Jaguar's final days
The 2007 Jaguar XK is meant to be the salvation of the legendary brand. It isn't.
By Alex Taylor III, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - How much longer can this fabled brand survive?

The oldest auto show in the nation, New York's, opens to the public on Friday, giving the car-avoiding residents of Gotham their first opportunity to touch the metal on a production version of the 2007 Jaguar XK.

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Then, if they so desire, they can head north to the Jaguar dealership on 11th Avenue, where they can put a deposit on the slinky coupe; it goes on sale this month.

By doing so, they may play a role in rescuing one of autodom's legendary marques from permanent oblivion. The XK coupe and convertible have been designated as the latest of a long line of cars that must save Jaguar from sale or dismemberment.

The British automaker has cost its American owner, Ford Motor, billions of dollar since it was acquired in 1989. Earlier this year, Ford tossed another billion dollars down the drain when it announced an "impairment" charge for Jaguar because its value had sunk so low.

Now that Ford is nearly as starved for cash as General Motors, that kind of lavish expenditure with no payoff is no longer acceptable. It has come time for Jaguar, which has been losing money for decades, to start earning its keep.

Ford's Jaguar problem

Ford's Jaguar problem has been an excess of testosterone on the one hand, and a lack of it on the other. Back in 2001, Ford announced plans to quadruple Jaguar sales with the roll-out of the X-type, the first Jag in an eon to cost less than $30,000.

Unfortunately customers quickly saw the X-type for what it was - a tarted up Ford Mondeo that was sold as a popularly priced car in Europe. Cramped for interior space and designed with a flair for kitsch, it quickly crumbled.

Jaguar made the opposite mistake when it introduced its full-size XJ sedan in 2003. Something of an engineering triumph because of its aluminum structure, the XJ evoked models from thirty years earlier but in an unpleasant way. It was as if Boeing had designed a new jetliner and stuffed it into the body of a DC-3.

Mike O'Driscoll, president of Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover North America, dryly commented that, "We've been guilty of a little too much evolution. Our changes have been too subtle. The best Jaguars are those that surprise."

Sadly, the XK does not surprise, either. Its proportions and especially its rear end are all too reminiscent of the Aston Martin DB9, with which it shared development. Now the Aston is one of the loveliest cars in the world, so even a pale imitation of the real thing should be acceptable.

But Jaguars have also been about their own special blend of voluptuous extravagance and the new XK shows little of that. The grille on the front end is simply a travesty, a plain oval with the Jag emblem in the middle; it recalls the recently departed Ford Taurus, an inappropriate homage if there ever was one.

The challenge ahead for Jaguar

Several years ago, Jaguar conquered nearly all of the quality problems that made them the butt of so many bad jokes. But Jags have never been technologically advanced - falling way behind the Germans in that category - and their cramped passenger packaging has been a particular disgrace.

Without the glamour and the romance, there isn't much reason to own a Jag, which partly explains why, among all the brands marketed in the U.S. in March , Jags carried the highest incentives per unit - an astronomical $7,820. That's far higher than second-place Saab, which ran at $4,666, and miles ahead of stablemate Land Rover, which is currently enjoying a resurgence and laid out a mere $890 per unit.

So while the XK is only a ghostly reminder of great Jag coupes of the past like the XK140 and the legendary XK-E, we can only hope that Ford has seen the error of its ways and that this is the first tiny step on the way toward the resurrection of a great brand.

Even the Anglophiles of the Ford family can only have a limited tolerance for seeing their fortune frittered away on Jaguar like so many bread crumbs in Trafalger Square before they are devoured by the pigeons

Plugged In is a daily column by writers of FORTUNE magazine. Today's columnist, Alex Taylor III, can be reached at Top of page