Jaguar's edgy new cat
Road-testing the radical new Jag XF with racing legend Dan Gurney.
(Fortune Magazine) -- The 2009 Jaguar XF means business - literally. The S-Type successor will be the first Jag to hit the road under new post-Ford ownership, and it was a key driver in convincing India's Tata Motors that the troubled British brand, along with sibling Land Rover, were worth the dough (a reported $2 billion or so). Can this one solitary cog, even as handsome as it is, restart Jag?
I turned to a current Jaguar S-Type owner to help me test the new cat. It didn't hurt that he, Dan Gurney, is nothing short of a racing legend. He's driven and won in everything from a Formula 1 car of his own design and Ford's GT40 at Le Mans to an E-Type.
"Hey! That's pretty slick! Ha!" Gurney hooted when he slid into the XF and noticed the glowing red START-STOP button, which silently heart-throbs in a ba-boom, ba-boom rhythm. When he pushed it, his exclamations grew even louder as the cat fully awoke: Air vents swung 180 degrees to open, and the cylindrical gear selector, which at rest sits flush, rose to the occasion - schwing! "That's a new one!" laughed Gurney.
And there it was, the ever elusive "customer surprise and delight" that car marketers tend to drone on about and rarely deliver. And yet Jaguar has really done it - and unbelievably the gray suits at Ford (F, Fortune 500) allowed it. (Full disclosure: I worked for years at Ford and was general manager at Jaguar North America until 2002.) Jaguar execs understand a touching quirk about their owners: Most take an anthropomorphic view of their cars. They name them, form relationships with them, insist that they have specific personality traits. (No judgment - I'm all for bonding with cars. I've had Betsy, Duchess, Dean Martin, and Lena, to list a few; clearly it is a trait that passes down, since my 4-year-old just came up with Black Olive as the moniker for our new noir Escalade.) I thought pulsating buttons and blinking vents that open like eyes would eventually feel cloying, but instead the XF's coming-to-life gimmick grew on me, making other cars suddenly seem visually lifeless upon startup.
Gurney and I hit the back roads - he's a motorcycle builder, among many other things, so he knows where the twisties are. "The power's great and the refinement is impressive," he commented as he squashed the throttle pedal like a bug, oblivious to the speed blur he was creating. From the passenger's seat, the ride was velvety, the instrument panel minimal, the sensuous matte-finish oak modern, and the double-stitched leather dash high-end - like fine leather goods.
I had had my way in the driver's seat a few days earlier on the appropriately named and police-infested Beeline Highway outside Scottsdale. I was struck by the car's easy grace and abundant performance. If you're feeling playful, there's a sport mode: You push and twist the shifter to select "S"; there's also a checkered-flag button for "extra" sport mode. Between the two, you can dial in faster throttle response, more aggressive shift points, and minimized electronic interference from traction control. There are wheel-mounted paddles too, if you want to go full boy-racer. Though Jag used the same 4.2-liter supercharged V-8 it's had for 12 years, the way the XF delivers its 420 horsepower makes you want to drive like, well, Dan Gurney. And yet at the same time you feel coddled, seated as you are in the lap of some very fine, progressive British luxury.
Of course, every car comes with its own set of pluses and minuses. Pluses: LED taillights very much in the style of Aston Martin (design director Ian Callum is the former head of Aston design). One-touch interior overhead lights and glove box, an industry first. A radar-powered blind-spot warning sensor. Fabulously soft turquoise interior lighting at night - the mood is one part spa, one part nightclub. Twisting chrome splitter blades up front are what Callum calls the car's jewelry. The excellent touchscreen system also has voice activation (although when I tried to navigate using it, it told me to pull over for a tutorial!). The minuses: no lightweight aluminum body, as had originally been planned (cost); no all-wheel-drive system (ditto); a driver display that is devilishly difficult to read in strong sunlight.
The most contentious thing about the XF, though, is its new exterior design language. There is no doubt that it's taut and beauteous. And in walking around the car with Callum, I was able to see an echo of the E-Type's strong hood lines, the grille shape from the old XJ6 Series 1, and the time-honored chrome seagull across the back. Yet overall, it's a big leap from the current sedans' lines. I applaud moving away from those old-fashioned forms (many loyalists disagree), but I worry that the XF's BMW-muscular skin will be hard for the untrained eye to identify as a Jaguar on the road. Any auto exec worth his 401(k) knows that you can't ask car buyers what they'll want in the future; they can't possibly know until a new model or detail is presented to them. And so, I suspect the world will learn to appreciate Jaguar's bold new style. It's strong - it has to be: It is the future hope for a much loved and extremely challenged marque.