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Jaguar XF SV8

Kate Winslet’s curves to the rescue

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People say the new XF is the car that will make or break Jaguar. I hope it will be the car that saves the company. But then I have a good reason for saying that. Jaguar was the marque that got me interested in cars almost 50 years ago, writes Jay Leno.

It was 1959. I was out riding my bike near my boyhood home in Massachusetts. As I came over the top of a big, steep hill I saw something that struck me like never before. I saw what was the fastest car of its time: a gunmetal Jaguar XK120 with spats over the rear wheels. The owner saw I was looking at the car and called me over. This was a time before any middle-aged man beckoning to a nine-year-old boy would have been classed as a paedophile. He even let me sit in the car. It had an oxblood interior and had that fabulous smell of hide food. I love that smell to this day. That was a big deal. The Plymouth Belvedere we had as our family car smelt only of Detroit plastic, not English leather.

Those were great years for British engineering. The Vincent Black Shadow was the fastest motorbike in the world, the Bentley Continental was the fastest saloon and the XK was the fastest production car in the world. It’s not a surprise that my passion for cars came from that Jaguar.

I had a physical attraction to the XK120. So, when I was able, I bought not one but two. Both are 1954. One is a roadster in old English white. The other is a blue fixed-head. To me they are two of the most perfectly formed cars ever made. Washing a Jaguar is like giving a woman a bath. Your hands end up going to interesting places.

In the 1950s the British may have been the speed kings, but the cars were not perfect. A friend of mine who worked in a Jaguar dealership tells me the brakes on the saloon were atrocious. He notified the factory, and on the next batch they had fitted a light to the dash. When that lit up, the driver knew he had to pump the brake again. That sense of questionable build quality got worse over the next few decades. Those who loved Jaguars for Queen and country would have bought them regardless. The design always remained their strong point, but their reliability ate at their sales decade after decade. Lyndon Johnson said that, in political terms, a handshake is worth 250 votes. In the car world, bad word of mouth can be worth 10,000 votes.

Jaguar has not made money for 30 years and so I guess it is no surprise Ford is now keen to sell the Leaping Cat. The trouble is, it is doing so just as the brand is turning the corner.

The XKR is a gorgeous machine, a car up there with the likes of the Bentley Continental GT. The XJ is still a good-looking and accomplished car but over here is too highly priced. I drove one a while back. It was $108,000 (£53,000), for goodness’ sake. That, plus retro styling, meant it did not appeal to younger buyers. As General Motors said, you can sell a young man’s car to an old man but not the other way round.

Jaguar has always been about value. An Aston Martin always offered the same technology but at twice the price. So when I heard that the new XF, which I saw for the first time last week, was $63,000 (£31,000) for the supercharged version, I was amazed. At that price it’s £25,000 cheaper here than in Britain, so expect a wave of private imports. I had reckoned on $80,000-$85,000. But that’s good news. If this is to be the car to save the brand, it needs to fly off the shelves.

To put it among its brethren, for the first look at the new Jag, we brought the XF into my garage and parked it by my XK120s and a special E-type I have. Right away it looked at home.

The shiny grille is beautiful. The haunches are muscular but sculpted. The car sits beautifully on those massive 20in wheels. The arc of the roofline is stunning and is not something that a computer could have done. You can tell that Ian Callum hand-draws his cars first, then turns them into clays, before the computer takes over.

It is a work of art. You try it. It’s a hard thing to do. There is nothing I like more than sitting and just enjoying the art of a beautiful car. I think Jaguar dealers should make sofas and a glass of wine available to new customers so they can enjoy the lines of the XF. I’m not a four-door guy but this saloon has some of the best lines of any four-door I have seen.

It’s not just the shape of the car that’s appealing. It’s the fact that it is made as a Jaguar should be made. The shut lines between the panels are consistent. No filling them up with rubber to hide the gaps, as would have been the case in the past.

Americans are not aware that Jaguar did well in the JD Power quality survey recently. When told, people say, “Yeah, right.” That shows how long it takes for people’s perception to change. The fact is, Jaguar seems now to be making cars as well as Lexus or BMW. The world just does not know it.

