Weekends: a great time for taking a car for a cobweb-clearing blast along country roads. Weekend mornings, anyway, when the traffic is lighter. Early summer weekends, the sun shining, the roads dry and inviting, the sheer pleasure of tackling a demanding road in a thoroughbred car. Well, that's the dream. And that was what was supposed to happen with us and the rich blue Jaguar X-Type 3.0 V6 Sport
A nice sprint into the country along quiet backwater roads was the recipe, a nice lunch somewhere and a nice gallop home. But this was Auckland where summer weekends in 2001 have resembled mid-winter one, lacking only the cold. There are few things more frustrating - more like downright annoying - than having a fine car sitting in the garage and you itching to take it for a run, and the rain cascading down from the peak of the neighbour's roof and into the guttering in a more than passable imitation of the Niagara Falls.
Depressing didn't even go halfway to describing the situation. Fuming, stalking in and out of the back door glaring across at the Waitakere ranges daring the weather to pick up. Forty minutes of this pacing to and fro was enough to make my behaviour irritating even to me.
And then I remembered the Subaru SVX and the drive back from Manfeild on wet Sunday night roughly 10 years ago. A drive in weather just as bad, maybe worse, but one of the most memorable drives I've ever undertaken. There was no choice, we had to be back for work on Monday morning and the Auto Trader deadline would wait for no clearing of the weather.
It was a matter of plough on regardless, and in places ploughing through the water was exactly what the big, six-cylinder four-wheel drive Subaru coupe did. But we drove on through the waterlogged gloom which gave way to darkness, the SVX maintaining pace that would have done many cars proud on dry roads, never missing a beat, never putting a foot wrong. We got home in a similar time that a front or rear-wheel drive car would have managed in the dry.
Yes, the SVX. That was the decider. "Come on, get ready, we're going." It was maybe an hour and a half later than I'd planned and there was now no time to check maps for the loop through roads south of Auckland.
But the decision was made. We were going, though secretly I'd decided that if things were too bad we'd turn back early, lunch nearer home and hope for finer weather on Sunday.
But there was to be no early turn-back, no close-to-home lunch. My decision proved to have been the right one. The drive turned into one of the most memorable I've ever had. The Jaguar revealed itself to be a beautifully-balanced, well-sorted masterpiece of a car let down only by a cabin that may be a little too much on the sung and cosy size.
As a driving machine it was near faultless; as a means of covering ground rapidly in weather that was frequently appalling, it has few peers. You adopt a different mindset when you set out on a test drive. The car that has become familiar in the previous couple of days tootling around the city, commuting, cruising on the motorway, somehow comes into sharper focus.
There had been hints of what lay in store, of course. Pitch it into a right-angled city corner vigorously and the Jaguar would corner with the solid, secure, high g-force feel you get from, say, a Subaru Impreza WRX.
We head along the collection of shallow puddles of standing water that is posing as the northwestern motorway, the windscreen wipers clearing the screen efficiently with a muted wiper motor whirring whine that I associate with British cars. All my early motoring memories were of British cars as were my early driving and car ownership experiences. And all of those cars - none of them as exalted as a Jaguar - had that wiper motor whirr.
The Dove grey leather sports seats are luxury personified. They're well-shaped, with prominent side bolsters on the seatback and cushion. At first I'm a little unhappy about what I perceive to be too aggressive support in the mid-lower back. I soon don't notice it. Best of all at the end of what turns out to be a drive of just a little less than 500 kilometres (almost all of them in continuous rain and on soaking road surfaces) I get out with no aches or pains. My eyes are tired and I'm a little drained by the level of concentration that's been required, but the seats have done their job perfectly.
The regular front-seat passenger, one of the harshest critics of car seats that I know, gives the Jaguar seats a resounding thumbs-up. She's even been able to take her usual car-nap without getting a sore neck, the seat providing good shoulder support, the headrest ideally-placed.
The X-Type cruises quietly, comfortably, effortlessly. The throttle pedal has a silky, smooth feel. A gentle caress with your right foot gets the 2967cc to send a few more of its 231kW of power (developed at 6800rpm) and 284Nm of peak torque (fully on tap at 3000rpm) through to all four wheels.
Stand on the throttle, and with a snarl of delight the Jaguar's V6 instantly spins to higher revs, giving your ears a treat with its exquisite song and getting your adrenalin pumping as the car thrusts forward.
There's plenty of acceleration. Jaguar says the car will hit 100km/h in 7.5 seconds and go on to a top speed of 229km/h. Authoritative British magazine says the mid-sized Cat will crest 160km/h in 18.9 seconds. Those are good solid figures for a good, solid car: the 4672mm long X-Type sport 3.0 weighs in at a not inconsiderable 1595kg.
The car has a distinctive on-road feel. The suspension tends toward the firm but with never even a hint of harshness. It doesn't hammer over corrugations, but soaks them up with no noise, no fuss. Moderate potholes pass unnoticed. There's an impression of weight - not heaviness, but real presence, real solidity.
It's a dynamic reflection of other understated tactile reinforcements of quality, like the pleasing "thunk" as the doors close. The five-speed automatic gearbox is superb. It can be left in Drive or the lever can be pushed across the gate and the gears shifted manually - forward to downshift, backward to go up a gear.
