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Expert Reviews 1 of 10
By Joe Wiesenfelder
June 2, 2008
After more than 18 years under Ford's umbrella, Jaguar is being sold to India's Tata Motors, certainly beginning yet another era of speculation and naysaying about a foreign company's fitness to steer a storied British brand. Model updates are always in the pipeline years before they appear at dealerships, but the Jaguar XF is Ford's swan song as far as all-new models are concerned. The midsize luxury sedan replaces the S-Type, which has been underwhelming audiences since the 2000 model year. With new exterior styling, a more contemporary interior design and a host of high-tech features, the XF is a worthy — if relatively expensive — competitor to the leading German luxury sedans.
With a starting list price of $49,200, the base trim level, called the XF Luxury, is closer to the Mercedes-Benz E-Class ($51,200) than it is to the most affordable versions of Audi's A6 ($42,950) and BMW's 528i ($44,300). The two higher XF trim levels include the Premium Luxury and the Supercharged. I spent most of my evaluation in a Supercharged, but also tested the Premium Luxury. Exterior & Styling The XF has exterior styling that some people love and some people don't, and that usually translates to above-average sales. The front end doesn't knock me out; it recalls a 2006 Chrysler Sebring after a makeover, but that's completely subjective, of course. My greater concern is over the grille, which is something I harped on in my XK review, too. This is a more affordable car, but I still don't think that excuses the cheap-looking chromed plastic grate. I find it offensive. In fairness, the grille on Bentley's Continental GT is just as bad at more than three times the price, but that's just thrice the shame on Bentley. I've also seen much better plastic grilles on more modest cars from non-luxury brands.
On the upside, the vents in the front fenders manage to look distinctive at a time when the entire auto industry — including modest non-luxury cars — are incorporating them. They're more like gills than vents or grates. Also, the muscular hindquarters and sharply raked windshield give the XF an athletic look.
The XF is a satisfying driver's car, but the luxury car experience has a lot to do with the inside. That's where some of the XF's greatest strengths are found, so I'll start there. Cool & Contemporary For a brand that's well on its way to becoming the powdered wig of luxury cars, the XF's interior is a welcome step forward. The old-world approach had gotten, well, old. Without throwing out the entire brand identity, Jaguar designers modernized the shapes and many materials and elevated the whole experience through artistic use of lighting and theater (or perhaps I should spell it "theatre"): Open the door, and the engine-start button pulsates red like a heartbeat. Press it and the engine springs to life with a characteristic growl, and the cabin is bathed in cool blue light. The gauges and buttons, also backlit in blue, recall a color scheme introduced by Volkswagen many years ago, but here the hue makes for more legible readouts.
The four air-conditioning vents in the dashboard's expansive standard aluminum trim panel rotate 90 degrees from their closed positions. No, this doesn't serve a necessary purpose, and yes, they are powered moving parts that could break someday, but people eat this stuff up. I ate it up, and I would have eaten more if it had been served. It's just cool in a way lights and materials can't be. Movement — be it powered vents or an elaborate cupholder mechanism — has true appeal.
Meanwhile, a knob hidden right where your hand rests on the center console motors upward. Looking like one of those blasted multifunction controller knobs employed by several other luxury brands, the JaguarDrive Rotary Gear Selector is in fact a single-function knob that does its job very well. Its function is to select among the six-speed automatic transmission's PRNDS settings while taking up much less space than a conventional shift lever would. It's akin to the electronically controlled parking brake — used in the S-Type and present here as well — that replaces a large hand lever or space-robbing pedal with a small switch.
The fact that it rises is merely "theatre," but the knob proves to be an excellent way of changing gears. A mechanical linkage is no longer necessary, but BMW has taken the opportunity to degrade rather than improve functionality with a lever on the steering column or center console that has a learning curve and requires you to view a display to confirm your gear selection. JaguarDrive has PRNDS readouts both above it and on the instrument panel, but the knob's tactile feedback is so simple, you can twist two clicks back and forth between Drive and Reverse while parking or making a midblock turn and never look down. Ergonomics vs. Aesthetics Luxury brands struggle to provide a feature-rich experience and usability without overwhelming the driver with countless buttons. The XF does a better job than the competition. Facing this challenge, Lexus scores well with usability but errs on the side of button overload. (Hiding some controls under a sliding armrest isn't exactly ergonomic.) The German manufacturers keep the clutter to a minimum but generally blow it by using multifunction controllers that are tough to learn and/or cumbersome once you learn them. Making matters worse, they tend to bury some important functions in submenus.
