Jaguar XF Comfortable, But Looks Pretty So-So

Aug. 20 (Bloomberg) — As I sweep down the hills in my 2009 Jaguar XF test car, I am a man divided. That elusive and graceful Jaguar ride is readily apparent, the sense of gliding atop a powerful cushion of air like Aladdin on his magic carpet. The $63,000 car itself, though, is less beautiful and graceful than the ride suggests.

As usual, I want to love Jaguar. And, as usual, I’m not sure it’s entirely on the mark.  

Sometimes a company’s storied heritage works against itself. Every time Jag releases a new car, it’s difficult not to compare it to classics such as the 1960s-era E-Type convertible and coupe. It’s doubly disappointing when they don’t live up to that high mark, souring the brand’s iconic imagery like love handles on James Bond.

The XF is the replacement to the S-Type, the company’s misguided attempt to capture the mid-tier luxury sports car market. The lame sedan, released in 2000, was more Maxwell Smart than Bond, and the good news is the XF romps all over it.

Yet the XF’s healthy competitors are the likes of the Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series, which both start in the mid-$40,000 and go well north of $60,000. As such, the XF also comes in different trims: luxury, premium luxury and supercharged, with prices from $50,000 to $63,000. And that’s without extra options like adaptive cruise control or heated steering wheel.

Jaguar’s workhorse 4.2-liter V-8, also found in the XK coupe, puts out 300 horsepower in the naturally aspirated form, 420 when supercharged. It makes 0 to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds with the regular engine and is a second quicker with supercharged version. Not a speed demon, yet fully adequate.

Improved Styling

While the XF’s styling is a vast improvement over the Rubensian lines of the S-Type, it’s not exactly sleek. Viewed from the rear three-quarters, the stance is athletic and classically Jag. Yet from the side the sedan is overly husky, a bloated cousin to the sculpted XK coupe. From the front, the first thing you notice is the wire-mesh grill, which looks like it belongs on a prison gate, not on the nose of a Jag.

The interior is a similar mix of good and bad. My tester is a blend of leather, matte silver and walnut veneers. While the stitching on the leather is nice, the wood inserts are clumsily installed, leaving gaps. One very askew piece would drive me crazy if I owned this car, like a little voice twittering “cheap!” over the leather’s shouts of “luxury!”

Nifty Gear Selector

The seats seem a bit smaller than they should, and the cockpit is tighter than I would like. Yet there’s a good amount of space for rear passengers, including headroom, and the trunk is big enough to make a mobster happy.

One of the nifty details is the gear selector, a circular knob that pops out of the center console when you turn on the car. You twist it to engage reverse, neutral, drive and sport. Yet even with such attention to detail, the interior suffers odd oversights. The only electrical outlet is located inside the stowaway hatch in the center divider. If you need access to an electronic device that you’ve plugged in and the cord hangs out, you can’t close the hatch completely.

Back to that Jaguar ride. The XF delivers the signature sensation of floating over the road for which the automaker is justly renowned. The vagaries of bad asphalt are intuited more than felt, and on the pitted and buckled roads around the Northeast, that’s a pleasure.

Yet you don’t feel divorced from the sensation of driving, as you often do in a Lexus, and the suspension is taut enough to handle a curvy road without significant body roll. It’s obviously a detail that the engineers paid attention to, and they got it just right.

Still Lithe

The sedan drives like a car with heft, which at 4,017 pounds it is. Yet it becomes more interesting when you switch it into sport mode and push it hard. The 19-inch wheels are well planted, and the sedan makes directional changes more lithely than one would expect.

The six-speed ZF automatic transmission works seamlessly in the background but also can be controlled with steering-wheel- mounted paddles. On a head-to-head challenge, the XF would be chasing a BMW 535i sedan, but it’s not boring.

If you think this is a car you’d want to drive cross country, you’d be right. At highway speeds it’s both quiet and stable, with very little engine or outside noise.

Still, if I were shopping in this segment, I might also take a good look at the less expensive Cadillac CTS. The $37,000 model with the direct-injected V-6 has four more horses than the XF, and an equally luxe interior. It goes to show that many brands are competing hard for the luxury sports car market.

Nor can we forget that this is yet another transitional time for Jaguar, having been sold in June by Ford Motor Co. to India’s Tata Motors Ltd., which also grabbed up Land Rover. It will be interesting to see where the company takes Jaguar next.

As usual, I’ll be rooting for it.

The 2009 Jaguar XF at a Glance

Engine: 4.2-liter V-8 with 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city; 25 highway.

Price as tested: $63,125.

Best feature: Its smooth and graceful glide.

Worst feature: Styling miscues like the front grill.

Target buyer: The Jaguar fan who wants his nostalgia in a newer package.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)