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Jaguar's Back in the Hunt

The British luxury carmaker, known for sleek lines and peak performance, releases a powerful new sports car. But will this quick cat capture strong sales?
By Paul A. Eisenstein | From William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
Jaguar's Back in the Hunt

The sun sears down on parched sand. Even the snakes and scorpions have crawled off in search of shade. But a cat is on the prowl, and you can hear its growl blowing in on the wind. You squint and scan the horizon, wondering where it might be hiding, only to stagger back as it crests the barren hill, pawing the blistered tarmac. Almost as quickly as it appears, it is gone, as if carried off by the superheated wind.

A mirage? Not this time. It is the new Jaguar XK, the long-awaited and equally long-overdue new sports car from the British automaker, out for a test drive along the southern coast of Baja California. The 2007 XK is the spiritual heir, in sheet metal, to the legendary E-Type Jaguar, perhaps the most coveted sports car in history.

The automaker's latest ad campaign would sum things up in a word: gorgeous. Only the crabbiest critic might deny that claim. Low, lithe and just a bit menacing, the XK is a visual standout in a world of look-alike sedans and trucks. It is the automotive embodiment of a powerful feline, both in its coupe and convertible body styles. But does this cat have claws?

That's the critical question for Jaguar, a larger-than-life brand struggling with smaller-than-anticipated sales. Not all that long ago, plans called for the marque to nudge its way into the first tier of global luxury nameplates, challenging the likes of Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. But raw ambition doesn't always deliver grand results, and the British marque has stumbled badly in recent years. The new XK's design declares that Jaguar is back. But will luxury buyers agree?

It's been five years since Jaguar launched another critical "X" model, in that case, the downsized X-Type. Known inside the company as the "Baby Jag," the compact four-door dropped smack into what was then the fastest-growing segment of the luxury market. Offering a vehicle with all-wheel-drive as standard equipment at a modest $29,950 starting price, Jaguar's American parent, the Ford Motor Co., was confident enough to set up an entire assembly plant (Jaguar's third) for the X-Type. With the addition of the new model line, Jac Nasser, then Ford's chief executive officer, boldly predicted the British brand's sales would soon top 200,000 a year. Jaguar, he declared, would serve as the centerpiece of Ford's lineup of overseas luxury brands, the Premier Automotive Group. A plenitude of skeptics notwithstanding, it seemed that Jaguar, a brand that had already looked into the abyss, had no place to go but up. Only after snapping up the ailing marque, in 1989, for a jaw-dropping $2.5 billion, did Ford recognize the chaos surrounding the company. Browns Lane, Jaguar's home assembly plant in Crewe, required over 200 man-hours to build a car—10 times more than a top-line Lexus. Quality was abysmal, with as many as 11 defects a vehicle, compared with fewer than one for its Japanese rival. Product development programs typically ran years late and millions of dollars over budget.

"We had no idea just how bad the situation was," former Ford Chief Financial Officer Allan Gilmour admitted at the time. Even as the U.S. parent pumped in millions to shore up its acquisition, sales plunged and losses mounted. By 1992, Jag's global sales had slumped to just 22,074, leading Ford to give serious thought to writing off its investment. But the British brand had a powerful ally in the form of William Clay Ford Sr. The grandson of founder Henry Ford, the father of the current chairman, Bill Ford Jr., and a powerful voice on the board, he was—and remains—determined to keep Jaguar going, inside sources reveal, whatever the cost.

By the mid-1990s, signs indicated that the senior Ford's optimism was justified. The ancient Browns Lane factory, in the British Midlands, was completely rebuilt and some of Ford's best and brightest, including Nick Scheele (the man who would later become Ford's chief operating officer), were assigned to the troubled subsidiary. Things started to turn around. Productivity jumped sharply, slashing manufacturing costs. Then the unimaginable happened as quality began to rise sharply. For decades, using the words Jaguar and quality in the same sentence seemed a contradiction in terms. Yet suddenly, the automaker was nudging into the top tiers on the Initial Quality and Customer Satisfaction charts compiled by the widely quoted California market research guru, J.D. Power and Associates.

