 for the 2004 model year, it was big news. The new XJ had more power, an updated engine – and an all-aluminium platform. The car had more luxury, better appointments, and the quality materials Jaguar had always been famous for were brought up to 21st century levels, all while managing to significantly decrease the overall weight, down to less than 3400 lbs, from the previous model’s weight of nearly 4000 lbs. Reviews and studies, meanwhile, put their reliability on par with the luxury-car market leader, Lexus. This was an amazing accomplishment for a company which, only a few years earlier, was among the worst in the world.
But skepticism ran high. Few believed that such a dramatic turnaround was possible, and Jaguar still remained a running joke. Combine this with criticism from many journalists that the XJ’s new lines hadn’t changed enough from the previous models and looked dated even when first released, and sales remained low.After spending a day with the 2009 XJR, the high-performance version of the XJ, we can tell you decisively that those journalists who criticised the looks of the flagship Jaguar are idiots. They have obviously spent far too much time drinking from Chris Bangle’s vat of kool-aid. This is a gorgeous car that never fails to turn heads wherever it goes. It is positively dripping with class and style, and may be one of the most pleasant, special places to spend time. It almost overwhelms you with sensations.
Jaguar takes a great deal of pride in building high-performance luxury. In fact, this was a phrase the Jaguar representative who toured us through the car repeated many times. And, going in with low expectations, we will admit to stifling a snicker or two after we had heard it for the third or fourth time.
As soon as we had the keys, though, we completely understood what he was talking about. We like to say that every car has its own individual story, and there is no doubt that “high performance luxury” is Jaguar’s.
Now, I’ve driven most of the XJR’s competitors, and it’s difficult to explain how different this is. Only Audi provides an interior with the same feelings of quality and comfort, but the sensations of luxury are nothing like the Jaguar. This is classic British luxury in the style of Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin, but at a fraction of the price.For starters, the seats are among the best in the industry. When you first sit down, they feel like the large plush bench seats you’d feel in the back of a very nice limousine. In fact, for the first five seconds or so, you will be unnerved. They feel soft, supple and sumptuous. But after that, you notice a new sensation. As you slowly sink into the leather, the seats wrap around you and support you like the seats in a good sports car, but with a whole other level of comfort.
The steering wheel is large and substantive. I have very large hands, but the wheel’s thick rim fits my hands and feels appropriate and authoritative. And, let’s face it, the memory functions for the seats, steering wheel and pedals are an indulgence that no car should be without. After returning the XJR, everything else felt primitive.
In fact, that may be the best way to describe the overall essence of the car. The interior of this car is designed around a concept of overindulgence. The designers obviously wanted you to feel like royalty… and you do. The leather is beyond exceptional. All the surfaces are almost pleasurable to touch. This is a car that almost makes you want to caress it. Everything is right where it should be. The gear selector sits naturally beneath your hand, the arm-rest perfectly beneath your elbow. Ergonomics in this car are exceptional.
It is, however, also something of a case in dichotomies. Here’s a case in point: the J-gate shifter may be one of the nicest I’ve ever experienced. The feel is smooth, precise, and almost hydraulic. It shifts so nicely that even a gearhead like myself isn’t bothered by the fact that there isn’t a manual transmission available. And yet, just a few inches ahead of this fantastic shifter is an audio and HVAC system that clearly feels like it was recycled from the Ford parts bin. Jaguar is quite proud of the fact that their cars feature a full Alpine entertainment centre, and with good reason. The audio system is excellent, easily as good or better than those I’ve heard in cars belonging to music-obsessed teenaged boys, but without the obnoxiously-overwhelming subwoofer thump. The controls, however, feel cheap and low-budget. Admittedly, it seems like a pretty trivial detail to pick on, but the car is otherwise so excellent that these little problems seem to leap out at you.
But fantastic comfort like this can be found in a living room for a much lower price. We here at RideLust only care about it because of the fact that it’s all mounted inside a car. So make the jump to Part 2, and we’ll talk about the car itself.