Driving Impressions

By March 12, 2013

In recent years, big luxury sedans have gotten better and better to drive. They have performance, athleticism and confidence-inspiring composure. Among these grandes dames, Jaguars have usually been at or near the head of the class. That is, until four-season buyers began to demand luxury sedans which, like SUVs, behave well in all four seasons. Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar's primary luxury-sedan adversaries, already had models with all-wheel drive, but Jaguar has not had all-wheel drive since the midsize 2001-2009 X-Type.

We first drove the Jaguar XJ all-wheel models in mid-winter Quebec, flogging them up and down maple-syrup trails in the Laurentian mountains. We drove them on frozen lakes and ice-racing ovals. Then we drove them in dreadful winter freeway ice and snow. They proved flawless, every bit a match for the competition. Providing you have a proper appreciation for the skills of winter driving, the XJ AWD models we drove were as sure-footed and stable as any nearly two-ton ice-buster you'd want to drive. If winter is your problem, add an AWD Jaguar to your road-test list and pray for bad weather. Of course, most thoughts about Jaguars won't involve snow.

The XJs we drove in warm weather were everything their reputation promises. These are big cars, and you can't fool Mother Nature; big cars feel big when you corner fast or brake hard. And when you pounce on the throttle, even with the quick supercharged 340-hp 3-liter V6 in our XJL Portfolio AWD, you feel the commotion as the car is pushed from zero to 60 in an impressive 6.1 seconds. The same car, minus the added weight and mechanical loss of all-wheel drive, achieves 60 in a sterling 5.7 seconds.

In any large car like this, major forces are in play, and after years of development, the XJ is a harmonious balance of spirited performance, smooth operation, and an indefinable element of poise. XJ throttle response is linear and enthusiastic. Steering effort and live feel is finely calibrated to deliver an excellent combination of road information and firm controllability. The car's chassis dynamics are similarly alive, whether driving on snow with all-wheel drive or pressing hard in high summer. And despite considerable weight, the XJ's brakes are forceful, easily modulated for good control, and even under very hard use show no hint of brake fade.

With a keyless press of the Start button, the XJ engine fires, and the unique, signature Jaguar Drive Control silver medallion pops up on the center console. Making your selection from Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, or Low, you are free to drive in fully automatic mode, letting the car make the dynamic decisions. Or you may choose to manually control the superb 8-speed ZF transmission with the paddle shifters. You may also select specialized driving modes that make dramatic difference in performance. By pushing the button for Winter Mode, you dramatically tailor power and traction, optimizing performance for snow and ice. Alternatively, selecting Dynamic Mode, you disengage degrees of automatic stability sontrol, allowing more wheel slip for high-performance driving. Jaguar even permits switching off stability control altogether, but be warned, don't try this at home.

The powerful and smooth normally-aspirated 5-liter V8, formerly powering the entire XJ line but now found only in the XJL Portfolio, continues to be a superb powerplant, thrusting the XJL to 60 mph in a very quick 5.4 seconds. It also delivers 25 mpg Highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Its only disadvantage is that it is not offered with an AWD package.

We also drove an XJL Supercharged with the 470-hp supercharged 5-liter. This large, elegantly appointed sedan was utterly exotic. Its mass and opulence were impressive, but when we opened the throttle, it was like feeling a great ocean liner suddenly rise up on plane. The Supercharged boiled forward to 60 in just 4.9 seconds. And in keeping with Jaguar's well-balanced philosophy, despite its mass, the car felt surprisingly athletic and controlled while doing so. More startling still, the Supercharged delivers 23 mpg Highway on the EPA scale.

The top-of-the-line Supersport models' 510 horsepower express them to 60 in a scant 4.7 seconds, furthermore, still delivering 23 EPA mpg Highway. Wretched excess never looked so good. But bring your best checkbook. The peak XJL Ultimate costs $155,000.

In short, the XJs achieve the improbable, being all things to all drivers. They are happy to do most of the work of driving, letting you relax and enjoy the ride. Or they will let you take over completely, performing all the most acute driving operations entirely on yours own. Either way, the XJ defines the contemporary large luxury sedan. It is very likely to find increasing numbers of delighted owners.