The XF has a huge responsibility. It will replace the S-Type, a car that was decent to drive (particularly in supercharged R form) but was styled awkwardly and sold far too slowly. Sales have been nose-diving for some time, especially in the US, as customers have been tempted by much more modern, more exciting machinery from Germany and Japan.

Jaguar needed to shake free from the whole retro image which marked out owners as being retired dentists instead of dynamic, young and sexy. When Ian Callum took charge of design, he did so on the condition that he could make Jaguar desirable again. After a couple of subtle tweaks to existing designs, the first proper car to emerge with his signature was the XK. And what a success that's been.

Since its launch in early 2006, the XK has played its part in stifling losses at Jaguar, but the company knew a sports car alone wouldn't save its skin. It needed a volume seller, one that could poach BMW, Audi, Lexus and Mercedes customers. It needed a new face, a new direction. This is it.

Even under unforgiving artificial lighting, the XF's complex amalgam of swoops, curves and creases comes to life. Callum is at pains to point out every detail. From the way a single line can be drawn from the headlamp right the way back and around the rear lamp clusters, to the curvature of the glass, it's clear he's had his own way with this. "It was often a fight," he says. "But we knew that getting the design right was paramount to its success and we eventually got the looks we wanted."

The gaping grille is inspired by the XJ6 Series 1 and looks mean enough. There's a Bentley-esque mesh panel within it, with a simple cat's head badge in the upper center. From this, let your eyes trace back over the hood's pronounced power bulge, while at each side the sculpted curves blend together.

At the rear is a pair of shamelessly Aston Martin-style lamps joined in the center by a tasteful, thick strip of chrome. A rather large 'leaper' sits astride this and, Callum tells us, the 'Jaguar' script will probably be ditched altogether once the car becomes more widely recognizable. The leaping cat will, at last, come of age as a brand identifier in its own right.

But as impressive as the outside undoubtedly is, the interior really hits you between the eyes. Packed with new technology, the XF's cabin sets it apart from all its competitors. Classy, uncluttered and totally tactile, you won't want to get out once you're in. Eschewing the done-to-death cliff-face dashboards of every Jaguar over the past four decades, this one is clean and modern. The dash sits lower and swoops around in one simple, graceful line. Once the car registers that the driver is on board (thanks to the keyless entry fob), an illuminating ring surrounding the start button pulses red, just like a heartbeat. Press it and the engine rumbles into life, but something else happens: the air vents swivel around to do their job and a cylindrical metal gear selector rises effortlessly from the center console. It's totally, utterly cool.

Wood and leather still abound (there's more timber here than any Jag since the 1960s' MkII), but the look is contemporary. The front seats are smaller, giving a greater sense of space. The center console is nice and high, making the driver feel as though this is a sports car rather than a sedan. The steering wheel has been poached from the XK. It's at night, though, when the XF really comes to life.

Using cellphone technology, the controls are outlined in a solid neon blue. 'Theater' lighting spills upwards from the door pockets (again in blue) and the whole vibe is high-class nightclub. Everything looks and feels gorgeous-just like a Bang & Olufsen hi-fi system-you can't help touching everything. Jaguar has also been working closely with Apple to provide the coolest iPod integration ever seen in a car.

All this would be a complete waste of time if the XF drives like a dog. We won't get to test it for a few months, but the video footage we've seen shows chassis development guru Mike Cross powersliding, tire-smoking and generally behaving like a hooligan. The XF's sporting credentials seem to be intact and official performance figures are impressive.

Four engines will be available: a 210-hp V6 diesel, a 240-hp gasoline V6, a 300-hp V8 and the flagship 420-hp supercharged S-V8, which rushes from rest to 60 mph in just five seconds. Prices are in line with the outgoing S-Type (retired dentists can expect serious discounts on those). Rumors in the UK are that an M5-baiting R version with at least 500 hp is waiting in the wings. That really will be a Jag worth waiting for.

Ford has Jaguar up for sale and interest levels have risen sharply now that the XF has finally been unveiled. It's worth pointing out that the XF was developed by a young, dynamic team of car nuts. The body was penned mainly by Adam Hatton, the interior the responsibility of Alister Whelan-both in their early 30s, and it shows in every aspect of the design. That Ian Callum was able to channel their creativity to produce such a triumphant design means we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Jaguar is back-with a vengeance.

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