What is it?
It’s Jaguar’s new design hero – the S-type is dead, long live the XF. But does it drive like it looks?
The XF’s all-new shape has successfully jumped a couple of design generations to re-establish modernity as a core value at Jaguar for the first time since Sir William Lyons was in charge.
And the first question I had was answered before we left the car park: this car is as fine to behold in the real world as it was on the motor show stand. Better looking even. As our test car stood in the parking area of Jaguar’s Paradise Valley test base in Arizona, where we were provided with our first drive in the car, the delicacy of its graceful shape made the cars around it look coarse and ordinary.
The ante, then, had been upped before we’d even set out. Can the XF’s behind-the-wheel experience match its incredible fusion of beauty, grace and visual endeavour?
What’s it like?
"Drive", they said. So I did. In the 4.2-litre, 420bhp, supercharged V8 version of the Jaguar XF — called SV8 — with the 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds and governed top speed of 155 mph. It’s due on sale in March at the competitive starting price of £54,900, and orders are already building.
The length and confidence of the long lines that define its coupe-like body (the front and rear screen rake angles are almost identical to the XK coupe’s) make the car seem low, but it isn’t. You slip as easily behind the wheel as you do in any other modern car.
The driver’s bucket seat looks a little meagre and uninviting, but luckily it’s the only unprepossessing feature of the entire interior. In any case, it’s quite comfortable in a class-average sort of way. Cabin space turns out to be class average, too. I can sit comfortably behind a driver's seat set for myself, but it’s a snug fit for four full-sized adults.
Press the SV8’s starter button and two things happen. The engine fires and settles to a smoothly distant V8 beat, and the transmission’s rotary switch, until now flush with the console top, grows upward. Twist it to D, and the car creeps off the mark like any big-engined auto. If all you want is a smooth power delivery, that is all you need ever do.
But if you’re a keen driver, the SV8’s transmission offers plenty of options. One is to twist the transmission to “Drive-Sport”, which holds gears longer and provides better engine braking. Beyond that, you can start using the paddle-shifts manually. Work them at any time, either to hold gears, or just to hear the F1-style automated engine blip.
On top of that, the SV8 has a Dynamic Mode which reconfigures the transmission for quicker shifts and yet sportier use of the engine. The DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) is also altered to a special Track setting that allows you to play the hero by allowing a whiff of on-limit sliding in corners before intervening.
The mighty V8 is the car’s focal point, of course, providing copious amounts of smooth thrust almost in silence at low revs, but with a satisfying rumble when bigger demands are made.
Our test route was dogged by the threat of motorcycle cops, but it was still fun to soar along sinuous, smooth-surfaced canyon roads with the engine turning between 3500rpm and the 6250 redline, millimetre movements of the fingertips dictating which gear you’d use. This will prove, we believe, to be one of the XF’s defining features.
Handling? The supercharged XF feels just like an XK8, which is no wonder because it has the same suspension components, maybe re-rated for saloon duty, but just as good as the sports car.
It drives like a powerful and wide-tracked rear-drive car, with fundamentally neutral handling that graduates to a small amount of stabilising understeer in the fastest corners. The SV8 will tail-slide in a stable and predictable way under full power in 50-60 mph corners, but only on deliberate command. There’s a precision and a faithfulness about this car’s controls that belies its size and weight, and makes it feel as agile as a small car.
The steering, especially, is brilliant, weighted nicely with a delicious helping of feel just beside the straight-ahead. It flatters your judgement by cornering perfectly on the line you chose going in. Predictability can be an unflattering term, but applied to the XF it’s a synonym for precision.
So it handles, but what about the ride? Jaguar meant to build a sports saloon in the spirit of the Mk2, and has followed through. What is impressive is the way the car stays flat, how it absorbs ripples, how its primary ride preserves body control, and how it never allows ruts to get through to the occupants, despite its firmness.
Should I buy one?
On first acquaintance, the XF comes across as a remarkably good car. It comes in a well-priced, simple-to-understand echelon of models — four engines, three trim levels — with a luxurious entry spec and a deep inventory of gadgets to suit every taste.
Of course, the XF still has much to prove. It will meet a German rival for a bit of preliminary sparring in the 2 January issue of Autocar, and pretty soon we’ll drive it on home turf. Then we’ll really know if it’s a title contender.
What of the “drives like it looks” claim? On evidence so far gathered I’d offer a slogan of my own. Looks great, drives even better.