Launched on Sept. 27, 1908, the Ford Model T is celebrating its centennial this week. More than 16 million were sold during its 19-year production run, making a fortune for Henry Ford and changing the face of the automotive landscape around the world.
In the 19 years Ford owned Jaguar, things didn’t go quite so well.
Quality was improved — a lot — and the cars became better overall than the ones that Ford inherited when it bought the company in 1989. But the old world style that Jaguar’s designers struggled to shake off couldn’t connect with the broader market their new bosses hoped to reach.
Plans to compete with BMW and Mercedes-Benz on the sales charts never got off the ground as Ford struggled to keep the British automaker alive, like so many stewards of the brand had done before.
Things did start looking up near the end. In 2007, the XK coupe was given an almost shockingly modern design that was, finally, a great departure from past Jags. But priced from $75,000 to $100,000, it was never intended to be the kind of volume leader that would put the company in the black. By then, the mother ship in Detroit was having problems of its own and looking to cut its losses.
Development continued on new products, and much of Jaguar’s efforts were turned toward a complete reengineering of the dead-in-the-water S-Type sedan. The result is the absolutely gorgeous XF, a car that might have saved the company from Ford’s chopping block if it had it been released a decade ago.
Instead, as the last Jaguar to be fully developed and released under Ford’s ownership, the XF ends up as a future trivia question and a lovely parting gift to Jaguar’s new owners, Indian industrial giant, Tata.
I’m going to go out on a very thin limb and say that the XF is, by far, the best-looking midsize luxury car in the world. I know that is the most subjective statement someone can possibly make, but look at the photos before you write in to complain.
The exterior is both aggressive and elegant in a way no other car in its class can match. There is just enough chrome trim to catch your eye as it is drawn by the character lines along the cars tall flanks, sweeping back toward powerful rear fenders that always look ready to pounce. Even the side vents behind the front wheels, so common on cars today, are perfectly matched to the overall style of the XF.
The clean sheet redesign extends to the interior, with mixed results. The top of the dashboard is a marvel of leather-covered simplicity, culminating in a tidy instrument panel with nothing more than a speedometer, tachometer and an information screen in the middle of the two. In a luxury car this is the perfect set up.
Since I won’t be entering the XF in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I really don’t care what the oil pressure or water temperature are up to every second of the day. If things go wrong, I trust the onboard computer will let me know.
Lower down, wood and metal accents start making their appearance, and it starts getting a little busy. I counted nine different materials that can be seen from the driver’s seat and, although they are mostly high quality, I couldn’t help being reminded of recent Lincoln products I’ve been in. The collection of shapes on the center console is particularly fussy, with enough crooked seams between them to make the artist Mondrian spin in his grave.
They do surround one of the more innovative features on the XF, a rotary dial for the transmission. It rises from the console as you press the start button just in front of it, a silly red light blinking away, trying to imitate a heartbeat when the fob for the keyless starting system gets near the car.
The dial seems gimmicky at first, but turns out to be very functional, particularly during parking maneuvers. Why row your arm back and forth like you do with a traditional gear selector when you can just turn your wrist a notch or two?
Leave it in the Sport position, and on the move you can use paddles behind the steering wheel to shift through the six forward gears just like one of those Le Mans drivers you have no interest in pretending to be in this car. The transmission works so well on its own, you really won’t need to anyway.
The XF comes standard with a free-spinning 300-horsepower V-8 that is basically a carryover from the car it replaces, and is seen in number of other Jaguar models. It moves the 4,000-pound sedan along just fine and can easily overwhelm the tires in the turns if you call for too much power.
The suspension can handle a good amount of spirited driving while remaining comfortable over heaving road surfaces. But with the 19-inch wheel option — like my test car had — hitting sharp bumps and potholes is unkind to its occupants. The car also has one of the quickest steering racks you’ll find in any vehicle, to the point that it seems out of place. It is a constant reminder that you that you didn’t spend the extra money for the sportier 420-horsepower, supercharged version.
You would want better seats if you did, the ones in the XF are on the skimpy side and neither sporty nor especially comfortable. The entire interior feels like it could stand a bit more stuffing to get it up to the level of some the luxury competition, but has a light, airy feel.
Rear-seat passengers get typical midsize room, and not much else. The only cup holders are in the fold-down armrest, which means if there are three aboard, or a child seat in the center, you’ll be playing Texas hold ‘em with your afternoon tea.
The highlight inside is the optional Bowers and Wilkins audio system. Playing through 14 speakers, the clarity makes a concert hall seem more like a school auditorium. It features Dolby 7.1 surround sound which makes the 3-channel setting sound like stereo, and stereo sound like a transistor radio.
For $1,500, it is a more satisfying option than the similarly-priced navigation system that is also available. It works well enough, and has cool James Bond style graphics on the touch screen, but the default settings are all wrong, and you find yourself constantly adjusting it all every time you enter the car.
On your way in, you’ll come across the one true disappointment on the XF, an uninspiring door with none of the vault-like feel you expect in a car that costs $63,125. It clunks through a couple of detents like an econobox when you open it, and took my impression of the XF down a couple of notches every time I used it.
Carmakers make a big deal about the “handshake” a car offers a potential buyer, that initial experience as they grab the handle and open the door. The one you get from the XF belies the very enjoyable car that is on the other side of it.
In India, many people don’t shake hands, they put them together and say “Namaste.” It means something to the effect of, “I am at your service.” I’m sure Tata liked the sound of that coming from the XF. Time will tell how good of a servant it turns out to be.
2009 JAGUAR XF PREMIUM LUXURY
Base Price: $55,200
As Tested: $63,125
Type: Front-engine, rear-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8
Power: 300 horsepower, 310 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 16 city/25 hwy
What do you think of the XF?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.