All of a sudden, the future is starting to look mighty bright for Jaguar. Pummeled by Lexus and Infiniti and battered by the recession, sales of the British-made luxury cars had dropped by 50 percent since the mid-'80s. When word got out that Jaguar owners ranked their cars among the world's best, sales started climbing again. That happened in December, when a survey conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates showed Jaguar was in the top 10 in customer satisfaction. That survey was no fluke. Much has changed for Jaguar in the last two years. Quality has vastly improved. Safety features such as air bags and anti-lock brakes have been added. And for 1993, Jaguar is offering two very special high performance cars. One is the limited production XJR-S. The other is this week's test car, the XJ12 luxury sports sedan, which features a race-bred V-12. The XJ12, which is arriving at Jaguar dealerships as a 1994 model, is the first 12-cylinder sedan Jaguar has made for the United States since 1979. In recent years, buyers of luxury sedans who also wanted high performance had to turn to BMW, Infiniti or Mercedes-Benz because Jaguar only offered a six-cylinder engine. The others offered high-tech 32-valve quad-cam V-8s. The addition of the XJ12 - at a price the Germans can't match and with a level of style the Japanese can't equal - makes Jaguar a force to be reckoned within the high performance luxury car market. Once you drive the XJ12 and tap into its seemingly unlimited reserves of power and discover its capable and competent handling, you'll lust after it. Few of today's cars inspire that kind of passion. PERFORMANCE You need just two words to describe the XJ12's performance: intense and immense. Zero-to-60 mph flashes by in under 7 seconds, according to Autocar & Motor, Britain's biggest auto magazine. The British model has subtle differences, but it is basically the same as the American version of the car. According to Jaguar, the fuel-injected V-12 engine is rated at 301 horsepower. At idle, it's not as smooth as a Lexus, Infiniti or Cadillac's Northstar V-8. But it smooths out as soon as the tachometer needle rises above 900 rpm. The wonderful sound of British machinery is one of the things that has lured luxury car buyers to Jaguars. The XJ12 makes all the right noises. If you drive the car aggressively, you'll hear a nice turbine like whine and muffled sounds of air being drawn through the engine as you rev it up. Although Ford bought Jaguar in 1989, there are parts in the XJ12 still made by General Motors, which has supplied parts to Jaguar for more than 20 years. The computer-controlled four-speed automatic transmission is one of them. No matter, because this transmission is an excellent gearbox that delivers smooth and well-timed shifts. I did not calculate the fuel mileage, but if you are concerned with fluctuations in the price of unleaded premium, perhap s something in the Hyundai line would be more suitable. You don't buy a car like this for fuel economy purposes. HANDLING For Jaguar, it was no simple matter of bolting up its coveted V-12 engine to the standard XJ6 body. More than 140 inner body panels had to be redesigned to accommodate the 6.0-liter V-12. In the process, Jaguar engineers added a new rack and pinion steering system made by ZF of Germany. Though very tight and responsive, the steering wheel is so easy to turn that the XJ12 can be steered with one finger. A little more weight here would greatly improve the car's over-the-road feel. The four-wheel, power-assisted antilock disc brakes, however, are fast-acting and strong. Like the six-cylinder version, the XJ12 sports a firm four-wheel independent suspension system. I don't believe the XJ12 is the best handling V-12 sedan available - it's outclassed by BMW's 750iL - but the average driver likely never will push the Jaguar hard enough to find its shortcomings. If you accelerate quickly and turn sharply- not an ordinary maneuver - the XJ12 can lose its poise. The same thing can happen if you brake hard and turn sharply, such as you might to avoid an accident. A BMW 750iL, by comparison, simply will take such abuse in stride and with such finesse you would never know you were asking the car to perform extraordinarily. FIT AND FINISH Not much has changed here. The XJ12 is outfitted almost exactly the same way as the Jaguar's top-of-the-line six-cylinder Vanden Plas sedan. With the XJ12, you'll get Jaguar's full luxury treatment. That includes Jaguar's most luxurious wood and leather, plus fold-out picnic tables attached to the backs of the bucket seats. The XJ12 offers a full array of power accessories, but as in the Vanden Plas, some of the switches and buttons - such as the ones for the seat adjustment and car's computer - are in awkward places. I noticed the air conditioner worked better in the car than in any previous Jaguar I have driven. In other Jags, the air conditioner cooled the car just enough to keep you from complaining. But in the test car, the air conditioner felt strong enough to form icicles on the ceiling. I looked under the hood and noticed Jaguar has finally installed some modern air-conditioning equipment. On previous V-12s, the air conditioner's compressor was the old, huge unit GM quit using in its own cars more than a decade ago. Back in the early '70s when Jaguar was developing the V-12, someone at Jaguar apparently plucked one of these inefficient old contraptions out of a 1972 Buick Riviera and ran with it. If you are interested in a V-12 sedan, here are you choices: BMW's 750iL, which goes for about $80,000, and Mercedes-Benz' 600SEL, priced at $129,000. Both German cars are a bit larger than the Jaguar and have more in the way of technology. But they are also a bit stodgy. The Jag is lithe,lean and agile. As for class, there is simply no comparison. Jaguar wins going away. Truett's tip: The XJ12, with its powerful and lightweight V-12, offers tremendous performance, sports-sedan handling and classic British styling. The XJ12 is not as technically advanced as V-12sedans from Germany, but it sells for thousands of dollars less.
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