By 1997, worldwide sales had doubled, the United States alone accounting for 25,000 sales. That year, Jaguar began the most aggressive launch in its long and checkered history. First came an all-new XK8, the next generation of Jaguar's flagship coupe/convertible twins. It would have been hard to miss what automotive stylists call the "design DNA" in the model sculpted by the late Geoff Lawson. Though clearly a car for modern times, the '97 XK was unmistakably derived from the E-Type, and the crowds loved it.

Then, in 1998, came the S-Type, the automaker's first midsized saloon car in decades. The launch was accompanied by the opening of Jaguar's second assembly line. The big XJ sedan was updated the same year, and work began on the little X-Type. All told, Jaguar would soon have its broadest lineup ever, and an opportunity to reinvent itself, something that the automaker had done many times in its history.

While Jaguar may evermore be linked to the luxury market, things certainly didn't start out that way. Even today, the man most often associated with Jaguar is Sir William Lyons. Born in 1901, this son of a music shopkeeper developed an interest in motorcycles. Lyons was infatuated with an octagonal sidecar developed by a neighbor, William Walmsley, and with help from their parents, the two men set up a small shop that became, in 1922, the Swallow Sidecar Co.

Their lightweight, aluminum sidecars quickly proved successful, and by mid-decade the partners branched out. In an era of coach building, Swallow turned out some striking bodies for otherwise mundane models, such as the Standard Nine—indeed, Lyons and Walmsley would customize just about anything. In 1931, their small company took a chance on building a complete car. The SS1 had the good luck to be "introduced in a year when the rest of the motoring world was lacking inspiration and originality," explains author Craig Burlingame in his biography, There's a Lyon Behind Every Jaguar. With little else to look at, the motoring press gave the SS1 plenty of attention, and the car proved an immediate hit with the public.

From 1939 to 1945, Jaguar, with the rest of the British automotive industry, shifted its production to war material. The by-then unseemly "SS" designation was wisely abandoned in the wake of the war. Soon afterwards, the renamed Jaguar Cars Ltd. launched a car that is still a favorite with collectors. By styling it the XK120, the company emphasized the striking two-seater's ability to reach an unheard-of 120 miles an hour. With the help of aircraft designer Malcolm Sayer, the roadster morphed into the C-type racecar. That's "C," as in competition, and the handsome racer quickly came to be feared on the European circuit, winning the grueling 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1953. Few cars ever matched the dominance of its successor, the D-Type, which won at Le Mans in 1955 and 1956 and commanded the field in 1957, placing first through fourth and sixth.

But it was the "civilian" E-Type that transfixed motorists around the world. With its impossibly long snout slung low to the ground and a sensual, sweeping cabin, the two-seater was unlike anything else on the road. When asked to define his underlying philosophy, Sir William—he had been knighted in 1956—was succinct. "I like curves," he explained following the E's 1961 debut. Soon, the little Crewe plant was struggling to keep up with demand.

But Jaguar's turning point had yet to come. And when it did, it pointed straight down.

In his latter years, Lyons said the decision to join the British Motor Corp., in 1966, was one of the worst he'd ever made. Like many other small U.K. makes at the time, Jaguar was seeking partners, and the strategy seemed sound enough: unite to help ensure your survival. But in the process, Jaguar "lost its identity and control over the quality of product produced," biographer Burlingame concludes. Things would only worsen when, two years later, BMC was acquired by British Leyland.

In the decades that followed, Jaguar turned out some of the least-inspired and most poorly assembled products in its history. The government-run conglomerate was not enthusiastic about manufacturing automobiles or investing the money needed to keep Jaguar competitive. So when the automaker was put on the auction block, it seemed a time for Jaguar fans to celebrate. And with Ford's money and technical talent, the situation did quickly improve.

Yet Ford brought its own set of problems. While Jaguar management had argued strongly for the entry-luxury X-Type, Ford's approval carried some tough requirements. The sedan—and later a wagon variant—would have to share its underlying platform with the Ford Mondeo, a decidedly down-market European sedan. And Jaguar would have to build the X-Type at a plant of its own. That move made little economic sense. Even if Jaguar hit its most optimistic goals, sales would run barely 200,000 worldwide. Most competitors could handle that number in a single plant. Jag would be saddled with three—the newest foisted upon the marque as a result of labor problems.

