When I was told which car Jaguar's vehicle integrity chief engineer, Mike Cross, would be driving for this feature, I was a little surprised. It would be a chance, as we sometimes get, to spend quality time with a new car and one of its primary creators. But I'd expected Jaguar to bring its dynamic benchmark derivative.
“Mike's bringing the Supercharged car,” said the man from Jaguar.
“Good, good,” thought I.
“It's a long-wheelbase one.”
Quite often in the luxury car market, you see, the long-wheelbase version – as with the most recent XJ, for instance – is not the way to sample a model's dynamics in its best light. The cabin is leggier for rear-seat occupants, certainly, but usually at the expense of style, weight and, more crucially, body rigidity.
“Afterthought” would be an unkind way of putting it, but certainly the hardest dynamic work is typically done on the shorter-wheelbase version, with long-wheelbase cars merely an exercise in metalwork. Apparently, though, this is not the case with the new XJ. At least, we can but hope.
The first time I clap eyes on the new XJ in the metal is also the first time I meet Mike Cross properly. “I prefer the look of this long-wheelbase car,” he says as we take a stroll around it (which takes a while), “although Ian [Callum, Jaguar's design director] prefers the shorter one.”
I wasn't sold on the photos I'd seen of the XJ at its launch, but away from the harsh lights and stark reflections of a studio it looks very elegant, and that black plastic section of the C-pillar jars less against the rear glass because the two don't seem to have such differing levels of reflectiveness.
It looks expensive, which is probably just as well because, in this form at least, it is. This car's supercharged 5.0-liter V8 lacks a few horses (the U.S. spec delivers 464hp rather than the full-fat 503hp UK quota). But engine software difference aside, this is the top XJ, and therefore the marque's new flagship: an XJ Supersport LWB. Including a couple of options (there aren't many), you're looking at a $100,000 Jag. Crikey.
That sounds like a lot, but to my eyes it looks like it could pass muster as a 100 grand motor. Base models are closer to $70k, a trick the XJ will pull off with ease.
I've come to meet Cross, and the XJ, in Welshpool, from where, sadly, he'll do all the driving (no one outside Jaguar has yet got behind the wheel), deeper into Wales.
We'll be heading onto the roads on which Jaguar signs off the ride and handling traits of its cars and, according to Cross, where you get an excellent selection of road styles.
Between Jaguar's Gaydon HQ and Welshpool you'll find urban roads, motorways plus a few sweepers, followed by increasingly challenging and smaller rural roads as you head towards Bala. They're all attainable within a long working day.
So, Mike. This long-wheelbase thing: not an afterthought? “No, we tuned the long-wheelbase car first and then worked on developing the short-wheelbase car from that,” he says. “Traditionally, we haven't done that – and the LWB car hasn't felt the same as a result. But this way round, we've got a much better long-wheelbase car, and ideally you won't know the difference between the two dynamically.”
What you will feel in either wheelbase, Cross hopes, is that you're definitely in a Jaguar. “What we've tried to do generally is establish a Jaguar DNA. But we tweak it slightly, so the XK is the most extreme, and this is at the other end of the scale.”
Certainly, as we set off I'm initially impressed with the XJ's town ride. There's a suppleness, albeit wallow-free and with an underlying security, that's fast becoming a Jaguar trait. “We wanted the agility and the steering to feel the same as the XF, but it's a smoother car,” says Cross. “But what I'm most pleased about is that the XJ has a nice, agile feel to it.”
Part of that is down to the aluminum construction, which keeps the weight of the new XJ to no more than an XF's, even though the LWB car is 5.2m long (the SWB car is 5 in. shy of that). And it's lighter than the similar-sized Mercedes-Benz S-class or BMW 7-series.
The old XJ had the same advantage. “I'd like to think owners of the previous model would know they were still in an XJ,” says Cross. “That was a better car to drive than perhaps it looked. It was agile, because it was relatively light. So I think previous owners will know they're driving an XJ – but this car has more ability in depth.”
What's telling about where Jaguar sees itself among its rivals is that it wants the XJ to tread a middle path, between the austerity of the traditional German models like the S-class, 7-series and Audi A8, yet less flamboyant than a couple of others. “If you imagine that traditional German cars are at one end of the scale and the Maserati Quattroporte is at the other end, we want to be in the middle,” says Cross.