For example, the option to adjust the ride firmness on Audi's adaptive suspension — which you'll want to do while driving — is on one of the Multi-Media Interface menus, meaning you have to leave whatever screen you're on, such as navigation, and click around to make the change. The XF has no suspension setting, but other functions you might want to change while driving come in the form of buttons near the shift knob. The center control panel has the most important of the ventilation and audio controls, and all other functions are in the touch-screen menus. (A navigation system is standard on the higher trim levels and a $1,500 option on the Luxury, but the touch-screen is standard.) The home menu has the more specific climate controls, like the heated seats and steering wheel, and the stereo's basic display. For finer control of these features, as well as the navigation and other vehicle preferences, select among the Audio, Climate, Comm[unications], Navigation and Vehicle menus.
Though better than average, the navigation system and interface aren't perfect: New menu selections slide into view, when they should just appear instantly. Also, some of the onscreen buttons are too small, including the map zoom keys. Large physical zoom buttons alongside the screen would be a worthy addition. Also, the directory and displays for the optional iPod connectivity aren't as good as on some other car stereos. That said, having the choice of an analog audio input, an iPod controller and a USB connector all under the center armrest is excellent. It comes with the optional Bowers & Wilkins premium stereo — a nice effort by a British supplier known for years as B&W. Materials Quality Overall, the cabin surfaces and materials are higher in quality than the S-Type's — and the XK's in some ways. Though its size is borderline overpowering, the real aluminum trim is hard to argue with. Likewise, all of the XF's wood trim is genuine, and my Supercharged trim level's dark Rich Oak combined with the gray and silver pallet for the most contemporary look. The less impressive aspects are the faux-metal "Tungsten" plastic trim and buttons (neither the worst nor the best I've seen) and a misalignment of my car's cupholder cover — possibly the result of abuse from a prior driver.
The cars I drove shared the soft-grain leather and perforated center seat panels that are necessary for the heated/cooled seat option (standard on the Supercharged). I didn't experience the base XF Luxury's leather, which Jaguar describes as bond-grain rather than soft-grain. Even that trim level gets 10-way-adjustable power front seats, and the Supercharged adds a four-way power lumbar control and a driver's cushion-length adjustment. I was quite comfortable in the XF. Unlike the compact X-Type and full-size XJ sedans, both of which are snug for their size and class, the XF is reasonably roomy — comparable to its German midsize competitors. Backseat headroom is a few tenths of an inch less than the other guys, at 37.4 inches, but it's roomier than you might expect looking at the car's "fast" roofline. The legroom is workable, but the high center floor hump makes the backseat more of a two-seater. This is pretty common. Rear View & High-Tech Aids The car's high trunk obscures the rear view somewhat, but parking is aided by standard sonar sensors back there. The Luxury and Premium Luxury are eligible for the optional Advanced Vision Package, which is standard on the Supercharged. It adds front sonar sensors and a backup camera. The latter is always good to have, but it's not the best I've seen: The image is washed out, and there are no markings to indicate where your fenders will be. Along with bi-xenon headlights, the $1,800 package also includes Blind Spot Monitor, which uses radar to detect cars in your blind spots and illuminate an icon on either side mirror.
As in all other cars with this feature, I found that when the mirrors were adjusted properly, the light came on when a car was visible in the mirror, making it pointless. I finally realized that it does its job as advertised when you adjust your mirrors improperly, showing the sides of the car. This way the light comes on when another car is next to you but not in the mirror. Unlike Audi's system, this one doesn't flash a bright light if you signal to change into an occupied lane. Overall, this is one of the least useful new features in years, and one that encourages drivers to not check their blind spots directly. I'm not impressed. Going & Stopping The XF shares its drivetrain with the XK, and that's a very good thing. The 300-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 has plenty of guts and a wonderful exhaust note, though Jaguar seems to have dialed the volume down on the sedan so it doesn't get fatiguing in normal driving. The supercharged version adds another 120 hp. Jaguar cites 0-60 mph times of 6.2 seconds for the regular engine and 5.1 seconds for the XF Supercharged. Because it's entirely aluminum and 350 pounds lighter, the XK does it in 5.9 and 4.9 seconds, respectively. The regular engine delivers EPA-estimated mileage of 16/25 mpg city/highway, and the supercharged one rates 15/23 mpg.
