Common wisdom says that if you're a small company, you have the advantage of being quick and agile enough to react to changing markets. In the auto industry, however, being small brings its own problems. Technology costs big money and the fewer vehicle units that you can spread it over, the more you have to charge for each vehicle.
Being small should mean that you can change course more quickly, but often a lack of resources means that if you happen to zig when the rest of the world zags, you can find yourself out of business. Jaguar sells around 65,000 cars per year, making it a small player in the world of automobile manufacture. Last year, Ford cast off both Jaguar and Land Rover, selling them to Indian truck manufacturer Tata. If at first blush the concept of a stylish and iconoclastically British sports car being built by an Indian investor known for the (often garishly decorated) heavy-duty trucks that ply India's roadways seems incongruous, let me introduce you to the new Jaguar XFR.
Completely modern in its sweeping curves, the XF returns Jaguar to the idea of the sport sedan, a concept the company embraced in the late 1950s when it introduced the Jaguar 3.4 and later Mk II 3.8 sedans. The idea was to provide enthusiasts a sports car with four doors and enough seats for the entire family to ride along. These are pretty much standard in every luxury carmaker's lineup today, but 50 years ago it was a radical idea. It was also an idea that worked and the Mk II Jaguar, with its flashing wire wheels, tight and graceful curves and screaming dohc inline six-cylinder engine holds a special place in every Jaguar enthusiast's heart.
The 2009 model year XF was introduced with Jaguar's tried-and-true 4.2-liter V8, which will continue to be available in naturally aspirated form in the $52,000 base version. The XF Premium, priced at $57,000, will have an all-new 5.0-liter naturally aspirated V8, called the AJ-V8 GEN III, delivering 385 hp and a zero-to-60 time of 5.2 seconds.
The XFR, priced at $80,000, pushes performance even further. Its 5.0-liter supercharged V8 produces 510 hp and 461 lb-ft of torque that reaches the ground through a new ZF six-speed automatic transmission and an electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential. Zero to 60 mph comes in an effortless 4.7 seconds. The XFR also features unique 20-inch wheels, revised bumpers and front air intakes, side skirts and a trunk-lid spoiler.
Jaguar uncovered some twisty and challenging roads near Nice in the south of France to show off the car's abilities. Gleaming in the soft morning light of Provence, it looks better in sheet metal than it does in its press photographs. Its curves and creases add highlights to the smoothly aerodynamic form. Inside, the interior doesn't disappoint with its quality and finish. The materials are all first-rate and details like the stitching of the leather and the (optional) suede headliner are exceptional. There is, after all, a certain level of interior refinement is expected. Unfortunately, Jaguar has succumbed to the trend of keyless push-button starters, a boy-racer item that seems out of place. As the engine starts, the vents in the dash rotate into open positions and the JaguarDrive Selector rises from the center console. It might impress your neighbors, but to me seems a superfluous contrivance that's totally unnecessary in this Jaguar. The six-speed automatic works just fine in automatic mode and it can also be controlled through paddles on the back of the steering wheel, for those times when you want to take matters onto your own fingertips.
On these narrow roads, a good car will shrink down and work with the driver. Happily, this is a place where Jaguar's heritage shines and the XFR proves its mettle. The XF's swooping shape means that it does take some time to get used to not being able to quite see the car's corners before charging apexes with abandon, but soon the XFR begins to cooperate and offer a sports-car level fun. The steering, while precise and providing of feedback, feels a bit too light as speeds increase, but overall this is an impressive machine with prodigious limits.
Aside from all the fun on a twisting road and the quality of the interior, the prodigious power and torque produced by the supercharged engine make the car massively fast. Roll onto the throttle pedal at any speed and response is both instantaneous and effective.
The XF model is critical for Jaguar. With the demise of the compact X-Type, the XF is the entry-level offering from the company and therefore must be counted upon to produce the lion's share of sales. Just as the objective of BMW's M5 is to boost BMW's bread-and-butter 5 Series sales, the XFR's objective is providing a halo for the entire XF lineup. It's not something that Jaguar can afford to get wrong. Fortunately, thanks in large part to a management who cares about cars and driving and engineers who understand what makes a Jaguar a Jaguar, the XFR delivers on its promises while remaining true to its heritage.