Jaguar XJ

38997-hi-OverpassFor some purists, it was a cold stab in the heart to see Jaguar fall under the ownership of Indian firm Tata Motors. Tata are famous for making the $2,500 Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car and a contraption that appears to be only two side-panels and a bumper better than a tuk-tuk. To some this was like Claridge’s being bought out by the takeaway chain down the road. But of course it saved Jaguar.

The new owners recently announced that Jaguar had lost about £1m a day in the first ten months since their purchase, which is the kind of money even Elton John would consider frivolous for luxuries. But despite these losses, Tata insist they are turning the company around in a way that previous owners, Ford, never seemed to manage. The plan is to revamp the XJ and make the old British big cat desirable again.

“No one needs this Supersport,” Jaguar Design Chief Ian Callum tells me over dinner after a day testing the new car in and around Paris. “You have to really want one.” Therein lies the problem Jaguar has faced for some time: they weren’t making affordable cars that people really coveted. Their cars didn’t turn heads, and in this sector if you don’t turn heads you don’t turn a profit.

Four hours earlier, at the launch, the new Jaguar Supersport had been turning heads aplenty. It started when I looked at the car’s interior, which is unexpectedly good, given that Jaguar wanted to modernise the XJ and retain some of the heritage at the same time – never simple. With so many constraints it would be easy to make a bit of a mess of it. But the sweeping arc of the dashboard with wood veneer and leather trim, rounded air vents and analogue clock, all hark back to a different era. The effect is elegant and refined. It also manages to sit well with the futuristic pop-up gear dial, LED lighting, touch-screen displays and virtual instrument cluster. The latter comprises digital dial readouts that are incredibly sharp and easy to read. Best of all, when you press the sport mode button the speedometer glows red – prompting an instant rush of child-like joy.

Callum and his team obviously realised that the XJ will mostly be used to drive to work or ferry around a family. As such, the long wheelbase version sees the extra 125mm devoted to the backseats, and there is 470 litres of room in the boot. But the car should ultimately be about joy. And it largely is.

Pulling out of a bend on a French country road, the back end feels solid and planted. Then, with a gentle nudge of encouragement from the right foot, you launch down the tarmac with a wonderful growl. Turn off the stereo, crack open the window and the noise is just lovely. The engine’s controlled roar reminds me of a wingless Spitfire MkII.

I smile and fly past a cyclist, then watch him in the rear view mirror as he wobbles and shakes his fist. This, I rapidly discover, is a car that can really move – and looks nice doing so. Other motorists slow down and even pull over; drivers stare and smile. And no wonder. The XJ chews up the road in the manner of a sports car, despite being a large and comfortable saloon.

Even at a police station, sorting out a speeding fine later that day, members of the French Gendarmerie wander over for an admiring look. Having previously only seen the car as a blur over the top of their speed gun, they feel compelled to pass comment: “C’est bon… Il est très rapide aussi!”

Yes, it is indeed très rapide. The XJ will get you up to 100kph in less than five seconds, which more rapid than an Aston Martin Rapide. One of the key reasons the XJ feels more like a Rolls, but rolls more like a sports car is that it’s made of aluminium instead of steel. The super-lightweight riveted and bonded body makes it at least 150 kilograms lighter than the opposition. And fifty percent is from recycled aluminum, meaning that half of the car was once Coke cans and baked bean tins.

But even at high speeds it feels like a smooth magic carpet ride. While it tears though the countryside and silently creeps through the villages with a gentle purr, this Jag cruises down the motorways like it’s gliding. For the live-in-Dubai-work-in-Abu Dhabi crowd, this is the sort of car that’s going to make the journey, well, not enjoyable but faster and certainly more tolerable. Likewise, the sound system on board is all Bowers & Wilkins, the company who provided the equipment for Abbey Road Studios and George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound.

Fast, sexy looking cars are usually wildly impractical, hugely expensive and often not nearly as enjoyable as you’d think in day-to-day driving. There’s something almost depressing about seeing a beast like a Lamborghini Murciélago neutered by morning rush-hour traffic, crawling along when the substantial horses under the chassis should see it galloping. This is why Jaguar aren’t alone in building four-door saloons that strive to be attractive and practical. But achieving these two aims isn’t easy. In fact you could say it’s like trying to find a Victoria’s Secret model that can cook, likes ironing, watches kung-fu films and tells dirty jokes.

This was the challenge for Jaguar and its new owners. The good old Jag was fast becoming the perennial bridesmaid in this field of luxury saloon class; the automotive equivalent of Megan Fox’s friend. Which friend? No idea, I was looking at the Fox — that’s the point. But now they have made a car that people will take a second look at. Ian Callum has got it right: this is a car you will covet and desire; something that will make your friends and coworkers jealous, but still fits in with the realities of daily life. Just as Audi taking over Lamborghini turned the Italian supercar into something that you can actually drive without it, or you, breaking down, so the Indian owners seem to be working a transformative magic over Jaguar. The ownership may have changed from cowboys to Indians, but this big cat still feels British and, at last, feels exciting too.

For Esquire magazine – click here for PDF / here for PDF 2

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