The six-speed automatic is a high point. As in the XK, it's most impressive in concert with the normally aspirated engine, which requires more logic to make the most of the available power. One of the best automatics I've driven, this one always seems to know what gear you want it to be in. Where Drive is conservative and saves fuel, the S (Sport) mode holds on to low gears to higher engine rpm and kicks down more readily. There are also shift paddles on the steering wheel if you prefer to shift yourself, but these automatic modes make it less attractive than usual. The gearbox also works well on the XF Supercharged, but its more powerful engine makes the transmission's behavior less critical.
One shortcoming is that the rear-wheel-drive XF doesn't come in an all-wheel-drive version as the competition from Audi, BMW and Mercedes all do. What it does offer is a snow mode, activated via a button below the gear-selector knob. It makes the accelerator less sensitive and keeps the transmission in high gears to decrease torque at the wheels and minimize slippage. The standard electronic stability system has traction control with a Trac DSC setting that allows some wheelspin, which can be helpful in loose snow. Ride & Handling The XF Premium Luxury has comfortable ride quality. Equipped with standard 19-inch alloy wheels, it's likely firmer than the base model, which has 18-inch alloy wheels. Even though the XF Supercharged comes with 20-inch wheels and even lower tire sidewalls, it also includes an automatic adaptive suspension that smoothes out rough roads but reacts quickly to changing conditions. It's most important that this system automatically keep up with its environment and the car's movement, controlling body roll and maximizing tire contact, but I'm surprised Jaguar doesn't include a manual soft/firm or comfort/sport setting. When people pay for technology, they want to play with it and show it off.
Though its weight and center of gravity aren't as low as the XK's, the XF handles nicely, with good front-to-rear balance and impressive grip, especially from the Supercharged's summer performance tires. Powering out of a turn is glee-inducing, reminding you why rear-wheel-drive still reigns in luxury sedans. The steering has decent feedback and is appropriately power-assisted at all speeds.
The Supercharged has an additional stability system mode called Dynamic that allows the car to spin its wheels and slide around a bit. This might not be the kind of car that needs a competition-style mode, but I found it useful because it's so darn easy to spin the wheels when accelerating into a turn — say, at an intersection. The engine generates a healthy 413 pounds-feet of peak torque at 4,000 rpm, and Jaguar says 86 percent of it comes at 2,000 rpm. The normal stability mode is so sensitive it clamps down on any loss of traction, and at times it's overly intrusive. Dynamic allows a little slippage that's less of an interruption overall. Safety As of this report, the XF hasn't been crash tested. It has the full complement of airbags, including frontal and side-impact torso bags for the front occupants, and curtains that protect front and rear occupants in a side impact. Antilock brakes are standard with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution. As mentioned, stability is standard and a Blind Spot Monitor is optional.
Optional Adaptive Cruise Control uses radar to maintain a selectable following distance from the car ahead, even if it slows down. A function of this feature, Forward Alert, sounds a warning if you're closing too quickly on another car or obstacle. I triggered it once: When checking my blind spot over my shoulder to change lanes (oh, the irony), the car in front of me slowed quickly, and it's possible I would have hit him — not probable, but possible. When it comes to this type of feature, I always note that it may be worth the money if it saves you just one time. Even an insurance deductible is expensive. Unfortunately, so's this option: $2,200. It may be worthwhile if you want adaptive cruise control, too, but that's a lot of dough even for a safety feature.
Another interesting feature, Automatic Speed Limiter, allows you to set a speed above which the car won't go. Where Audi has long offered warning beeps, this feature physically limits the car's speed. It may not save you, but it might save you from a speeding ticket. For safety, if you stand on the accelerator the limiter is defeated and you shoot ahead. Cargo At 17.7 cubic feet, the XF's trunk is generous. The Audi A6's measures 15.9 cubic feet, the BMW 5 Series is 14.0 and the Mercedes E-Class is 15.9. Also generous is the XF's inclusion of a folding backseat as standard equipment. It's optional on the BMW and Mercedes. The backrest release knobs are hidden and a bit hard to reach, though, under the rear deck. XF in the Market The XF is a more attractive car in many ways than the S-Type it replaces. That's to be expected. More important is that it's a better car now, compared to its competitors, than the S-Type ever was. Whether it's worth several thousand dollars more than an A6 or 528i depends on what you value. Those two have six cylinders and less power, but come with better gas mileage of 18/27 and 18/28 mpg, respectively. The Mercedes E350 likewise has a less-powerful six-cylinder but has comparable mileage to the V-8-powered XF and costs more to boot.
One of the best reasons to buy a Jaguar, as always, may be that they're less common and thus more unique than most cars in their class. When it comes to luxury, exclusivity matters.