Eating humble pie is never pleasant, especially when it's public; but I ate it last week.
I've said recent Jaguars have a whiff of Hyundai about them. I'd seen the photos, and wasn't expecting much from the XF, the car that replaces the retro-influenced S-Type. But the car that burbled into the restaurant at the recent media launch in Auckland was handsome and assured, from its evocative grille, through the sweeping coupe lines to the clean tail. Our initial drive suggests it performs as promised, too. Close the door and the start button pulses - press it and the gear selection dial rises to your palm as air vents in the smooth dashboard swivel open. The interior is smart, modern, and gleams with aluminium and, yes, wood. But forget knurled walnut, this effect is light, rather Scandinavian and wholly modern. Also modern was the touch-screen access to sound, to temperature and to the multi-function trip reading the performance of these engines.
The first car we sampled ran the $114,990 2.7-litre diesel shared with the S-Type and XJ. It’s an assured unit developing 152kW of maximum power and 435Nm of peak torque. and Jaguar says its capable of 7.5 litres/100km fuel economy. As in all XFs it's mated to the six-speed ZF transmission developed from the XKR and capable of swapping cogs in 600 milliseconds. Purring out of Auckland on the northern motorway, the engine was almost silent, road noise more noticeable than the motor. We wafted into the northern countryside, the ride firm yet assured though admittedly our pace was necessarily sedate in the atrociously wet conditions.
Presumably that explains our achieving Jaguar’s claimed 7.5 l/itres100km fuel economy on the short drive.
Next we were into the $114,990 3.0-litre V6 175kW/293Nm petrol-engined version. Again, it was quiet and refined, though it better displayed Jaguar's schizoid soundtrack, the active exhaust allowing the car to sound sensible while cruising, yet emit a hooligan roar when you plant your boot - which was when the hint of oversteer that's the mark of a driver-oriented rear-drive car made itself briefly felt. We planted boot - and got 11.5 litres/100km to Jaguar’s claimed 10.5. Next the $139,990 4.2-litre V8, with 219kW and 411Nm plus a suitably hairy-chested soundtrack and bigger, 18-inch wheels. Between wet rural roads and a schools triathlon we couldn't up the pace, but were impressed with the suspension's ability to both cushion bumps and control ride, which was comfortable without being overly plush. We also liked the control imparted by the rear-drive bias.
But not as much as we loved the $169,990 4.2-litre supercharged V8, with its 306kW, its 560Nm of torque and its 20-inch wheels and CATS computer-aided suspension technology. It also has a chequered flag button that'll alter throttle response, gear calibration and initiates track DSC - shame I didn't find it until the final motorway stretch. What about the other clever bits? There's a rear park camera standard on the V8s, optional on the V6s with blind spot monitoring available shortly. There's pedestrian impact protection that senses you've hit a body, not a bollard, and deploys airbags to flip the bonnet forward and cushion the hapless pedestrian from heavy contact with the engine. There's a capacious 500-litre boot that will fit two sets of golf clubs and is fitted with a lid that'll pop open if you try to shut the key inside. There's a whole lot of lovely stuff - including a Bowers & Wilkins sound system for the range-topping car that has 13 speakers and integrates with your iPod; better yet, the company collaborated with Jaguar to ensure the speakers were optimally placed, so even the base car benefits.
Meanwhile, the fact a firm pressure on the dash will pop open the glovebox and the cabin lights illuminate at the touch of a finger are rather nice touches. Yes, all the swivelling bits impress, and few buyers - 47 have paid deposits, sight and price unseen - will worry whether they'll still be working in 10 years time. They're more likely to worry about the company's future under its new Indian owner.
But Tata is hardly a fly-by-nighter. Founded in 1868 and making cars since 1945, it now has interests in operations as diverse as pharmaceuticals, IT, financial services and mining, and group chairman Ratan Tata - who sits on the board at Fiat - is currently listed in Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2008. "We haven't met Tata yet," says Wallis dumper, boss of local Jaguar distributor, Motorcorp Holdings. "But we're happy with the change. Mr Tata is a car man, and that's always a good sign."
There are other good signs. After a year or three in the doldrums Jaguar sales are climbing in a stable Euro-luxury market, and Jaguar is the latest to try transparent pricing - setting a recommended retail that's close to drive-away price to reduce the guesswork in car buying. But back to the humble pie. Choosing photographs for this story, I realised the XF still doesn't look good in two dimensions. But in your rear view mirror, or your driveway, it will look good and that's what matters when you put your money down.
Got enough of it and naturally you'll want a V8. Of the entry cars, the frugal diesel is king; quiet and refined in everyday motoring, with a tingling hint of feral to the soundtrack when you mash the go-pedal to the floor. And mash it XF buyers will - forget the brand's fusty image. The XF may tip a nod to tradition, but at it's a thoroughly modern car.
Jaguar XF specifications
Engines. 2.7-litre V6 turbo diesel, 152kW at 4000rpm, 435Nm at 1900rpm; 3.0-litre V6, 175kW at 6800rpm, 293Nm at 4100rpm; 4.2-litre V8, 219kW at 6000rpm, 411Nm at 4100rpm; 4.2-litre supercharged V8, 306kW at 6250rpm, 560Nm at 3500rpm
Transmission. Rear-wheel drive, Gearbox, six-speed ZF automatic.
Performance. 0-100kph, 8.2 seconds (2.7 TD); 8.3 (3.0 V6); 6.5 (4.2 V8); 5.4 (4.2 V8 supercharged)
Overall fuel economy (Jaguar figures). 7.5 litres/100km (2.7 TD); 10.5 litres/100km (3.0 V6); 11.1 litres/100km (4.2 V8); 12.6 litres/100km (4.2 V8 supercharged).
Dimensions. Length, 496imm Width, 2053mm (including mirrors). Height, 1460mm.