I love the bow to the A-pillar and the solidity of the C-pillar at the back. They hold up the beautiful arc-shaped roof with a sense of power and poise. The bonnet has a fabulous sculpted bulge that feels as if it should be there, not as if it has been added by a hot-rod shop as an afterthought.

Other things I like about the exterior are those wheels. They sit so well in the wheel wells. It is easy to make a car look out of proportion, but when it works it is wonderful.

The face of the car is friendly but also slightly menacing. The nose of a Jaguar has always been an important feature, from the SS up to now. The XKE, or E-type, has one of the most distinguishable noses of any car made. And at the other end, I think Callum has made a perfect rear. I remember him saying that Kate Winslet’s curvaceous lines had been an inspiration in the past. I even asked her about it on the Tonight Show. I think he must have been thinking about her when designing the XF too.

Digressing for a moment, I hear that two Indian companies are in the running to buy Jaguar. One is Tata. I guess that instead of complimenting a lady on her rather nice Jaguar you’ll compliment her on her nice Tatas.

Inside the XF, the feel is hi-tech English gentleman’s study. The wood quotient is minimal for a Jaguar. Instead, the stitched leather and brushed aluminium add a sense of space race to London club. The dials remind me of one of my favourite mechanical watches. The instrument screen sits naturally in the dash instead of popping up like an electronic jack-in-the-box. The controls and toggles are solid and well fettled. The sense that the interior has been taken from the Ford parts bin is long gone. I like the fact the interior has been created from scratch, not based on a previous design. The interior alone will bring the demographic down 15 years.

I am not a car audiophile. I prefer to listen to the sound of a car like this with its fabulous supercharger whine. But Jaguar has worked with Bowers & Wilkins, a high-end British audio brand, to fit a good sound system that is iPod and iPhone compatible.

Forget Austin Powers and his Shaguar. The XF is definitely more 007. As you fire her up, the air vents swivel skywards and a Union Jack appears on the screen.

You expect a voice to say, “Good Morning, Mr Bond.” In an era when all cars are more and more similar, I like a sense of theatre. Starting it up makes driving the XF an event. With more than 400bhp, the supercharged version is a beast to make the BMW M5 take a peek in the rear-view mirror. In fact, if you blindfolded the driver (never a good idea), they’d probably say they were in a high-end German saloon. That’s a good thing.

On the rough freeways of Los Angeles, the ride is excellent. It takes the punches of the potholes but is still firm enough to allow you to feel in touch with the surface.

The steering is precise, the steering wheel is perfectly weighted and the driving position gives great vision. Only when you come up behind other saloons do you realise how low this car is. The sports heritage has not gone away.

For a proper test of its handling and performance we head into the Malibu hills. The roads up here attract more Ducati and Yamaha riders than sports saloon drivers. But the appearance of the XF gets even the bikers excited. “Is that the new BMW?” asks one, before correcting himself when he sees the Jaguar badge. “Wow, that’s cool. Beautiful.”

On the switchback mountain roads the XF has superb poise. I look at the speedo and see we are at almost 90mph between the curves. It sits well on those huge Pirellis and takes the bends and the bumps with aplomb.

I have it in track mode, which gives the back end some freedom but with a safety net of traction control in case my skills are outdone by the highway. But there is no squeaking, no scuttle shake, no flexing of the chassis. It is taut and poised regardless of what I throw at it. The light touch is the way to go. Grab it like a teenager holding on for dear life at a dance, and it is not as happy.

So, is this the car to save Jaguar? I’d say yes. It is perhaps the best-made Jaguar ever, and its looks will keep it young for a while. This is not some 50-year-old lady with a tummy tuck, boob job and Botox. It’s a clean sheet of paper.

The bottom line is, people want Jaguar to succeed. If they make cars as good as Lexuses or BMWs, they will sell well. No one wants Jaguar to go away. For many people, there is an emotional attachment to Jaguar. That’s certainly the case for me. Jaguar got me into this game. I want the company to succeed, and I’d hate the XF to be the last new Jaguar I ever drove.