Jag-Off: The XJL Is the Best XJ in History

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A few weeks ago, I got to spend a little time in the Jaguar XJL. What was interesting was that I got a chance to compare it alongside a car that I’m very familiar with – my wife’s 1999 Jaguar XJ8. Two cars with the same brand and model name couldn’t be more different. The current XJ line has changed more in the last five years than it did between its debut in 1968, all the way up to the swan song of the X350 (X358, actually) in 2009.

XJ Timeline

Series 1

The XJ debuted in 1968 as the replacement for pretty much everything Jaguar produced except for the XKE. Jaguar had a 240 and 340 sedan, the high-performance S-Type sedan, and the bigger Mark X/420G, all of which disappeared soon after the XJ made its appearance.

The XJ was another Sir William Lyons triumph. If the XKE was considered the most beautiful car ever produced by the likes of Enzo Ferrari, the XJ was its grown-up cousin. It was a stunningly stylish automobile that looked exactly like no other automobile on the road, before or since. It was suitable for use by a wide-ranging clientele, from upwardly mobile businessmen, to chauffeured heads of state. The initial 2.8-liter and 4.2-liter inline six cylinder engines were accompanied by a 5.3-liter V-12 in 1972, which made the Jaguar XJ12 one of the premier automobiles of the 1970s.

Series II

The Series I lasted until 1973. The Series II was essentially a facelift, deleting the sportier short-wheelbase version of the XJ. It was also from the era when Jaguar started to become synonymous with poor quality. The British Leyland group escapade, along with near-constant strikes from British labor unions was a difficult period for Jaguar.

Series III

The Series III launched in 1979, and would carry Jaguar through (at least in V-12 trip) until 1992. Consider that for a moment: In 1992, Jaguar was still expecting a premium for a car that had arrived in showrooms in 1968. Aside from a few farm implements, UPS trucks and mail Jeeps, it was – by far – the most ancient platform on the road.

XJ40

The biggest change in Jaguar’s history to that point was the XJ40, which provided the backbone for the X300 and X308 cars until 2002. The XJ40 was originally planned for launch in 1973, but delayed until 1986 when British Leyland finally authorized £80 million for its construction. It was designed to evoke the Series XJs, but it was radically different, and engineered from a clean sheet of paper. It was lighter, stiffer, easier to build and fully modern.

X308

The pace of redesign quickened, and just six years later, Jaguar updated the XJ40 to the X300. The AJ16 inline six cylinder engine continued the success of the AJ6 engine from the XJ40.

Jaguar X308

Just three years later, the X308 debuted, and so did the AJ-V8 engine, a radical departure for Jaguar. The compact, dual overhead cam V-8 was the most significant emblem of Jaguar’s Ford ownership at the time. The same engine was shared with the Lincoln LS, the 2002 to 2005 Thunderbird, and in several Land Rovers and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

X350

The third-generation XJ arrived in 2003 and took Jaguar in a new direction. The all-aluminum body was revelatory, but for all its modernization, the X350 was a very traditional Jaguar, inside and out. That’s fine for traditional Jaguar owners, but for other luxury buyers, who have moved to products from Audi, BMW and Mercedes, the Jaguar looked and felt like more of the same, after 40 years of production.

Enter the X351

X3511

2010′s X351 s the first Jaguar flagship to not look like every Jaguar flagship that preceded it. It’s longer, wider, and completely breaks the XJ mold. It looks more like the XF than it does any XJ in history.

Inside, it’s just as modern, with a complete LCD instrument panel that replaces analog needles and printed numerals with a virtual cluster. The center stack houses a large LCD screen with navigation, audio, climate and entertainment features (the movie that will play on the headrest screens in the back seat will also play in the center stack if you’re not moving.)

X3512

The console features the gear selector which rises to meet your hand when you engage the start sequence, something that became more familiar every time I used it.

The 14-year old Jaguar XJ8 in our garage has about as much to do with the current XJ as a ’67 Camaro has with the current edition. When the XJ40 was launched, it was heralded as a huge step forward, but underneath, the X300 still looks like it was stitched together by human hands. I remember driving an X308 soon after its debut, being stunned by the level of equipment inside. Now it looks like it could be a car from the late 1970s. In the last four years, the XJ line might as well be called something completely different, it’s that divorced from the cars that preceded it.

X3513

I drove an XJL Portfolio All-Wheel Drive – the drive system is the latest hint at modernity from Jaguar. It features a supercharged V-6 that hauls you to 60 miles per hour in 6.1 seconds, yet still returns 24 mpg on the highway. The engine itself is fantastic, but it’s the way Jaguar manages to provide decent fuel economy that’s not as premium an experience as it should be.

Part of the fuel savings regimen is an auto start/stop feature that kicks in every time you’re at a traffic light. I’ve experienced this feature in other cars, and the Jaguar is – by far – the most obvious when it engages. Slip your foot off the brake and the engine lurches to life instead of seamlessly igniting. I assumed that engaging Dynamic mode would automatically cancel the feature, but it didn’t. I didn’t dig out the manual to figure out how to turn it off completely. Related to this complaint, I was never quite sure about how to turn off the XJ when I was done driving it. Sometimes, selecting Park would shut the car down completely. Other times, I had to push the Start/Stop button, which didn’t do anything instantly.

But in total, the X351 is light-years ahead of every Jaguar that came before. All-wheel drive and something that resembles decent fuel economy tick off a few of the boxes that drivers of competitive cars were asking for. There’s more of a reason now that used Jaguars sell for so cheap. Might be time to look into an X350.

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