I’ve just spent a couple of days driving to, around, and back from North Wales. Two of the cars on the trip were Autocar’s long-term Jaguar XJ V6 diesel and Range Rover V8 diesel and I relished the chance to extend both of them on the open road.
With hours behind their respective wheels, I also had plenty of time to ponder the state of the British car industry, particularly after piloting what I personally regard as two of the best cars ever made in this country.
As I motored up the M54, it struck me that just over a decade ago the British car industry was in pieces all over the floor of the UK Plc workshop.
Heavily loss-making Rover Group had just been broken up and sold off by BMW after the Rover 75 - the re-invention of the classic British saloon had been well-received, but proved a retail disappointment.
Land Rover was sold to Ford, with a poor track record in the unreliable Range Rover 2, the flaky Discovery 2 and the best-selling but fragile Freelander.
Jaguar was also stalling after 10 years under Ford ownership. The oddly-styled and insubstantially engineered S-Type was unimpressive, the XJ40-based XJ8 was struggling manfully onwards and the new Mondeo-based X-Type was dividing opinion and under-shooting its sales targets.
It strikes me as quite amazing that the British car industry - in the form of Jaguar Land Rover now Rover cars is dead - has come so far in just 10 years. OK, the Range Rover 3 was substantially engineered by BMW, but the Discovery 3 and Range Rover Sport are admirable machines and at least two-generational leaps over what came before. As is the Freelander 2 when compared with its predecessor.
I’ve spent many hours behind the wheel of the current Jaguar XJ and admire the car enormously, though some of my colleagues prefer the equally impressive XF.
On the way back from Wales I spent a day at the Land Rover design centre, talking to designers about the new Evoque. Believe me, the attention to detail and effort that’s gone into this car is extraordinary. I have no doubt that it will become the brand’s best-selling model in 2012.
JLR will also soon build its own range of engines and promises much with range-extender electric vehicles in the medium term. A production version of the jet-powered CX-75 supercar is not a distraction from day-to-day difficulties, but the work of a company that’s confident in its future.
The distance travelled by Jaguar Land Rover in the last ten years is massively impressive. Sure, they’re not perfect and there’s certainly room for improvement (my commiserations with the chap in the immobile 10-plate XF at Cherwell services yesterday evening) but they’re only that final 10 or 15 per cent shy of the best that the Germans offer.
It’s 43 years since Jaguar and Land Rover became part of the government-inspired idiocy that was the British Leyland Motor Corporation. Today’s cars - and those just around the corner - prove that JLR has finally got back on world-class track.