This is going to be slightly different from my usual ‘Let’s Go For A Drive’ features as it’s actually going to be a description of (wait for it)…a drive in a car. No long paragraphs about whether or not the exterior styling is an example deconstructivist design, the socio-political importance of the MGB GT or how I feel slightly guilty about agreeing with Jeremy Clarkson, just a car, some road and some words.
The Car: A 1995 Jaguar XJ ‘X300’ 4.0 Sovereign
The Mission: To drive from Portsmouth (birthplace of Charles Dickens and home of the Royal Navy) to Peterborough (birthplace of the founder of Pizza Express and home of the country’s ninth largest building society).
The Distance: 162 miles (2 hours 50 minutes journey time estimate by everyone’s favourite non-evil search engine)
The Time: November, departing at 8pm on a Sunday evening.
The Weather: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night.
Many of you will already be realising that this was a rare case of everything coming together nicely. When you’ve got a tedious motorway run in miserable weather there are few cars better suited to smoothing away the miles like a big old Jag.
Except that the Jag isn’t that old (to me at least- which seems a bit strange since if it was a person it would be old enough to vote…I wonder who a metallic maroon XJ would vote for? Anyway, I digress…). And yet, if the Jaguar isn’t a ‘proper classic’ yet- and the fact that it’s worth about £1500 at the most implies that it certainly isn’t- it’s certainly ‘old fashioned’.
The early ‘Nineties were a strange time for Jaguar. The firm’s brief period of independence had come to an end when Ford took over and the attempt to shift the corporate image into the correct decade hadn’t really worked. The XJ40 of 1986 was the first genuinely all-new XJ since the model had been launched in the ‘Sixties and it was a brave attempt to move Jaguar’s styling development along at something other than its previously glacial pace. All this really meant was that the XJ40 had rectangular rather than round headlamps. The upper-middle-aged, upper-middle-class professionals of the Home Counties gave a collective “Harrumph…bloody typical…this country…!” and stayed away. Things weren’t helped by Jaguar continuing to build the old XJ alongside its all-new replacement for six years- the XJ40 only outlived the Series III XJ by two years.
With its fingers well and truly burnt Jaguar ran fleeing from the ‘Nineties and rushed head-long back into the early ‘Seventies when it came to designing the XJ40’s replacement, which was the X300 we have here. The sculpted, swooping body lines returned, as did the quad round lamps and the trademark Jaguar rear ‘haunches’. Inside the daring ‘Tokyo By Night’ electronic dashboard and synthetic materials were ditched in favour of leather, burred walnut and proper dials with proper numbers and proper needles. Retired doctors all over Florida breathed a sigh of relief.
That’s all I’m going to say about the XJ’s design because on a night like this I struggled to see much of it. What was of more interest was that interior. For all my gentle mockery there’s no denying that the inside of a Jag is a great place to spend time. You open the hefty door with its chromed metal handle and the interior is lit up in a puddle of proper filament-generated warm yellow light (no halogens or LEDs here, old chap!) revealing the inviting sight of several acres of material that used to be alive but was forced to give up its life to go on to greater things as part of a Jaguar interior. It is exactly like getting into comforting sitting room after a long walk on a rainy Sunday afternoon. You expect a kindly butler with a name like Wigglesworth to appear from nowhere to take your coat and proffer a pair of twill-patterned driving slippers. When you shut the door the tedious sounds of nature’s wilder side are shut out completely as soon as the latch clunks into place, with just the gentle patter of raindrops on the windscreen to disturb the peace. The steering wheel (which retracts into the dash on exit to allow those of a more ‘trans-Atlantic’ girth to get out without their paunch hitting the horn button) slides into place…but the seat (which also glides backwards) doesn’t. It would be too much to expect an 18-year old Jaguar not to have the occasional electrical niggle. Fortunately the electric adjusters still work so it’s easy to shuffle the chair into the correct place.