Jaguar, like all car makers, buys, rents or borrows rival cars (having a new product portfolio for quid pro quo makes that easier). Cross is a fan of the Quattroporte, but he and his team reckon its full-on nature is probably not right for Jaguar.
Fair enough. I've had a rare old time driving a Quattroporte GTS with its second-gear exhaust note reverberating off the walls of sleepy Modenese villages. The locals there seemed unfalteringly thrilled.
“We've tried to give the car a dual character,” says Cross. “It's at its quietest if you're cruising.” He says there's still some development work to do on wind noise levels, but they seem fine to me. And there's little more than a muted woofle – and deliberately without too much supercharger whine, because it's not a refined noise – when you are wafting along.
“But,” says Cross, opening the taps, “it makes a noise when you want it to.” Indeed it does. There's a hint of whine before some well engineered induction and exhaust noise takes over. Louder than most of the German rivals, true. Not as loud as the Maser by a long chalk. About right, I'd say. And even though it's about 40hp shy of full flavor, it feels fast enough.
Jaguar has tried to give a distinct dual character to the engine and drivetrain calibration, too, and also to the car's dynamic properties. The new XJ runs on steel springs at the front but air springs at the rear, “because of the payload this car may carry.” However, air springs are heavier and more expensive than steel springs, so steel remains at the front. The new Mercedes E63 AMG has a similar setup.
Of the XJ's engine range, the 3.0-liter diesel is most similar to this supercharged V8 in weight, so these cars have slightly different front springs to the lighter naturally aspirated V8, to maintain the same ride frequency. Cross's objective is “to give them all the same characteristics”, but if it's anything like the XF, the regular V8 will feel the most agile on turn-in.
All models get Bilstein continuously variable magnetic dampers, as used on the latest Range Rovers and the 2010 XK and XF. “There is a dynamic mode – as on other Jaguars – which tightens the damping a little,” says Cross. The absolute limit of their parameters is unchanged between the two modes. “In extremes, on the most demanding roads, it probably feels the same, but [dynamic mode] is tighter on smoother roads,” he adds.
The steering, meanwhile, should be pretty familiar to other new Jaguar owners. “It's the same system we use on the XF,” says Cross. “Actually, it's the same as we use on the XFR and XK, which has a slightly faster rack. Because of the XJ's longer wheelbase, we wanted it to feel more agile.”
From the passenger seat, for a car of this size the XJ feels pretty agile to me as we complete a loop through the country. The ride stays composed but the car feels like it corners keenly, quite flat, and there's precious little bounce or waft when Cross does get the suspension working on bumpy, demanding roads – a perk, I suppose, of the relative lightness of this car.
Our test XJ is still a pre-production car, but a late one, which Jaguar has built to validate the tooling. Which is to say that all of the interior surfaces are properly finished, with rich leather and big slabs of satin wood that looks like natural wood does. Full production isn't far away, but Cross says that as well as looking into wind noise, there's still a little work to do on software calibration for the gearbox, plus a few trim issues.
Like the outside, to me the cabin looks sufficiently expensive and plush. I'd seen pictures of it before this drive, but the XJ's cabin is still not quite like I'd expected it to be. Oddly, there's not a great deal of shared switchgear between it and the XF – the electric parking brake button, maybe, and the column stalks – and the layout is similar. But although the gearknob lifts and rotates from the center console, just like an XF's, even it has a different, classier, more finely knurled finish.
Cross admits he's not delighted about the shade of blue used on the dashboard clock of this XJ. I'm with him on that, but its clumsiness aside, I struggle to think of much to criticize and feel desperately sycophantic when he asks what I honestly think and what I don't like about the car.
Honestly? The ride feels right. Noise levels are right. The looks? Right enough for me. Cabin design? Maybe, just maybe, I was a smidgen underwhelmed when I first got in it, because there isn't the in-your-face sparkle and delight of the XF. But I find that, like the exterior, it's a grower.
In the back, meanwhile, there's an entirely acceptable amount of space: a few inches of head room for me, at 5ft 10in, and about six inches of leg room. Maybe the trunk is a bit shallow for an airport car, too, but it's feasible that's the airport minicab market is not a sales area that Jaguar is particularly keen to chase anyway.
“Well, Matt, I wish you could drive it,” says Cross as we head back. So do I. At the risk of sounding even more like a sycophant, put me down as first in the queue. Matt Prior/Autocar