Driving Impressions

By June 18, 2008

The Jaguar XJ series makes an appealing alternative to the German and Japanese mainstays among full-size luxury cars. Those who embrace the XJ's distinct styling and finish won't pay an obvious price in performance, smoothness or ease of function, and its retail price is attractive relative to obvious competitors.

Most XJ models are tuned with emphasis on a supple ride, which is probably not a bad thing in a big luxury car. Yet all XJ models handle in steady, predictable fashion, and are quite nimble for cars of their size. Indeed, we'd say they offer some distinct advantages over their German counterparts.

One is the XJ's all-aluminum monocoque, or integrated body/chassis. It weighs about 400 pounds less than a similarly sized unit-body fashioned of conventional steel. Rest assured that the aluminum body is as crashworthy and strong as steel (stronger, actually, at a given weight). The Jaguar's body is built in essentially the same fashion as the airframe of a commercial airliner: riveted (with about 3200 rivets) and bonded (120 yards of adhesive) to form a stiff shell that is the foundation for everything the car does. Lighter is better when it comes to handling, fuel economy, acceleration, and braking performance. Greater rigidity contributes to better handling and a smoother, more refined ride.

Tossing the big XJ into tight corners on narrow winding roads, we found it tenaciously grips the surface, with nary a complaint. The power steering is precise without being too heavy, and the XJ goes where it's aimed. The tires stay pressed to the road thanks to its double-wishbone suspension design and Jaguar's Computer Active Technology Suspension, called CATS, which continuously and instantly adjusts damping according to forces pushing the wheels up toward the car. CATS promotes stability and a nice, even body height whether the car is accelerating or braking hard or traveling over an undulating road surface. While all XJs handle well for their size, the long wheelbase models are clumsier, as you can feel the whole car shift in tight corners.

Through several hundred miles on a variety of different roads and surfaces, the XJ was stable at all times, with predictable handling. The only intrusion in the smoothness was a bit more vibration through the steering column than we'd expect in a super luxury car.

The XJs are quick. Benefitting from its lightweight aluminum construction, the XJ8's 300-horsepower V8 boasts acceleration figures that are as good as or better than many: 0-60 mph in 6.3 seconds, according to Jaguar. Power delivery is smooth, there is plenty of acceleration-producing torque at all engine speeds, and the base V8 delivers the best EPA mileage rating in the class for any car that's not a hybrid: 16/25 mpg City/Highway.

The XJ8 engine works nicely with the six-speed automatic transmission, which we consider one of the best in the class, despite a proliferation of seven-speeds. Shifts are smooth, almost seamless during sedate driving, yet positive under hard acceleration. This transmission seems intuitive: In most cases, its electronic brain changes gears at the same moment we would if we were shifting manually.

We've never been fans of Jaguar's J-Gate manual shift selector, however. This device is a throw-back to the days before transmissions had advanced electronic controls, and engineers sought alternative means to give automatics a sportier, manual feel. We find the more familiar up/down sequential manual feature on most other automatics to be more effective than the J-Gate. Regardless, the XJ's power band and the automatic's excellent response make manual shifting seem superfluous, so there's no need to fuss with the J-Gate. Put it in Drive and leave it there. The gears can be controlled with your right foot.

The XJR and Super V8 models add a supercharger that forces more air into the engine for a big increase in power. Indeed, th