The great leap forward
New Big Cat breaks the mould for Jaguar
LIKE most things that take a long time to materialise, change can hit you like a bucket of cold water on a November morning.
With Jaguar's new flagship, the XJ, it was more like 15 degrees in March, surrounded by the beauty of Versailles -- but there was still a major adjustment.
Everyone agreed the old XJ was a conservative design too far. All the others flagships -- Audi A8, Lexus LS, Mercedes S-Class -- had moved on substantially in one way or another.
We expected a response from Jaguar, all right, but nothing as radical as this. The old XJ was a beautifully decked-out motor and drove far better than its traditional outlines indicated.
The new XJ is carved from a far different perspective, one that confronts potentially stark economic implications if success eludes it, but which simultaneously heralds a dynamic approach in a brave new world.
It is big, bold, punchy to look at, and, above all, daring. And it gets here in June.
The new XJ retains bonds with its tradition. The cream leather and wood inlay in some models bestow old English grandeur in the midst of modernity, as does the insistence of its designers that it owes much to the great old XJ from 1968.
But it is a massive leap forward in virtually every respect. It is even more sensational than what they wrought with the mid-size XF.
There are hints here and there of it being an XF big-brother, but this is very much its own XJ. Out front, it is dominated by one great, jaw-dropping front grille that, in its own way, says nearly everything about this venture: 'We're going for it.'
Cleverness abounds, such as the panoramic glass roof flanked by pillars that appear exceptionally slim because the rear ones are blacked-in to look like tinted glass.
The rear lights jut upwards, like a cat's claw, but they don't wrap around the rear flanks. This leaves a lot of metal along the rear-side and the back.
I was initially not happy at all with the look of the rear. There was too much metal. But it grew on me inexorably. However, it doesn't work as well on the long-wheel base as it does on the standard version.
The latter really came together after a day's acquaintance. Indeed, I was starting to expound its looks by the time I was finished.
There is extensive use of aluminum -- so much so that this great chunk of modernity doesn't weigh much more than the smaller XF.
I drove it over two days and a few hundred kilometres through newly-ploughed brown Beauvais fields and greening winter-corn sweeps of Versailles.
Ensconced in a sumptuous cabin that starts way out under the windscreen with an arc echoing the curve of a river barge's prow and ending way behind cosseted leather seats and beneath that panoramic glass sunroof, we embraced the new with the joie de vivre that it deserved.
The central console sweeps gently from elbow rest to rotary gear selector to touch-screen to 'olde-worlde' clock under the heavily stylised air vents. Someone worked hard to make this look and feel different.
One brilliant option is the central screen, with its two layers of differently oriented pixels. It means the driver can see the normal sort of info -- but the front passenger can watch TV or a DVD -- on the same screen at the same time.
Under the bonnet of our long-wheel-based version (also in standard of course) was the renowned three-litre V6 diesel (275bhp, twin sequential turbos). It had loads of power and torque and was silent at speed, if more noticeable at idling.
It just smoothed out creases in acceleration or braking, picking up speed instantly, without apparent effort or noise. This is the one for Ireland.
All motors have six-speed automatic transmissions, with paddle-shifters.
The next day, we had the standard wheelbase five-litre petrol Supersport V8 (510bhp).
This harked back to the good old days. It streamed to speed in an instant with a burble that would have you slowing and picking up again just to hear and sense its power. They expect four or five of these to be bought here in a full year.
They have tuned the chassis between sporty and comfortable. They want it to be close to the likes of BMW 7-series handling and Mercedes S-Class comfort. It is a fine line and one they have achieved with some measure, although the rear did come around a bit as we exited a roundabout when I put on a lot of power a little early.
There is a chequered flag button just behind the rotary gear selector. It frees up the stability control and firms the dampers for a more dynamic ride. So my combination for you would be: three-litre diesel in standard wheelbase, with the chequered flag button pressed. Now there's a car for you.
Driving, it felt like a smaller motor -- always a sign they've got it right. We swept into bends and swished along undulating straights.
A man on a motorbike swung alongside, then took a backward look at that big, open grille out front, gave us a thumbs up and disappeared at an enormous speed (and we weren't exactly dallying).
There were other examples of people taking serious notice. And after all, isn't that some sign of success?
The engine gives all you want: there are lashings of chassis flexibility and both VRT and road tax fall into Band E (28pc VRT and €630 road tax).
This XJ will impact big time here. People will know about and recognise it. Although how many of them will choose to part with upwards of €86,000 is another matter.
Three or four years ago, they would have been clamouring for it. Change comes in many sudden guises.