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The new Jaguar XJ

Test venue: Seville, southern Spain

Jaguar's much-vaunted XJ range of executive cars goes on sale in the UK in April 2003 and in the USA in May. For a company which is currently haemorrhaging around 1 million per day, the timing and success of the new model are absolutely critical.

The new XJ was first shown at the 2002 Paris Motor Show and is aimed at the luxury sector of the business car market. Main competition includes the Mercedes S Class and BMW 7 Series. Prices start at 39,000 for the 3.0-litre V6, rising to 68,500 for the 4.2-litre Super V8.

The seventh generation of the XJ - first introduced as an XJ6 in September 1968 - is the most advanced Jaguar ever built and features a revolutionary lightweight aluminium monocoque constructed using rivet bonding and adhesives to replace the conventional traditional steel chassis. New chassis are constructed at Jaguar's Castle Bromwich plant in Birmingham and the final assembly is carried out at Browns Lane.

Jaguar claims that the new model is around 200 kgs lighter than its predecessor. It is also more frugal and more powerful. All models feature a lighter six-speed ZF automatic transmission and there are 3.5-litre V8 and 4.2-litre normally-aspirated V8 options available in the four-engine range.

All four powerplants have been developed at Jaguar's Whitley Engineering Centre in Coventry. The V6 unit is also available in both the S-Type and X-Type and delivers 240 bhp. The V8 options produce 262 bhp, 300 bhp and 400 bhp, respectively. The increase from 4.0-litre to 4.2-litre for the range-topper has increased power and torque by seven per cent.

But improvements don't stop with the chassis and the engine. The new XJ features the latest Adaptive Restraint Technology (ARTS), Dynamic Stability Control, Adaptive Cruise Control (such a success in the upgraded XK range), Emergency Brake Assist and a new air suspension system. This utilises air springs and dampers in place of the traditional coil spring/damper set-up and improves ride comfort and refinement.

I drove all four engine derivatives at the European launch near Seville in southern Spain and the all-round improvements are marked. Out on the open road the new XJ feels much smaller than it actually is. The handling, whilst retaining the comfort which you would expect from a class-leading executive saloon, is not compromised and you can push the XJ along twisty mountain roads at speed without ever feeling that safety is being compromised.

Even the bottom of the range 3.0-litre has adequate acceleration for swift overtaking manoeuvres and the new model has lost all trace of the wallowing and oversteering Jags of old. The range-topping supercharged V8 will press on to illegal speeds in just over five seconds and the delicious howl of the V8 is joined by the whistle of the supercharger as you make very rapid progress indeed. Jaguar claims a restricted top speed of 155 mph for the range-topper, although fuel consumption figures are also impressive for a car of its type.

Jaguar claims that 800,000 XJs have been built since 1968, but the majority of new XJs will once again find themselves a home Stateside. Specification levels will vary according to the market. In the UK, for example, the standard V6 offers rear park distance control, leather trim, electrically-controlled front seats, steering wheel and foot pedals, cruise, climate control, traction control and air suspension with CATS.

Insurance ratings for the UK market place the 3.0-litre V6 in Group 15E, rising to Group 19E for the Super V8.

Ground-breaking technology has transformed the XJ from an expensive and heavy luxury car into a performance grand tourer, which offers all the interior extras you would expect from a car in its price category without compromising style, handling and build quality.

Jaguar badly needs the XJ to be a success. Browns Lane certainly has the product to meet the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S Class head on. Only time time tell.

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