Until recently, Jaguars virtually came with the faint smell of old man, stale cologne and boiled sweets. Jaguar lovers will drone on about Le Mans in the 1950s and that the Mk2 was the bank robbers' getaway car of choice in the 1960s, but in case anybody hadn't noticed, that was long, long ago.

But under the new Indian ownership, there's a renaissance: the Leaping Cat is finally showing its claws after decades limping through the automotive wilderness. The XF is the car that can take the fight to BMW and Mercedes, and with a little German input could blow them clean off the map.

Because with a major rework Arden didn't even need the 5-liter XFR; they have turned the lesser SV8 into the 550-hp Arden AJ21. And as the needle raced past the 130-mph mark and the induction whine screamed over the bass-heavy Spitfire of a V8 engine that gains new life with the new sports exhaust, this Jaguar suddenly seemed the youngest, hippest cat in the field.

The base 4.2-liter is more or less Spitfire vintage. It is so far beyond its sell-by date it's grown mold and started to smell. But with a little bore and stroke increase and a larger twin-screw supercharger, Arden has created a 4.5-liter masterpiece. Of course it's more complex than that and the new crankshaft, pistons, con-rods and cooling systems mean this surgery can only happen in-house at the company base in Krefeld. For those who can't make the trip, Arden will ship a larger supercharger, good for 470 hp, which can be fitted at your friendly local Jag dealer worldwide. In truth that should be enough, but, well, you can never really have too much power.

Because this car will blast through the 60-mph mark in 4.8 seconds and without the interference of a top-speed limiter will go through the 183-mph mark with ease. That's way down from Jag's own XFR, which topped 225 mph on the salt flats, but then again that test car was hardly standard. And if it's a taste of things to come when Arden gets to work on that new machine, we'll take it as a good sign.

As it is, this AJ21 comes laden with three things BMW forgot to include in its own technical M5 masterpiece: character, torque and style. That starts with Jaguar's own factory work, with the interior bathed in blue light and the gear selector that rises from the floor like a megastar in concert. With a push of the pulsing starter button, the V8 comes to life with a chugging, menacing vibration that somehow embodies the big cat. Each blip of the throttle brings a gunfire crack. Even though, like most modern cars, it won't let you stand on the brake, gas it and slide off into the distance, it's still mighty impressive on a standing start and all the way through the rev range thanks to gloopy dollops of torque.

The peak torque figure of 472 lb-ft represents almost 30 percent more than the M5 can muster, and that's something you can feel at every opportunity for overtaking. This is the faster car in the real world, as you don't have to think about flipping the paddles for a downchange; just bury the throttle in the thick carpet and the car takes off like, well, a scalded cat.

Epic 15.4-inch rotors sit inside the front wheels and 13.4-inchers in the rears, mated to four piston calipers at both ends, too, so it can get the speed off just as quickly and it feels lighter on its feet than the opposition under heavy braking. That's almost certainly due to a re-jigged suspension keeping the car flat and smooth under heavy load. Arden's own patented system comes with a 30mm drop on a standard car that was firm in any case. Then there are the 21-inch three-piece rims clothed in Dunlop SP SportMaxx tires that provide acres of grip, pin-sharp handling, and ask for just a touch of muscle on turn-in. It transforms the driving experience and turns a sporting saloon into a road warrior. It's still not quite as razor sharp as that of the Bavarian competition, but then again it's close enough for some and provides a more satisfying, meaty drive. There's 4,056 pounds of padding to soak up impacts, so it doesn't crash over ruts and bumps, but this Jaguar has newfound precision to go with its aggression, and it's a devastating combination.

A wet public road was no place to test the theory, but I get the feeling with the gadgets turned off this could be a monster drift car in expert hands. It's that easy to place, that responsive, and Arden's fatter tiller was all it took to give near perfect steering feel. As for the rest of the interior, Arden can and will do anything you like. Only the threat of legal action prevented us from taking pictures of some of the more ostentatious two-tone interiors within vehicles parked on the Arden lot. On this particular XF they satisfied themselves with the steering wheel and a few choice exterior mods, including the famous Leaper placed on the nose. That proud cat standing atop the hood looks ready to spear pedestrians in a full frontal impact, but Arden has rigged things so it snaps off in a minor impact--and convinced the notoriously stringent TV to let it through.

As for the rest of the front, it is still far from convincing. The XF needed the guardsman-sharp creases that the prototype so proudly displayed before manufacturing reality kicked in, and that glossy chrome grille doesn't really help. But Arden has given the car a badly needed testosterone injection with new side skirts and a rear wing, which will do little or nothing for high-speed stability, yet looks the business and gives the car a visual edge over the rest of the competition.

The best news is that Arden can now set to work on a whole new engine, and, building on Jaguar's latest work, you wouldn't bet against a 600-hp super saloon breaking cover from Krefeld before too long. So it looks like the cat is finally ready to leap back from the automotive wilderness, bury the memory of the E-Type once and for all, and provide cars fit for a bank robber once again.

Arden AJ21

* Layout
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive

* Engine
4.5-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve.Custom crankshaft, pistons, rods, Arden twin-screw supercharger, induction, exhaust, software

* Transmission
Six-speed automatic, helical limited-slip differential, strengthened rear axle

* Suspension
Arden sport kit

* Brakes
Six-piston calipers, 15.4-inchrotors (f), four-piston calipers, 13.4-inch rotors (r)

* Wheels and Tires
Arden Speedline, 9.0x21 (f), 10x21 (r)Dunlop SP SportMaxx, 255/35 (f), 295/30 (r)

* Exterior
Arden side skirts, rear wing, hood-mounted Leaper ornament

* Interior
Arden sport steering wheel

Peak Power: 550 hpPeak Torque: 472 lb-ft0-60 mph: 4.8 sec.Top Speed: 183 mph*Arden data

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