2011 Jaguar XF Driving Impressions

The Jaguar XF measures well against the best cars in its class in just about every respect. In overall, balanced performance, it surpasses many other cars, in this category populated by the best brands in the world.

From the driver's seat, the XF delivers everything we like about medium-sized sport-luxury sedans. The Supercharged model in particular leans toward the sporty end of the spectrum, with the BMW 5 Series and sport-tuned versions of the Audi A6, rather than the softer, cushier end. The XF is smooth, fast, and responsive, but also quiet and comfortable. Its six-speed automatic transmission might be the best in any luxury car anywhere, and contributes considerably to the enjoyable driving experience. Perhaps best of all, the XF has lots of those subtle little characteristics that some reviewers might call soul.

All XFs have proximity keys, so the doors can unlock themselves. When the driver sits down the start button on the center console pulses red. Press it and, as the V8 starts up, cutouts in the aluminum dash panel rotate to expose four vents. At the same time, a milled aluminum shift dial rises out of the console, ready to rotate three clicks for Drive or four if the driver prefers to shift manually with paddles on the steering column. This introduction is engaging, and perhaps a bit showy, but it's a great way to begin the job at hand. This handshake, as Jaguar calls it, reminds occupants that, while they might be ensconced in a quiet, comfortable cocoon, driving remains an interactive and sometimes demanding process. After the handshake, the soft purr of the engine at idle will leave you anticipating what lies ahead.

The 5.0-liter normally-aspirated 32-valve V8 delivers a more-than-healthy 385 horsepower, which is 85 more than the 4.2-liter in the 2010 base XF. It will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds.

Floor the gas pedal in the supercharged versions, whether 470 hp or the 510 hp of the XFR, and you'll be blown away. The supercharger whine is so subdued, compared to previous Jaguars, that it takes a couple of full bursts before the thrust convinces the driver of the potential under the hood.

We'd guess that the XF Supercharged is the quickest car in a group populated by some very quick sedans, except for the previously mentioned ultra-performance cars like the BMW M5 and Mercedes E63 AMG, and that doesn't include the even more powerful XFR. Yet nothing in any model of the XF line suggests a hot-rod quality. Rather, these cars shoot ahead in a smooth, unruffled fashion completely befitting a luxury sedan of this price range.

The 6-speed automatic contributes to the sporting character of the XF, using adaptive gear-change strategies based on the type of road and the driver's application of the gas pedal. This transmission anticipates well and shifts smoothly. Manual shifting works nearly as well. The paddle shifts are quick but not harsh. In manual mode, the transmission stays in the driver's chosen gear to redline.

We do not like the shift dial, however. It looks and feels too much like a navigation system controller. Also, it's slow to engage. Parallel parking, for example, when you're shifting between D and R, you have to wait for the gears to engage.

JaguarDrive Control is a feature that lets the driver tailor various functions to taste with a single adjustment. This system, which comes standard, incorporates most electronic control programs, including: How early or late the transmission shifts; the throttle map, or how much the engine accelerates for a given dip of the gas pedal; and the Dynamic Stability Control, or skid-management electronics.

The driver can switch through three options: Winter is the most conservative; the transmission shifts up at low engine speeds, the throttle works lightly and the DSC intervenes quickly, all useful in slippery conditions. Dynamic is the most aggressive setting, best for driving hard in dry conditions. There is also a set-and-forget Automatic mode. All of the electronics are state of the art. The DSC electronic stability control includes an Understeer Control Logic that helps manage sliding front tires or pushing, which is more likely for the typical driver on a dry road than a fishtail-type skid (called oversteer). The ABS (anti-lock brake system) features Cornering Brake Control, which balances brake application from side to side in a curve, allowing the inside and outside tires to brake with the same effective force.

Still, the slickest electronic systems ever aren't worth much if the underlying mechanical components aren't up to snuff. Our test drive suggests that the XF's are first-rate. It starts with a tight, flex-free unitized chassis and body, which lays the foundation for all of a car's dynamic behavior. The XF's suspension design is taken from Jaguar's XK sport coupe and roadster, with a sophisticated multilink arrangement in back and aluminum components to reduce weight and improve the suspension's response time.

What's important is that the XF delivers a nice ride-and-handling balance and level of steering response. The XF ride is firm, and you can feel some bumps, but it glides over others, and the reward for firmness is that it doesn't lean in fast curves. It stays nice and level front to rear under hard braking or hard acceleration, and it's as stable as granite at high speeds.

The steering uses variable-ratio technology, which was developed to reduce parking effort at low speeds while maintaining precision and feedback at higher speeds. Generally, the XF's steering leans toward the light side, and it's quick for a fairly large sedan. Lane changes at interstate speeds are accomplished with a flick of the steering wheel. The XF turns neatly into bigger, slower curves, always where the driver aims it, and the SC's standard sport tires deliver sports car-style grip.

A drive in the rain shows a couple of important things: First, that the XF is inherently balanced, meaning it's no more prone to slide on its front tires than it is to spin out in back; and second, that the Dynamic Stability Control does a great job. In the Automatic mode, where most drivers will keep it, the DSC works early, throttling the engine back or tapping the brakes before the driver anticipates that one end of the car or the other might be sliding. Yet those who want to see a little more of what the XF can do can choose the Dynamic mode. This allows the XF to move a bit more laterally, and it allows the driver to slide the car a little, as enthusiast drivers are want to do, before the DSC clamps down. In a sense, the XF delivers the best of all worlds: A comfortable ride, responsive, consistent handling, stress-free, secure skid-management in the rain or a bit of latitude that allows capable drivers to express themselves. There's a track mode handy when driving on race tracks. This switches the DSC off completely and allows big fishtails and smoking tires.

The Supercharged and XFR models include Active Differential Control, an electronically controlled alternative to the conventional limited-slip differential, which can vary its locking torque depending upon surface conditions and available power. It optimizes grip at each wheel, thus improving acceleration on slippery surfaces while also enhancing cornering capability.

The Supercharged and XFR models also have Adaptive Dynamics, a damping system which automatically adjusts the suspension damper (shock absorber) settings to suit both road conditions and the way the vehicle is being driven. It does this by analyzing vehicle motions 100 times per second, and continually adjusting each damper to an appropriate level to maintain a constant and level body attitude, thus optimizing handling without compromising ride quality. In addition, based upon measuring steering inputs, it predicts the roll-rate (how much the vehicle is about to lean into a corner) and selectively increases damping forces to reduce that roll-rate, thus keeping the vehicle more level and further improving handling.

The brakes in the Jaguar XF are outstanding. All models have large rotors and calipers, and the brake pedal has a nice solid feel. It's also progressive in application, meaning that a little bit of pedal delivers a little bit of deceleration, while a lot of pedal stops the XF right now.

Dynamically, we like most everything about the XF, but performance is only one requisite in this class. Luxury buyers expect extra smooth, quiet operation for the money and the XF holds up its end. It starts with that solid underlying structure, which is the first defense against vibration and harshness inside the car. From there Jaguar adds more measures, including a double bulkhead in the front of the cabin and rubber mounted subframes for the suspension, which minimizes the transfer of road vibration inside.

Cruising at 70 mph is generally a serene experience, with minimal wind noise and only an occasional slap of the tires on bumps to interrupt the solitude, or the assertive growl of the V8 if the driver decides to slam that gas pedal. Overall, the XF might be the smoothest, quietest Jaguar in memory. It's at least as smooth as Jaguar's larger XJ sedan, and quieter around town than any mid-size luxury sedan we've driven recently. It's a thoroughly wonderful ride.

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