Considering the compromises, the X-Type that emerged in 2001 was a surprisingly good product: nimble, roomy and extremely affordable. Even while reviewers praised these attributes, they couldn't ignore that the car was based in large part on the mundane Mondeo. Despite the criticism, the X-Type helped raise Jaguar sales substantially, though the numbers for the brand still continued to fall well short of Ford's overambitious expectations.

A complete remake of the big XJ sedan was supposed to help. And the model that emerged, in 2003, was unquestionably a technical tour de force. With its aluminum body, it was lighter and arguably much better handling than many of its competitors. But the maker that had pushed the proverbial envelope under the skin, took a conservative approach to the XJ's exterior design. "In my mind, I feel it was too traditional," too much like the car it replaced, acknowledges Jaguar's design chief, Ian Callum. "It needed a dose of modernity."

Yet again, sales fell short of their target, and mounting losses forced Ford to order some sharp cuts, including the closure of Jaguar's hereditary home, Browns Lane. For the first time in years, questions were being raised about the marque's long-term viability. But Jaguar was determined to prove it had staying power.

When a thinly disguised version of the XK sedan was revealed at the much-watched Detroit auto show, in 2004, it generated nearly as many headlines as the original E-Type. The coupe Callum rolled out carried much of the car's classic look: the long, powerful hood line, the sweeping lines and the aggressive haunch, which made it seem like captured motion. Where the '61 E-Type was all soft and sensual curves, the '04 show car was more angular and aggressive. Callum and his design team had learned their lessons and aimed to introduce a decidedly modern car.

The production-version XK recently began rolling into Jaguar showrooms around the world. It stays true to the show car, though it is arguably even better looking on the road than on the show stand.

Like the big XJ, the new sports car is technically elegant, with an aluminum chassis and body that is phenomenally lightweight—the whole car, in coupe form, weighs in at just 3,671 pounds, about 600 less than either the BMW 650 or Mercedes SL550. (The convertible tips the scales at 3,759 pounds.) Weight means a lot with a car like this, significantly contributing to both performance and handling. Despite its lightness, aluminum is, pound for pound, substantially stronger than steel. For the engineers among our readers, torsional stiffness increases 48 percent over the prior-generation XK convertible, even though the body weighs 19 percent less. The layman can best discover what that means behind the wheel of the XK convertible.

The outgoing model was, to be polite, ponderous. Hit a bump or cross a railroad track and you'd feel the car flex from front to back. The new XK is absolutely rigid. Pull the top down, put your hand on the top of the windshield and aim for some potholes, and you'll feel no flex at all. On smoother pavement, the payoff is in the sports car's sleekness, its firm grip on the road. It is simply a blast to drive, with Jaguar's excellent 4.2-liter V-8 turning out 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It gently purrs as you cruise along the highway, but tip in the throttle and the V-8 responds with a menacing roar and vibrant acceleration that sinks you deep into the driver's seat. You'll sprint from 0 to 60 in about six seconds in either the coupe or convertible.

While incorporating retro touches, such as the classic J-pattern auto gearshift, Jaguar's new entry boasts a modern cabin. For example, well-placed paddle shifters help take manual control of the smooth-as-silk gearbox. The interior is still lavished with the rich wood that has long defined Jaguar interiors, but here it's offset by brushed aluminum accents. The center video display is decidedly modern and, best of all, there's no computer-derived control system to force you through 14 steps just to tune the radio. It is, if you will, anti-Teutonic. And that's just fine. Jaguar needn't position itself with German entries. The brand has been most successful when it's found its own niche. The new XK suggests that after some missteps, Jaguar is finding its center.

The new car won't right the automaker's balance sheet, at least not on its own. It was never meant to deliver serious sales numbers. But it does define the brand, and is likely to lure potential customers for the XJ and other deserving Jaguar products. The big test comes a little more than a year from now, when the next-generation S-Type hits the market. In that relatively high-volume segment, it is critical to the revitalization of the marque. With the launch of the 2007 XK, there's finally reason to believe that Jaguar will get it right.

Paul A. Eisenstein, a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor, also publishes the Internet magazine