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FIRST DRIVE

XJ8: Unmistakably Jaguar

With its smooth ride, nimble handling and clean styling, this stronger and lighter sedan could win back the disenchanted.

July 23, 2003|Barry Stavro | Times Staff Writer

One of my friends is a veteran Jaguar salesman who bites his words when he talks about Ford Motor Co., owner of the British luxury car line since 1989. Under Ford's watch, Jaguar has improved its frequency-of-repair record, but Jaguar's styling -- often so innovative and classic -- has become homogenized by sharing too many Ford components, my friend gripes.

For years I've thought the same thing: Many Jaguars remind me more of a Ford Taurus than a British luxury car.

So while I was testing the redesigned 2004 Jaguar XJ8 sedan, I was surprised to hear my friend say, "This is the first car in years that I'm really proud of selling." The XJ8 shares few Ford parts, he said; it's great on the freeway; and his customers come back from test drives with a big smile on their faces.

After driving the XJ8 for a week, I agree with him.

The XJ8 isn't flashy, but its smooth ride (thanks to a new air suspension and aluminum body frame), nimble handling, ample speed and some classic design touches steadily won me over. By week's end, my so-so first impression evolved into a big thumbs up, and I was sorry to give up the car.

There are three XJ models. I drove the entry-level XJ8, which carries a base sticker price of $59,995 (with options, the test car topped out at $64,820). There's also the more lavish XJ Vanden Plas (sticker price $68,995) and the supercharged XJR ($74,995).

The redesigned aluminum body trims about 200 pounds from last year's XJ8 and helps give the engine some extra kick. The XJ8's 294-horsepower V-8 (up from 280) covers zero to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, or 0.6 seconds faster than the 2003 model. The XJ8's acceleration isn't head snapping; it's more like rolling thunder. Maximum torque shows up at 4,100 rpm, so if you floor the XJ8 from a dead stop, the acceleration is a slow windup till about 45 mph, then the car really picks up the pace. (By comparison, Jaguar says, the supercharged, 390-horsepower XJR zips through zero to 60 in five seconds flat.)

Packed into the four-door XJ8 was a full menu of electronic gadgetry: parking aid sensors, self-dimming and heated outside mirrors, adjustable foot pedals, heated steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, electronic parking brake, plus xenon lights and washers on the headlamps. There's also a sunroof, leather seats and interior decor trimmed with walnut burl.

The dashboard's retro styling is an eye pleaser: Tachometer, speedometer, clock and engine temperature and fuel gauge dials all have needles, not digital readouts. In a bow to the company's illustrious past, the white markings are set against an attractive background of Jaguar green. And the retro clock is almost an exact match of what's in the new Aston Martin (also owned by Ford).

This is the seventh generation of the XJ -- Jaguar's largest sedan -- and to make the cars stronger but lighter, engineers eliminated an all-steel frame and shifted to aluminum. They also shaved weight by using aluminum parts in the doors and cylinder block. The result: The XJ8 is wider, taller and longer than its predecessor, yet the lighter frame squeezes out an extra mile per gallon in combined fuel economy than most of its rivals.

Another innovation is the self- adjusting air suspension. Rather than rely on traditional coil springs, Jaguar placed an air compressor behind the front bumper that sends compressed air to a reservoir in the trunk. Sensors at the four corners of the car measure its height; to level out the ride, the system pumps pressurized air as needed into rubber cylinders. The air suspension also automatically lowers the car for better aerodynamics -- at 100 mph, Jaguar says, the XJ8 drops about half an inch closer to the road.

All this might sound like advertising gobbledygook, but I noticed a difference the first time I was on the freeway. As I caught up to traffic in the passing lane, I felt a gentle, trampoline-like effect, particularly after bumps, as the XJ8 settled itself into position.

Handling was impressive. On straightaways, the car offered a firm, comfortable ride. On S-curves, it proved surprisingly tight in corners -- the XJ8 was equipped with 18-inch Continental tires -- without understeer or fishtailing. At all speeds, there's an undercurrent of smoothness in the ride, and it's quiet inside the cabin as the dual exhausts strike a muffled tone.

The new six-speed automatic transmission (which replaces last year's five-speed) was crisp, and a U-shaped channel in the console allowed me to move the gearshift knob into a clutch-free manual transmission (which starts in second and runs into fifth gear).

Of the handful of options on the test car, I liked the heated front and rear seats ($950), the powerful xenon headlamps ($675), the electric washers on the headlamps ($200) and the sharp-looking 18-inch alloy wheels ($800). But the heated steering wheel ($350) was bulky, with an odd feel from the combination wood-and-leather rim.

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