Turn the key and the dashboard springs to life with a symphony of polite warning tones and a Blackpool-esque array of warning lights. One more turn and the 4.0-litre straight-six hums into action. You get a brief cough from the exhaust and then the engine retreats into the background, with just a sibilant hiss from the air vents to show that anything is actually happening. At this point I should also mention that the Jag’s air conditioning system had gone for a burton some years ago, meaning that the vast majority of switches and readouts in the centre console, now gently glowing green with the hue of a uranium rod from a cheesy sci-fi film, are entirely decorative.
Foot on the brake, slip the leather-topped gear lever into ‘D’ and then release the right foot. The Jag slurs into action like an ocean liner leaving the pier. As with all big-engined cars with old-fashioned automatic gearboxes the XJ can clip along at a decent pace without any throttle at all, and it takes only a slight brush on the accelerator to get the Jaguar wafting around the dull and thoroughly un-noteworthy streets of the Gosport peninsular, the single wiper only revealing a sequence of mini roundabouts and those curiously generic parades of shops you always find in suburban Britain (one cheap booze shop, a Chinese takeaway, a barbers and something weird like a mercury thermometer repair business).
This was a good time to take stock of some fuel/range numbers. The X300 did carry over a lot of XJ40’s on-board electronics; it just disguised them behind a (literal) veneer of walnut. The dashboard includes a wonderfully dated array of seven-segment displays to record various things you might be interested in. The one of interest to me was the Jag’s estimate of its fuel range and its instant MPG readout. The previous day I had put in £80 of Shell’s finest vintage petroleum distillate. This was only enough to get the tank to three-quarters full (I chickened out when I realised that I spent the equivalent of about six months of 2CV fuel and the Jag still wasn’t finished) and the car was now saying that this wallet-shrivelling sum was only sufficient to take me 262 miles. The ‘economy’ readout said 16 MPG and it was easy to get that into single figures under acceleration.
So, surprise, surprise, a 4.0-litre luxury saloon that’s 15 feet long and weighs 1.9 tons isn’t the ideal city car. What the Jag was already proving was its sublime ride quality. As well as the exemplary mechanical refinement the XJ simple swallowed up the scuffed tarmac, potholes and speed bumps that make up the lower end of the A32. There was a muffled ‘clonk’ from the back end which pointed to some wear in one of the many rear bushes but the car remained unperturbed by things that a sensible car on small wheels and tight springs would be jarring over horrendously.
Getting off the Gosport peninsula is one of the great logistical problems in British motoring as there is no easy way to get to any motorway from it. I toyed with the idea of just getting on a decent road as quickly as possible and settling in for the long haul but instead decided to hack cross-country to Winchester and pick up the M3 from there.
I’m glad I did as it gave me the chance to sample another, more unexpected side of the Jaguar’s character. The back roads that skirt across the western edge of the South Downs are (in decent weather) perfect sports car territory; sweeping roads with good sight-lines and the odd switchback or chicane to make things interesting. You wouldn’t want to thrash a Mazda MX-5 along these roads on a rainy night but the big Jag proved remarkably suited to the task. What felt like a ponderous barge of a car around town manages to seem to shrink when you start exploring its more dynamic qualities.
It’s such a well-worn cliché that Jaguars manage to combine the ride comfort of a limousine and the handling ability of a sports car that it almost disappoints me to say that it is, in essence true. Of course a Rolls-Royce will ride better and a Honda S2000 will handle better but I can think of no car that so perfectly straddles the comfort/handling spectrum. This is all the more remarkable when you remember two things- that the Jaguar’s suspension is entirely conventional steel springs and hydraulic dampers and that the basics of this system first saw the light of day in 1961. You really do wonder why all cars aren’t set up this way.
Of course, the XJ is not a sports car- its sheer weight and size make that impossible. It’s not even a proper sports saloon. What the Jag is is a brilliant demonstration that the usual axiom that ‘rock hard ride and heavy steering= driver feedback’ is a complete nonsense. Take the Jaguar’s steering for example. It is definitely highly (although not over-) assisted but steering weight and steering feel are very different things. The Jaguar may be a soft, comfortable gin palace of a car but it is also powerful and objectively fast. Of course a surplus of power is a key part of luxury but many such cars isolate the driver so much from the business of driving that making use of that power for anything other than genteel wafting is deeply unpleasant. The XJ manages to tell you exactly where its limits are at any one time, and personally I enjoy a car with low limits that you can exploit with confidence than one with high limits that won’t tell you if you’re getting near the point where it will bite you.
