Jaguar is taking it on the chin.

Actually, another part of the anatomy comes to mind, but the British automaker has enough trouble without being the butt of any more jokes. (OK, so we slipped it in anyway.)

For years Jaguar (``Jag you are`` to the true aficionado, ``Jag war`` to the unwashed masses) was a much-admired, much-ogled hunk of hardware that didn`t run very well or very often, but it reeked of prestige, status and the luxury image.

The car got better as the manufacturer started paying more attention to such details as quality. It made a comeback in the mid-80s, such a strong comeback that Ford opened up its coffers and plunked down $3 billion for the right to purchase the company and keep it out of the hands of arch-rival General Motors.

Some say Ford overpaid, but considering that the automaker will start showing a return on its investment in a relatively short period of time-say 200 or 300 years-the $3 billion was a small price.

Anyway, we had the opportunity to test-drive the Jaguar SJ6 Sovereign, the middle-price entry in the XJ6, Sovereign, Vanden Plas four-door-sedan series. We were pleased with the room and comfort. And enough onlookers were caught gazing fondly at the machine to provide evidence the car is still held in high regard.

Other than the fact that the Sovereign feels as if it weighs only an ounce or two less than a barge, and its 17 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway rating avoids the federal gas-guzzler tax by a mere 0.01 m.p.g., slipping behind the wheel of the Jaguar sedan is one of those joys few get to experience.

The problem is fewer and fewer people are getting, or even wanting to get, the chance to slip into a Jaguar. The British automaker`s sales are being battered by the federal luxury tax. That`s the tithe that must be paid on the purchase of exotic goodies whose price tag exceeds certain levels, which includes cars and boats, but excludes professional athletes.

The government collects a 10 percent tax on the amount that a car`s price exceeds $30,000. The cheapest Jaguar is the XJ6 at $43,000; the most expensive is the XJS convertible at $63,600. That means that in addition to all the other taxes you must pay, you must pay a $1,300 to $3,360 luxury tax on the purchase of any Jaguar.

Jaguar sales are down 55 percent this year, according to spokesman Mike Cook.

``All of our cars are at the upper end of the price scale, so the luxury tax has hurt us quite badly and has pushed sales down very hard,`` Cook said. It long was said the wealthy paid no attention to such obstacles as price or taxes to obtain the vehicle of their choice. No more.

``It may be that that has become an old attitude, that the well-to-do will do what they want, and if they want a Jaguar, they`ll pay for it,`` Cook said.

In order to lure consumers back into the showrooms, Jaguar on June 1 launched an incentive program of sorts. The factory will reimburse buyers the 10 percent luxury tax they pay. The offer is good through Aug. 31. A similar offer by Rolls-Royce only lasts until July 15, but then the 10 percent luxury tax on a Silver Spur can run $13,600.

In addition to the tax, there are a couple of other obstacles in Jaguar`s path-Lexus and Infiniti. For $40,000 consumers can purchase a Lexus LS400 or Infiniti Q45 with just as much luxury equipment as a Jaguar, though without the decades-old tradition of prestige.

``Lexus and Infiniti certainly have had an effect on our market,`` Cook admitted. ``We have more producers fighting to attract the same people in the marketplace.``

In addition to refunding the luxury tax, Jaguar has tried a few other programs, such as offering those who own 1988 sedans a $5,000 certificate that can be applied toward the purchase of a 1991 model.

But the program getting the most attention is leasing.

``We now h ve our own national leasing program that we never had before,`` Cook said. ``It used to be that it cost more to lease than own the car, but now with factory support (money), that isn`t the case anymore. With leasing you can say people are buying convenience. They can drive the car and then turn it back or buy it at the end of the lease term.``

Of course, if high price and a high tax are roadblocks, why doesn`t Jaguar bite the bullet and either come out with a new, lower-price car, or strip some of the frills from one of its cars to come out with a price leader? ``There`s been some consideration to coming out with a car like the Mark II that we offered in the `50s and `60s, a low-price car,`` Cook said. ``But even if we decided to do that, it would be a few years before we could bring one out.

``As for taking things out of a car to lower the price, the person who buys a Jaguar wants a certain level of style, performance and equipment, and it would be difficult to cut any of those out of the car,`` he said.

What about Ford Motor Co. coming up with an infusion of cash to help Jaguar get over the hump? General Motors Corp. just kicked in about $900 million to help out ailing Saab, the Swedish automaker it bought into after deciding $3 billion was a bit steep for Jaguar.

``Ford has helped,`` Cook replied. ``If it hadn`t purchased Jaguar, imagine the difficulties we`d be in at this point. But under the agreement Jaguar is to remain a self-governing entity that runs its own show. It`s unlikely Jaguar would ask for an infusion of cash.``

In recent days there`s been growing concern over the luxury tax and the effect it has been having on U.S. boat builders, which have been virtually shuttered by the tax. Layoffs have been monumental.

Jaguar will just have to hope a groundswell develops to repeal the tax.

As for the 1991 XJ6 Sovereign we test drove, the base price is $47,800. Standard equipment includes a 4-liter, 223 h.p. six-cylinder, 24-valve aluminum-alloy engine teamed with four-speed automatic transmission. Once up to passing speed the 4-liter is smooth and quiet and powerful. Getting the 4,000 pounds up to passing speed is the trick. Press the accelerator hard and there`s some lag time as the horses prepare to pull the poundage into action. Pleasant enough ride and handling, but you feel the weight in the wheel in corners and turns, and especially when called upon to park the machine.