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The big cat's ninth life Add to ...

There are no more chances for Jaguar. This is it - and given the state of the world's economy and the troubles of the auto sector, "it" may not be enough, even if everyone at the British brand executes the plan to perfection.

"It" is the complete reinvention of Jaguar Cars after some 20 years of mostly stumbling in the wilderness, chasing the vainglorious dream of becoming a British BMW. Not exactly BMW, of course; Jaguar, the former Swallow Sidecar Co. founded by Sir William Lyons, has a better pedigree, a more compelling history than that.

But under Ford's stewardship, which ended last June when Indian auto maker Tata Motors borrowed $2-billion (U.S.) to buy Jag and Land Rover, the plan was to fashion Jag into something to rival BMW in terms of sales and profits.

Ford's brass had visions of sales volumes of 200,000-plus a year and, once they had fixed manufacturing, they set about chasing those numbers. That led to the lamentable X-Type/Mondeo. 'Nuff said about that.

Depending on whom you listen to, in the 19 years Ford owned Jaguar (1989-2008), the Dearborn, Mich., auto maker certainly spent at least $15-to $20-billion (U.S.) trying to turn Jaguar into a high-volume, premium auto maker. Perhaps Ford spent more, but we'll never really know for sure. Ford doesn't even know.

Whatever the dollar figure, it was monstrous and Ford was monstrously unsuccessful.

Now, says Jaguar managing director Mike O'Driscoll, the company has a clear focus and a sharpened product plan. The emphasis is on "cars that look good and go like hell." With sales volumes in the 60,000-80,000 range each year, Jaguar can turn a tidy profit.

"We want Jaguar to be Jaguar again," says O'Driscoll, who has spent his career at Jag. "We're no longer chasing volume as we were under Ford. We're an exclusive, upscale brand now. The product portfolio was confused, but we've sorted that out."

A sensible, realistic product plan? Knock me over with a feather.

And profit? At Jaguar? Shocking.

Sure, just before the Tata deal was announced last year, JLR (Jaguar Land Rover) reported an annual profit. But that was the exception, not the rule. The 2007 profit was the first overall black ink since JLR was acquired by Ford (the U.S. car maker bought Land Rover from BMW in 2000).

Then the wheels fell off. In the months leading up to the completion of the deal with Tata, sales of luxury cars and SUVs (sport-utility vehicles) tanked as the global credit crisis worsened. JLR slipped back into the red, losing $383-million (U.S.) in the first half of 2008. The bad old days were back.

O'Driscoll, here to sell the brand as well as Jaguar's new V-8 engine and the impressive roster of technological and styling updates to the XF saloon and XK grand tourer, says management has re-thought Jaguar, and is now rebuilding the company with a kind of "back-to-the-future" plan.

All the new Jags will be "fast, beautiful, stylish and fun to be with." That, in essence, was Jaguar in its glory years, decades ago when Jag was racing successfully on a tight budget, and setting the design world on its ear.

Moreover, once the new XJ saloon arrives in 2010, Jaguar will have finished completely revamping its lineup in 24 months. The "new" Jaguar is no longer about country-club-like cars with anonymous styling painted in British racing green and loaded with wood and thick pile carpeting.

Meanwhile, the rational side of the business is in place. The research shows that Jaguar has whipped its legendary quality problems. In the J.D. Power and Associates three-year Vehicle Dependability Study, Jaguar ranks well above average, and in Power's short-term Initial Quality Study, Jaguar also has established a track record of above average quality.

O'Driscoll says Jaguar's revenue per vehicle is up, incentive spending is down 40 per cent and together with the quality improvements, the result is "great residual values." Indeed, according to Automotive Lease Guide, the XF has the best three-year resale value among all luxury sedans sold in Canada (42.3 per cent).

Surely the new XFR will only bolster that sort of performance - because in the 510-horsepower, supercharged XFR, Jaguar now has a legitimate saloon alternative to the BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG.

Only cheaper.

At $85,300, the 2010 XFR has a $21,600 advantage over the $106,900 2009 M5 and a $35,800 edge over the 2009 E63 ($121,100). That's a mountain of cash at a time when even the Donald Trumps of the world are watching their balance sheets with some alarm.

