First Drive

I'm seated with one of Jaguar's top brass. A mere 14 seconds later he wants to throw me out a window. I notice a pair of SAS types in the shadows politely looking this way. I'm certain these men are going to beat the stuffing out of me, politely of course. The English and their lovely manners.

It's a gift really, the ability to make an immediate impression, good or otherwise. I simply asked what kind of cars brought us to dinner. I had no idea as I was literally pushed into a car while messaging the office. It was dark and those two glasses of wine had just kicked in. It could have been an abduction for all I knew.

I do recall the perfect contours of the rear seats, the gorgeous leather stitching and the rear fold-down trays, surroundings typical of a private jet. I was aware of the subtle accent lighting in the footwells and around the doors, an ethereal blue glow that made sitting back there quite wonderful. Leaving the hotel was punctuated with a distinct V8 soundtrack. Maybe this was a new breed of executive transport, a sexed-up and stretched sports car.

My last interaction with a Jaguar XJ was 24 years ago on the day of my wedding. My soon-to-be father-in-law had a pair of them. The XJ was the car to be seen in. We looked so damn cool.

A lot has changed in the last two decades. Dad's Jags are long gone, replaced by antiseptic Mercedes products. But the image of the XJ as an icon of coolness has remained.

"In a way we're terrified of our past," says Ian Callum, Jag's lead designer. "We have the E-Type's legacy hanging over us. For some, that was the defining moment for Jaguar. Could we ever do anything that cool again?"

And for a time, it seemed Jag did everything it could to distance itself from the vaunted E-Type. Its cars became insanely luxurious, more lifestyle statements than serious driving machines.

"We want to get back to building sporty luxury cars," says managing director Mike Driscoll.

Unlike Mercedes, BMW, or Audi, the XJ comes off as a handcrafted piece, something special you'll want to hand down to your kids. Or maybe not. Despite a high level of poshness, the XJ behaves like a proper sport sedan, a fact revealed on the perversely twisted tarmac in the Malibu hills. These roads were birthed for lightweights like Volkswagen's Mk I GTI or older 911s. I thought driving the two-ton XJ in these hills seemed like using a jackhammer to fix a wristwatch.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

My driving buddy (a former limo driver) had ferried more than a few high rollers though these hills. Charging the first series of 40-degree corners, I was certain he was suicidal. After 30 minutes of near death, I suggested he might want to be alone. He promptly threw me the key.

"You try to unstick it then," was all he said.

I would never pick an XJ as a canyon carver. There are much sharper tools available. However, the XJ doesn't believe in the laws of physics. No matter how insane the maneuver, this big Jag refused to budge. In truth, it was a bit unnerving, as things this big don't typically react well to such treatment. You'd think the XJ had been ripping through mountains since its conception (which I can assure you, it has not). That whole thing about building sporty cars, Jag can check that off the to-do list.

Jaguar engineers have augmented the XJ's underpinnings (unequal A-arms in front, multi-link rear) with forged aluminum bits and manages everything with its marvelous Adaptive Dynamics active damping system. It provides a range of damping between a firmer sport setting and a softer setting for ride comfort. The car changes demeanor instantly, transitioning from hyper-comfy to rumble-ready. Coupled with an enhanced variable ratio power-assisted steering system, the XJ has an athletic on-center feel, perhaps a bit light, but nicely balanced at speed. Rolling on handsome 20-inch alloy wheels with staggered tires (245/40 in front and 275/35 in back), the ride is surprising firm.

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