The Jag has steering that is perfectly weighted for a luxury car but also manages to communicate what the ‘chassis’ is doing very, very well. Being a heavy car it is one that you need to ‘settle’ into sweeping corners if you want to maintain momentum and this is easy to judge. Equally, being a powerful rear-wheel drive car, the XJ likes to oversteer if being driven in a hooligan-like manner, but it telegraphs when its approaching its limits- the car’s inherent heft and feeling of planted solidity just begins to lighten up, as if that on-board butler is politely coughing and saying “Do you really think that’s wise, sir?”
The gearbox, which is slushy and shift-up-happy in normal use, has a ‘Sports’ mode which is one of the few I’ve encountered that makes a genuine difference. It holds onto the lower gears for longer, changes down more readily (and at just the right time) and, although I may be imagining it, seems to lose a lot of its thrashy, disconnected nature. Of course the X300 features the famous Jaguar ‘J-Gate’ gear lever setup. I have always wondered why a mere shifter gate shape could have such a fervent following and now I understand why. For those unfamiliar with the arrangement, with the gear lever at the bottom of its normal travel in ‘D’ you can flick it across to the left, and from there access the ‘3’ and ‘2’ lock-out positions like any other auto ‘box. The difference is that most auto-box shifters have stiff ratchet mechanisms to prevent you from shifting between positions accidentally. The arrangement on the ‘flick’ of the J-gate has divisions between each position that feels like a really nicely-sorted manual gearshift, making it a joy to hunt up and down the positions to work around the automatic’s inevitable hesitations.
All too soon it was time to relax, take off the Sport mode and get into the dull but necessary task of hoovering up 150-odd miles of some of Britain’s most tedious motorways. The last indulgence was a quick test of the car’s straight-line grunt courtesy of a set of traffic lights leading onto the slip road. I can see why the folks on PistonHeads keep banging on about the death of ‘proper’ BMWs with naturally-aspirated straight-sixes. You can’t beat the immediate, linear punch of a big engine breathing as nature intended. There is a slight hesitation as the gearbox works out what to do, rather like those old black-and-white war films with Jack Hawkins on the bridge of a destroyer where he calls down the voicepipe for ‘Full Ahead Ram!’ and there’s a pause before things actually start happening. I didn’t dare look at the MPG read out in all of this- I suspect the display would have just shown a scrambled mess of digits as the AJ16 engine guzzled fuel faster than it could keep up with.
For all its unexpected prowess on twisty roads, long motorway cruises on a wild night are really where the XJ shines. Like when you see the London Symphony Orchestra playing that symphony that’s just arrangements of Queen’s Greatest Hits. They do it very well but you can tell it’s not their natural territory and they’d be much happier playing Mahler. Similarly the Jag seemed happy to settle down to some proper luxury wafting. At 70mph the engine is pulling about 2200rpm. This is deep in its torque curve and the result is remarkably good fuel economy…for something of this size. The readout was showing a much healthier 32 MPG and for half an hour so my estimated range was increasing by two miles for every mile I drove. If only that could always happen!
With the cruise control set for 70 (or thereabouts) miles per hour there was really little left to do other than steer and watch the cat’s eyes flick under the Jaguar’s broad snout as I bored north through Hampshire. The light pollution of Basingstoke was left behind and the south coast radio stations gradually faded out of reach. North Hampshire on the M3 corridor is a surprisingly desolate patch of the Earth- if it was daylight all I’d be seeing was miles of gorse-strewn heath, the odd sign warning of military firing ranges and a few isolated farms. On this night, even the flashes of full moon in between rapidly-moving clouds wasn’t revealing anything other than a ribbon of wet tarmac punctuated by the occasional plodding lorry, which the Jaguar swished past with disdain.
