RULING CLASS HEROES
MATT SAUNDERS FROM AUTOCAR REVIEWS THE ALL NEW XJ
Eight o'clock on a Sunday evening. Softly, comfortably and yet with a distinctly Teutonic sense of purpose, a Mercedes S-class wafts its way along France's A16 autoroute towards Versailles. When it arrives, it will answer a question we've been pondering since Jaguar took the wraps off its daring new XJ saloon last year: is this new British luxury saloon about to outclass its rivals as comprehensively as its forerunner, the XF, did back in 2008?
Sitting next to me in the back of the aforementioned Merc, editor in chief Steve Cropley is absorbed in the business section of a heavyweight Sunday newspaper. With my electrically adjustable seat set just so and its heaters and massagers cranked right up to force 10, I'm reading too. Have been for the last half an hour. That may seem pretty unremarkable, but I can't usually read in cars; motion sickness sees to that. And yet, so cosseting is this S-class that it's fooling my senses.
I switch places with the driver, just to find out if the big Benz feels so immaculately mannered up front. As the miles roar by, the S-class feels unflappably stable; it consumes long distances with breathtaking calm. Its steering is weighty, a little inert but perfect for performing unhurried, sweeping lane changes. And its throttle and brake pedal allow you to mete out just enough acceleration or stopping power to deal with light traffic without disturbing the stillness on board. A giddy 17-year-old on a provisional licence could drive this car smoothly. Almost everything about it is configured for the benefit of those who aren't sitting behind the wheel.
"Makes you feel important, travelling in this car, doesn't it?" comes the question from the unusually distant back seat. Cropley has finished the Sunday supplements and is in talkative mode.
He's not wrong.
FACE TO FACE
Monday morning. A spotless, grey, five-metre-long saloon car waits for us on the gravel driveway of our hotel. If you didn't know this was the new XJ, you certainly wouldn't guess, so different is it from those that have gone before.
Having seen it several times, I've got over the shock value bound up within this car's avant-garde shape. It takes a few meetings, but before too long the new XJ successfully explodes your expectations of what a big Jag saloon should look like. And once it has, all you see is a fresh and attractive take on a luxury four-door that's as graceful as it is athletic-looking. Some may not like the narrow headlights or the controversial hidden C-pillars, but few would dispute that the car's styling creates an impression that's both handsome and harmonious.
As flawless as it seemed last night, our S-class suddenly looks more than a little bit gauche parked next to the Jag. Mercedes has seen fit to equip it with white paintwork, AMG wheels and an AMG sports body-kit, which combine to make it look out of place without ribbons and a 'just married' sign dangling from the bootlid. Aesthetically, then, the XJ's got this contest sewn up tight. But we knew that much already.
Climbing inside the new XJ is, just like beholding it for the first time, an expectation-challenging exercise. If you're used to XJs of old, you'll be used to a not-so-generous provision of passenger space, acres of walnut burr and dated componentry. In the new one you'll find one of the most special cabins of any British saloon of the past 20 years – Bentleys and Rolls-Royces included.
Its design is as clever as it is contemporary, dominated by a swathe of veneer that runs around the entire cabin and across the dashboard, making occupants feel cocooned and interconnected. Soft leathers and solid textured plastics dominate your tactile sensations, while chrome highlights and glossy trims add the finishing touches. This is a cabin you just don't want to get out of. So, for now, we'll stay inside it.
VIEW FROM THE BACK
Before too long we're heading north, on our way to find some mixed test routes for our rival limousines, and I take the opportunity to ride in the back of the XJ. Having spent so much of last night in the same position in the S-class, it seems like the right place to gather some early impressions of our British challenger.
Truth be told, I've been dreading sitting here. Ever since Jaguar revised the XK in 2009 I've worried that it's in the process of designing out its unique selling point – refinement – in the pursuit of its sporting ambitions. After a drive in the 5.0-litre XKR last year, I remember bemoaning the fact that it didn't have the same superbly judged handling and ride compromise as the 4.2. Tuning the rolling refinement out of the XJ would be an even bigger crime.
Riding in the back of the Jag, you feel very slightly more confined than you do in the back of the S-class. That's because your hip point is lower, the car's windowline rises faster front to rear (trimming your view of the outside world) and the curving roofline brings the headlining slightly closer to your bonce.
All of that accepted, though, there is still generous space in which to stretch out, especially thanks to our test car's long wheelbase. The rear bench is fixed, so your seating position isn't as adjustable as it is in the Merc, and although you have seat heaters and coolers, there are no massagers.
But, thank heavens, this big Jaguar rides. Not with the unperturbable glide of XJs of old, admittedly – and that's something traditional XJ buyers will undoubtedly miss – but with excellent 'rumble and thump' noise isolation and pleasingly controlled high-speed compliance.