Left in Drive the car was never wrong-footed, finding the appropriate gear to suit the occasion and kicking-down instantly and ultra-smoothly. We used the 'box manually much less than we usually do in automatic cars in winding going (it was so good and well-programmed we didn't feel the need), but the shifts were instant and beautifully smooth.
Left in Drive or shifted manually it's superior to most automatic we've encountered and arguably the smoothest we've ever sampled. Off State Highway 1 and into real driving country. I'm tentative at first. This is $101,000 worth of motor car and I have no desire to bend it. But full confidence is there within a few kilometres. The harder you push the car, the more confident it feels. The grip from the 225/45 ZR17 tyres is stupendous. They and the four-wheel drive combine to give the car dry road levels of grip on streaming wet tarmac.
The Jaguar storms favourite corners with absolute confidence, totally redefining the phrase unflappable roadholding. The steering provides excellent feedback and is pleasingly firm at speed.
The car turns-in to corners with thoroughbred precision. There's seldom a need to make steering adjustments, nor is there any loss of grip even in the wettest going, both the front and rear ends going exactly where they're pointed and showing no signs of breakaway.
On backwater roads which seem more water than road, the car produces an astonishing performance. In one particularly-demanding section of road where the car behaves unexpectedly-well I let out an involuntary whoop of pleasure. This is more driving fun than I've had in most cars on bone-dry roads.
For the X-Type, rain like this can truly be called driving rain. The weather is so bad that I'd normally have abandoned the drive way before. Instead I keep finding new ways to thread my way back towards Auckland, relishing the chance to enjoy the car's astounding abilities and to - yes - have fun, in weather conditions that usually are a driving nightmare.
If we hadn't had to get back for a dinner engagement I might have gone on into darkness and for a couple of hundred more kilometres. The X-Type drinks fuel steadily but never guzzles. Jaguar says it will achieve 11.5 litres per 100 kilometres on the city cycle and 7.4 litres/100km in the highway. Its fuel tank is 61 litres and the car is happiest on 96 octane petrol.
As you'd expect the X-Type is comprehensively equipped. The Compact Disc sound system is superb with bright highs and rich lows and a quality feel in keeping with the rest of the cabin's ambience. There's automatic climate-control air-conditioning, power windows and exterior mirrors. The easy to read circular dials are placed ahead of the driver in the traditional position, read through the four-spoked leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Safety equipment is comprehensive. The car's primary safety feature is its unflappable four-wheel drive roadholding, backed up by excellent brakes and efficient windscreen wipers and bright, far-reaching headlights.
Should you have an accident, protection carried in the X-Type includes front and side airbags. The passenger's airbag is controlled by sensors which adjust its deployment force according to the size and position of the seat's occupant. There are curtain airbags for the front and rear cabin sides. All rear seat passengers get lap/sash seatbelts.
Has the X-Type, the marque's first smallish sedan and its first four-wheel drive, got the Jaguar character? I can't tell you. I've driven only two Jaguars previously - an old XJ6 and a then-new XJS six - and both of them only briefly. Their overwhelming impression was of vast expanses of metal, especially in the XJS, enveloping extremely tight-fitting and snug interiors.
And the XJ6 had a ridiculously-thin steering wheel rim that more than anything else confirmed the age of that particular car. Both had the big twin cam six with its masses of torque and its athletic feel and engaging exhaust note.
The X-Type also had a snug interior (rear seat legroom is tight if the front seats are pushed well back) and the same sort of solid feel on the road as its bigger ancestors. The 3.0-litre V6 also emitted a glorious howl. This cat sure could roar.
And it had that other Jaguar feature: plenty of performance. Though it lacks the sheer masses of sheet metal of its big stablemates, the X-Type definitely has the Jaguar look. The wide, two-element grille and the quad headlamps with speed bulges running back from their top edges echo the XJ sedan. The curved roofline and subtly vertically-bulged rear haunches call to mind the S-Type. The big 17-inch diameter alloy sport wheels fill the arches and give the car a purposeful look that exudes British sporting saloon character.
How do you quantify whether a car is worth $101,000? After our days living with the X-Type 3.0-litre V6 Sport, and particularly the car's outstanding performance during our 500km round trip on roads that were temporarily decidedly unhospitable, I was convinced that this was a car of considerable ability, fine performance and a feeling of genuine quality. Its furnishing are sumptuous but not over the top. Some car makers spread woodgrain trim (real or plastic) and leather around their products' cabins in an attempt to give them the sort of quality that seems second-nature in the X-Type. Usually they fail and their efforts look merely tacky.
Here the woodgrain (real and in the test car, stained grey) and leather look superb and add to the car's feeling of quality: truly leather and wood as only the British can do them.
Back to the question - worth $101,000? I think so. The combination of technology, cutting-edge safety, stunning road manners and good performance is near perfect. More importantly the car makes you feel like a million dollars when you're driving or riding in it.
Providing it proves as reliable in service as it is brilliant in conception and execution we can't imagine many buyers feeling they'd been short-changed. Best of all are the car's exemplary road manners whether road is dry or wet. Cats of the feline persuasion are known to hate the rain, but this mid-sized Cat laps it up. We think the X-Type Jaguar 3.0 V6 Sport is an absolute masterpiece.
AutoPoint road test team.