The only thing I was really noticing was that I wasn’t big enough to be comfortable in the inside of the Jag. Which is odd, as usually it takes something with the headroom of a Land Rover or a Suzuki Wagon R for me not to complain about discomfort. However here the problem was not one of height but of girth (snigger). Basically I’m not fat enough to fit the Jaguar’s seats. It is clearly a car designed for someone much broader in the shoulders than I. If you adopt the usual pose of the long-distance motorway driver- right elbow on the door armrest, left elbow on the centre armrest, hands at a discouraged but natural twenty-to-four position on the wheel- then I found that I was having to extend my arms more than was comfortable just to put my elbows where Jaguar had intended. This is a little bizarre because the Jag’s cabin is otherwise remarkably…cramped isn’t the right word, but snug certainly is, for a car of this size.
Unfortunately even an olde-worlde Jaguar doesn’t come equipped with an on-board Teasmade and so I made a stop at the Fleet services for a mild caffeine fix. Here I notice two things. First it that even the warning tone made by the Jag’s central locking is discreetly posh – instead of doing anything as vulgar as beeping it sort-of clucks, like a pheasant in the undergrowth. The other is how good it looks as I walk across the car park to continue my journey. Parked in a dark corner, with only the nose lit by the harsh white light of the floodlamps and the chrome trim picked out from the welcoming orange glow of the Days Inn across the road the X300 looks good. Partly because the dark hides the scuffs, scrapes and peeling lacquer of this particular one. It may have been outdated when put against the thrusting angular lines of a BMW or Mercedes of the time but the Sir William Lyons styling is objectively good. The XJ40 underpinnings do show through and it lacks the exquisite visual balance of the original XJ6 but it still has the Jaguar hallmarks of simultaneous grace and menace – just like the namesake cat, I suppose.
I stir the big six into life to carry on and make another loutishly fast getaway on the sliproad to rejoin, the fat rear tyres just scrabbling slightly on the wet tarmac smoothed down by an endless stream of lorry Pirellis.
Then it was back to soaking up mile after sodium-lit mile. Up the M3, around the M25 where airliners that, when I was still sizing up the Jag on the south coast, were off Greenland or over Greece and just beginning their descent, finally slump to earth, their landing lights like a succession of falling stars. Past sign posts to tedious places like Hemel Hempstead and Watford. That I’m waxing lyrical about aircraft and street signs is because I really can’t remember much of this section of the trip. Other than a slightly irritating need to continually bump the heater settings up or down a degree because the climate control didn’t work the XJ just became a wheeled meditation chamber. A cocoon of wood, leather and power that had gently gathered me up and was bearing me northwards at steady 70 (and a bit) miles per hour with no real mental engagement needed on my part. It wasn’t that I was thinking about other things, it’s just that the Jag’s sublime ride, refinement and effortless progress just makes you zone out and when you suddenly see a sign saying ‘Hatfield A1(M) ½ mile’ it comes a something of a shock because you’ll actually have to do something and, as far as you were really aware you were somewhere Uxbridge.
I still maintain that it’s a shame that so many big Jaguars spend their lives wafting around, their engines barely ticking over and their Sports mode dusty and unused as they bear their geriatric owners from golf club to rotary club. As my exploits on the back roads showed even an XJ can make a star turn when asked to. But while it is merely competent at being sports saloon (and there are other cars that will soundly beat it in terms of dynamics and driver involvement) I don’t think there is anything this side of a Rolls-Royce that can match a big, old-fashioned Jaguar for cruising refinement and making even a boring motorway journey on a miserable night in November pass in what seems like twenty minutes. None of the Jag’s sporting betters can get close to that ability and nothing that matches it for comfort can turn in such a good performance when the driver wants to have some fun on a back road. If you can get past the old fart image (or it doesn’t bother you in the first place) and you can afford to run it, and you don’t mind having a car the size of your average postcode that somehow has less interior space than a Nissan Micra, then it is really rather wonderful.