First Drive : Jaguar XF 2.7D (2007)

It’s the most anticipated new Jaguar since the XJ40, and is probably the most important since William Lyons set up shop and decided to build something a little bit special – but does the XF live up to the hype?

RICHARD PORTER, fresh his first revealing drive reckons that it is… (From the launch of the XF in 2007)

Job done – Jaguar raises its game…

Get used to this profile - it's the future of Jaguar...
Get used to this profile – it’s the future of Jaguar…

IF you had a quid for every time someone had offered their opinion about the looks of the new Jaguar XF you’d probably have, oh I don’t know, about £476 by now. Like navels and arseholes, everyone in Britain seems to have one, the recurring theme being that it ‘doesn’t look like a Jaguar’. Which is strange, since it’s precisely because they looked too much like Jaguars – or at least the National Trust’s version of a Jaguar – that the S-type, X-type and current XJ never sold as well as they should.

Patently Jag needed to do something new, and with the XF they have. Rather well too. Trouble is, in photos the subtlety and the clever detailing gets stamped flat. See it in real life and you realise what a looker the XF actually is, so much so that even die-hard old skool Jag fans may find it makes a small amount of dribble leak onto their tweed. Although thankfully nursing homes have staff to deal with that sort of thing.

What’s really interesting about the XF’s styling is that, according to Jag design boss Ian Callum, its modern appearance still manages to suck in a load of old Jaguar references. The grille and the quad headlamps under a bonnet cowl? Inspired by the original XJ6. The curve of the rear windscreen? Mimics the back of an E-type. And the surprisingly large hump on the bonnet? Without a flicker of shame, Callum refs it back to the XJ-S. Blimey.

Yet as a whole, the XF is as taut and modern as one of those Porsche kettles. And like all good Jaguars, the styling seems to grow on you the more you see it. Some people weren’t sold on the current XK when it was announced. Now it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t swoon over it. Dammit, even the XJ-S was badly received and yet has matured into something rather groovy. Mind you, that did take 30 years. No such worries for the XF. Give it six months and everyone will want one.

Unless of course they’ve already sat inside, in which case the feelings of lust may come on sooner because the interior is far less polarising. It’s also rather excellent. Jag says there’s more surface area of wood in here than in any car they’ve made since the Mk 2, but it’s what they’ve done with it that makes the XF feel up-to-date.

The inside story

It's wood- and leather-lined, but not as we know it...
It’s wood- and leather-lined, but not as we know it…

The main dash is predominantly textured aluminium with switches faced in thin veneers of real metal. The wood makes its main appearance on the doors and the centre console, so you’re aware that it’s there but not constantly staring at a massive plank up ahead. All XFs get a leather dash top and seats too, the net result of which is that, whilst a large part of the inside is covered in things that once had leaves or udders and you still feel the cosy containment of a small, lavishly appointment space, you’re also spared that sense of swooshing about inside the lavatories at the House of Lords.

The real talking point of the XF interior seems to be the gadgets, the little bits of frippery that set it apart. The air vents, for example, are blank oblongs of aluminium until you start the engine, at which point they roll around to reveal their grilles. The despondent, I-once-had-an-XJ40 part of your brain might think ‘Well those are just going to break’. The more optimistic view might be that, whilst they’re ultimately pointless, the revolving vents will illicit a gentle ‘oooh’ sound from anyone you give a lift to, and that’s a faintly warming thought. Oh yea, and the little metal tabs you use to direct the vanes on each vent have a tiny ‘Jaguar’ written on them, which is nice.

The gear selector should delight everyone...
The gear selector should delight everyone…

Then there’s the rotary gear selector which lays flush with its surround until you start up, at which point it rises smoothly from its lair so you can twist it three clicks into D. Again, it will primarily amuse and delight children (ages 8 to 80) but by golly it actually works rather well too. Plus, being purely electronic with no mechanical link to the ‘box, it can do neat tricks like automatically return to Park if you lazily switch off the engine with the car still in Drive. Part of Jag’s test programme for this new tech was to empty two litres of Coke into its workings so you can presume they’ve been pretty thorough about making it durable.

The blue lighting that seeps from under the top roll of the doors at night is lovely too, the touch sensitive reading lights and glovebox trigger are pretty effective, and about the only interior whinges are that operating the touch screen in the middle of the dash is a bit hit-and-miss and the indicators make a noise that should have been buried with the S-type. They sound like a badly maintained grandfather clock. Otherwise, the XF is a nice place to be. Put it this way, in deep mid-winter when it’s cold and pissing it down, you’d fall into your XF and, even before the heater kicked in, you’d instantly feel warmer.

The driving experience

The real moment that blood starts surging to your chilled extremities, however, is when you drive it. Jag won’t reveal what they spent on this car but we know it uses existing V6s and V8s, rides on XK suspension and that the whole lot is grafted onto the fundamentals of the S-type’s understructure. It’s therefore reasonable to suspect the budget was a good deal tighter than what BMW would splash on a the next generation – and doubtless brand new – 5-series. Yet none of this matters one bit because the XF is a heady demonstration of what you might call The Rover Equation: old components plus passionate engineering talent equals a car that is good beyond the sum of its parts. In the XF’s case, way way beyond.

So the engines are well known (and frankly just serving time until new direct injection petrols and a bigger diesel come along), but there really is nothing wrong with them. The supercharged V8 still kicks you in the back on demand, delivering mighty wallop under any condition and sounding rather good now they’ve tuned out the washing machine whine of the ‘charger. The diesel V6 is weirdly quiet almost all the time, only rattling a bit under heavy load uphill which is also the situation in which you’ll wish it had more muscle. The nat-asp V8 sits somewhere in between, speaking softly but hiding a ruddy great stick behind its back. There wasn’t a chance to try the petrol V6, but since 70 per cent of all UK XF buyers will go for the diesel, it’s safe to assume British dealers won’t get the chance to sell many either.

