Friday, June 27, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Jaguar XF 3.0 AWD

Jaguar has been on a tear of late. The F-Type, in either coupe or convertible form, is downright stunning. The sounds and sensations that one gets behind the wheel of the F-Type are some of most soul stirring available to the average driver. Of course, much of Jaguar's resurgence started not with a sports car, but rather with a sedan. In fact, it was this sedan, the XF, that put Jaguar back on the map. Introduced in 2008 as a 2009 model, the XF replaced the old, goofy looking S-Type as Jaguar's mid-size sedan. The stunning body lines, striking an athletic pose and wearing a seriously well-tailored interior, sprinkled with a dose of wizardry in the form of the pop-up shifter and acrobatic dash vents, made the Jaguar a popular car among journalists and enthusiasts alike. Now some five years later, is the Jaguar's mid-size sedan still competitive given that its competition has made some significant advances over the years?

On the outside, Jaguar's stunning body lines continue to look fantastic and the car carries itself with great road presence. There have been a few minor updates, primarily to the front and rear bumpers and lights, but the general shape remains unchanged. In my opinion, the XF has aged extremely well and is still among the best looking cars in its class. Wheel options rage from 18 to 20 inches and all give the car a proper stance. The most notable change is the newly added LED DRLs that frame the lower and outside edges of the headlights, which are intended to give the car a distinctive appearance, but just end up making it look like every other luxury car from a distance.

Inside, the XF's sense of theatricality has not been lost after all these years. Enter the car and the engine start button pulses like a heartbeat. Survey the surroundings and nearly everything is swathed in premium grade leather, real metal, or real wood. The few pieces that are made from plastic feel nice to the touch, although do not necessarily look as premium as they feel. Everything is bathed in a subtle blue glow except for that tiny pulsing red start button, enticing you to give it a push. I settle into the plush seat and fiddle with the seemingly endless number of seat controls until I am content with the position. With a flourish, I ceremoniously give the start button a firm press and the big Jag rumbles to life. The vents in the dash rotate into their open positions and the shifter dial rises up to meet my palm, the knurled aluminum feeling cool against my skin.

The sound emanating from under the hood is a bit different from the last XF I drove many years ago. Instead of the antiquated gas guzzling V8, Jaguar has sought fit to replace that engine with the same 3.0L supercharged-V6 that is doing a tour of duty under the hood of the F-Type. Tuned to produce more power and torque than the outgoing V8, this 6-cylinder motor delivers strong pull right off idle and adds a satisfying touch of blower whine in complement to its muffled baritone exhaust note. To make an effort at improving the rather mediocre fuel economy, Jaguar has seen fit to include automatic start/stop and made it relatively unobtrusive, although it is also not particularly effective.

Pulling out onto the street, I give the throttle a boot and the engine responds with a massive wave of torque and a serious outpouring of speed. I am quickly up to extra-legal speeds and apply a touch of pressure to the extremely responsive brakes to rein the car back in. My hands wrapped around the satisfyingly thick steering wheel, which is well weighted and provides good, if not quite fantastic, feedback. I am able to easily discern what all four wheels are doing and the well-balanced chassis feels extremely neutral, even when hammering down an off-ramp dusted in dirt and sand. The AWD system feels relatively seamless, keeping the car rear-wheel biased until a loss of traction causes it to shuffle power up to the front wheels for the sake of traction. It offers the security of AWD, but maintains the RWD dynamics that enthusiasts find so appealing. The ride is nicely sorted, with a suppleness that finds that balance between ride comfort and handling prowess which few manufacturers seem to be able to get just right. Even the slightly rutted streets along my chosen route did not phase the big Jag and there is no sacrifice in handling that could be discerned despite the comfortable ride.

Of course, this is not to say that this car is without fault. The biggest issue rears it ugly head in the decision to rely so heavily on the touchscreen controls for so many functions. Unfortunately, Jag's infotainment touchscreen is a bit laggy and feels a bit cluttered, making it a little hard to quickly locate and tap exactly the right button when you need it. Combine that with a distinct lack of availability for some more advanced features and options and the Jaguar simply feels less customizable than some competitors. Another somewhat challenging item is Jaguar's reliability. While it has improved in recent years, it is still an area where the brand lags behind some of its competitors. It might be easier to overlook on a largely weekend driven sports car, but for a likely daily use executive sedan, time in the shop becomes a serious problem. That reliability issue, real or imagined, has led to some relatively low resale and residual values, making these expensive cars to own when new.

Nonetheless, I find the XF quite appealing in many ways. The distinctly British feel and relative rarity make it stand out from the me-too BMWs and Audis that pervade the streets. The fact that it has lineage that ties it to some of the most beautiful cars of all time, including the lovely Jaguar E-Type, carries a certain appeal as well. Plus, it comes relatively well equipped for about $5,000 less than a comparably equipped BMW 5-series and offers just as much fun, but with a possibly even more engaging drive, especially with the windows down and the exhaust at full song. If you are looking for an alternative to the normal boring mid-size lusury sedan, the XF is definitely worth a look.

Now if only Jaguar would see fit to bring us the XF shooting brake...

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