The XFR has Jaguar's all-new 5.0-litre, direct-injection V-8, only it's been supercharged to 510 horsepower. Compared to the old supercharged 4.2-litre V-8, the 5.0-litre has 23 per cent more horsepower (the '09 XF Supercharged had 420 hp, but sold for less, at $77,800) and torque has increased by 12 per cent (461 lb-ft is dished out from 2,500 rpm to 5,500 rpm versus 408 lb-ft in the '09 car).

Once you get the new engine percolating, performance is astonishing and relentless. Dragstrip time: 0-100 km/h in 4.9 seconds. So this XFR has the stats to match the mighty BMW M5 (500 hp) and the E63 (507 hp). But you'd be hard-pressed to think so at first glance. The car's potential is not immediately obvious.

The styling revisions - a redesigned front end, added air intakes, small side skirts, a dinky rear spoiler and quad exhausts - do not exactly leap out and poke the untrained eye. Even experienced car nuts might not notice what's going on here. Inside, there are further additions, including special dials, dark wood and more heavily bolstered, but extremely comfortable, seats. They are subtle, too.

The visual changes are tasteful but effective and easy to overlook. That would be a shame.

The XFR is a pavement-eating monster with hard-to-tap performance potential. The stiffened suspension means the ride is harder, though it's not punishing and touring about on city streets or country roads is not a sentence to a visit to the chiropractor for a spinal readjustment.

Nonetheless, if you are in the mood, the XFR is good for a good thrashing, but that's not required - as it seems to be in the M5.

Floor the throttle in this Jag, though, and something astonishing happens. This car is as indecently quick as you want it to be. There is a load of grunt from anywhere in the rev range and it comes on without any fuss.

We're not talking about only straight-line performance, either. The XFR goes fast around corners with little fuss, thanks to its clever automatically adaptable dampers. The car stays flat through turns and the sharp steering is nicely weighted, delivering plenty of feedback.

Then there is the electronically controlled limited slip differential. Only Ferrari's F430 has something like it and it's quite the trick design. The bottom line is that this diff allows you to get back on the power early and aggressively. Imagine sling shooting from bend to bend without tail-wagging worries.

The new engine is allied to the familiar but massaged six-speed ZF autobox and it's an excellent pairing. The gearbox seems almost docile when you are driving in relaxed mode, yet when you want to flex your right foot and get moving, it delivers lightning shifts, managed - if you want - through paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.

The XFR matches the M5 on the limit, yet is easier to manage in a relaxed manner. Substantial chassis changes, including different spring rates, a newly developed continuously variable electronic damping system, that new electronically controlled rear differential and quicker steering rack are primarily aimed at hot-shoeing enthusiasts, but not limited to them.

This version of the XF is really all about performance, and here it is downright intoxicating. But it's not cruel at three-figure speeds, which we explored on Monteblanco Circuit outside of Seville. Closer to its performance limit, the car is poised and the cabin remains largely quiet - perhaps too much so for those who like the spine-tingling, visceral thrill of a gurgling, grunting engine being put to the test.

Indeed, the delicious noises coming from the V-8 do not include a familiar supercharged whine, but instead growls that give you goose bumps. They are muffled here, somewhat, however.

My advice: forget about leaving the electronically controlled chassis in "normal" and instead press the Flag button and put the gearbox in Sport mode. That brings up the dynamic mode which means the suspension gets harder and the new trick rear differential gives everything a raw edge. The engine's gurgling acceleration gets sharper, as well, and you'll enjoy the car most when you leave the settings right there.

As an all-round, high-performance saloon the Jaguar XFR is outstanding - fast, poised, powerful and best of all far, far less expensive than its German rivals. Jaguar's engineers aimed for finesse, grunt and charm and they've nailed it. The XFR is the equal of the BMW M5 through both fast and slow corners, but less trying in the city and in slow traffic.

Sure, the M5 delivers a more thoroughly visceral experience, but it can be a trial in everyday driving. The E63 is fast, but seems a bit raw and besides, it's about to be replaced. The Audi S6 is perhaps the closest in its balance of power and refinement, and it offers standard all-wheel-drive - and a $99,500 price tag.

Good as the car is, good as the engine and chassis perform, appealing as the styling is, Jaguar's future very much remains at the mercy of certain events - global events - out of its control. But at least now Jaguar has put the products right.

"We had to," says O'Driscoll. "We were running out of time."

 

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