Good though the engines are, it’s the six-speed auto ‘box that really allows them to shine. No matter how many cylinders are up front, or what they’re digesting, in normal urban running the changes are quite unbelievably discreet. But if you want to do some of the work yourself, tweak one of the shift paddles behind the wheel and you can play tunes on the ‘box to your heart’s content. The manual flippers are always ‘live’, so if you want to drop a gear without the vulgar pedal mashing of kickdown you just crook your pinkie and away.

In D the ‘box will wait a while, realise you’ve got bored of that and resume full self-shifting. Push down and twist the gear selector into S and once you’ve taken control it will never wrest it back, rightly assuming you’re feeling more playful. In either mode you can return to set-and-forget mode by holding the upchange paddle for a second. Frankly, you might not want to because the manual over-ride is so good that clicking up and down the gears is something you start to do for giggles rather than because you need to. This entire system, from the action of the paddles to the presumably rather complicated programming they command, is simply terrific. The little company from Coventry with the budgets that would barely cover BMW’s stationery bills, has somehow come up with the absolute state-of-the-art.

That in itself would be impressive. The really astounding thing is that they seem to have repeated this feat with the chassis. A word of warning here because if you’re expecting the XF to ride with the kitten soft compliance of an old XJ you might be disappointed. It’s actually pretty firm. But you soon learn that it’s a good sort of firm, the kind you can still get comfortable with, rather than the crashing ineptitude of the average Audi. If you’re worried about this apparent loss of squidge, think of the XF as like an expensive orthopaedic bed against the trad Jag mushiness of a 30-year-old divan. And the Audi approach, which is like trying to sleep on a plank. With nails poking out of it.

The reason for the tautness in the suspension soon becomes apparent because the XF goes around corners brilliantly. A whiff of roll perhaps, but despite its size and weight it turns in smartly and then grips hard from both ends. The winning ingredient here, the one that makes this Jaguar stunningly easy to thread along at high speed with minimum effort, is the superb steering.

There’s something beautifully ‘clean’ and crisp about the response you get from turning the wheel, a reaction that manages to be sharp and yet lacks the nervous, excessively pointy feeling you get in, say, an Alfa. Hustling an XF along a good road, diving into a bend, feeling it carving a smooth unerring line through, then punching out the other side, your digit twitching to bring on the next gear, it’s easy and – more importantly – it’s fun. Really, really good fun.

Then get into town, switch back to full auto and the XF goes from cruise missile to cruiser. To make a car that treads this fine line, that can whisper along motorways yet charge through the mountains, is an astonishing achievement.

You know you want one

In fact, the entire XF is quite an achievement. It’s a home grown car that can cut it with the best of them, a car you can honestly say is superb not ‘ooh, it’s a Jag, we’d better make some allowances and politely pretend it’s nice’. Whilst the sword hung over the company itself – and technically still does until TATA finishes brewing up their deal – the designers and engineers at Jaguar seem to have ignored the fuss around them and got on with doing the best job they could.

The XF is a thoroughly modern yet warmly loveable car. It drives brilliantly, it’s packed with little moments of joy and – yes – it even looks nice. Anyone who says otherwise may very well be talking out of their, erm, navel.

Jaguar XF 2.7D specifications

Vital statistics

Engine 2720cc, DOHC, twin-turbo common-rail diesel
Transmission Six-speed automatic, rear wheel drive
Maximum power 204bhp at 4000rpm
Maximum torque 321lb/ft at 1900rpm
Maximum speed 142mph
0-60mph 7.7secs

XF Trivia

The XF’s front shiny mesh grille is actually plastic. Jag Design Director Ian Callum says they fitted a car with real metal mesh in the studio but it didn’t look as good. Plus, actual metal would cost £50–60 more per car.

Some early full size clay models featured more retro elements like S-type style front grilles and drooping rear ends. Calllum says creating these cars was part of the process of proving it was time to move on to something more modern.

The Aston-like haunch between the rear pillar and the actual side of the car gave the production engineers a real challenge. It’s one of the deepest steel pressings ever seen on a car.

One of the most discreet details on the XF is the styling line that runs halfway down the doors. Callum says one of the clay modellers spent days on end working on just that one element until it was subtle enough to be almost unnoticeable but proud enough to catch the light.

The original plan for the electrically opening air vents was to have them shutter like slatted window blinds. When the engineers couldn’t get that to work to their satisfaction someone on the team suggest the revolving vents that made it onto the finished car.

The thin blue lighting that runs around the centre console switches was shamelessly cribbed from Motorola mobile phone keypads. The development team were still tweaking it until late into the development process to make sure the illumination was consistent and didn’t feature tiny ‘hotspots’ of light.

Jag say they usually benchmark rival cars during the development process and agree which has the handling qualities they’re aiming for. With the XF the handling target ended up being Jaguar’s own XK coupe.

As a simple test to make sure chassis tuning isn’t too stiff Jag’s chief engineer Mike Cross takes prototypes for a trundle through a particular village near the company’s Gaydon test base which has an especially dreadful road surface.

A full fleet of visually representative XF prototypes wasn’t built until late 2006, less than 18 months before the first customer cars. This was made possible not only thanks to more reliance on computer modelling and simulation but also because Jag engineers say a surprising amount of set-up could be done on S-type bodied mules, their track widths and weight distribution carefully altered to match those of the finished car.

Keith Adams

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