At low speeds you're not as well insulated from cobblestones and sharp ridges as you are in the S-class, it's true, but you never feel so closely connected to the road surface that your comfort is in question. Excellent isolation from the movements of its engine, and from the wind, make even the diesel version of the new XJ a very agreeable car in which to travel. And that's before you've even turned on that 1200-watt, 20-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio masterpiece…
BEHIND THE WHEEL
I've waited long enough; time to play chauffeur. After we peel off the autoroute at Mantes-la-Ville, I claim a stint at the XJ's wheel and we head off in search of more challenging roads.
You settle into a familiar low and long-legged driving position in the XJ, which instantly promises more entertainment than that of the S-class. Foot on the brake pedal, thumb the 'engine start' button, whirl that rotary gear selector clockwise into 'D', and the stage is set.
Instantly this XJ feels unexpectedly responsive and agile, right from your first squeeze of accelerator pedal and quarter turn of steering. While Mercedes has engineered in a softness to the S-class's major controls, the XJ's are sports car sharp. Around town it moves away from a standstill the split second you tell it to, steers lightly but with consistency and precision and, despite the long wheelbase, changes direction really willingly. Despite all that responsiveness, though, this isn't a car that's difficult to drive smoothly; quite the opposite. With the Drive Control left in Normal mode, the XJ responds in immediate and direct proportion to your inputs. Keep those inputs gentle and modest and you'll make life as pleasurable for your passengers as you like.
And yet 'comfy and laid back' isn't the XJ's only mode. Heading beyond the boundary of the town, onto narrower, more serpentine back roads, there's a chance to probe deeper into its dynamic locker, so I venture one more clockwise click into 'S' mode in the gearbox, select Dynamic mode via the Drive Control and take manual responsibility for gearshifts by clicking the left-hand paddle.
The XJ's ride is a little more firm now, its steering heavier and even more feelsome as we extend the car's 3.0-litre V6 diesel powerplant. There's urgent pace on offer from that engine – enough to keep up with a BMW 740d, probably – and enough flexibility to make trips beyond 3500rpm both worthwhile and rewarding.
The corners and crests are coming thick and fast, but by the time a handful are dealt with, it's obvious just how much dynamic composure this car has been holding in reserve. At first you can't quite believe how tenaciously this big saloon holds the road, how brilliantly it controls its body movements, how keenly it dives towards an apex, and how sweetly it maintains its cornering balance through to the exit.
But before too long the truth hits home and your confidence in the car swells. And that's when you realise you're driving a 5.2-metre limousine almost as quickly as a 500bhp sports saloon. And having an unbelievable amount of fun doing so.
Getting back into the S-class and driving down the same piece of road feels like stepping back in time, but it's a necessary exercise. Where the XJ felt poised, eager to please the driver and always willing to go faster, the S-class is unwieldy and unwilling. It, too, has wheel-mounted gearshift paddles and a Sport mode for its air suspension, but neither has the transformative effect on the car that we saw in the Jag.
Through the same corners where the XJ felt neat and nimble, the S-class's steering begins to run out of consistency and its body starts to shudder and quake with mid-corner bumps. Threading it along at pace is a much more approximate and unsatisfactory task, so much so that you're unlikely to even try to take any sporting pleasure out of the car.
Which is why, before too long, we turn around and head back to our hotel for further deliberation. On the return leg the big Merc reminds us where it does exceed your expectations: with all of its toys and its impeccable material construction, its unerring motorway manners and that more pillowy low-speed ride. But after the Jag's sporting heroics, you wonder whether that can possibly be enough.
WEIGHING UP THE OPTIONS
Monday evening and time for a decision. A couple of hours have been spent poring over price lists and specification sheets, in the main trying to find some more redeeming features of a Mercedes that once ruled its class by a distance. They've been wasted.
Looking at their list prices, our S350L CDI would seem to be the cheaper option in this test, but equip it with a power upgrade, reversing camera, memory front seats, keyless go, an upgraded music system and all of the other kit that Jaguar throws in with the £67,185 XJ 3.0D Portfolio LWB, and the Merc comes out at £69,084. No joy there either.
For that price, our S-class needs to shine at least as brightly the new XJ. And while it performs well enough to be perfectly fit for the purposes that limo-like saloons are normally put to, that's all it does.
The Mercedes S-class is a very refined, luxurious and entirely effective example of a conventional large executive option.
But the new XJ is a paradigm-shifter. With its incredible duality – its ability to be plush and soothing one moment, and composed, precise and entertaining the next – it leads you to expect so much more for your princely sixty-seven grand.
A back-to-back test against Audi's new A8 will be required before we can proclaim that Britain has an out-and-out class leader on its hands here, but this game-changing Jaguar certainly has the makings of one. It's even got the potential, dare we suggest, to take the sheen off the purchase of a £140,000 Aston Martin Rapide.