Introduced in 2009, the current XJ was a clean-sheet design for Jaguar, with a look that defied the round-eyed grandeur that had typified the British brand for decades. There was no attempt to riff on the’59 Mark 2’s headlamps, or the ’51 Mark VII’s profile, or the ’68 XJ6’s haunches. This high-styled flagship was designed to be, said the brand’s styling chief Ian Callum, “not a slave to heritage, but something very modern.” And even five years on, it still is. And the XJR heightens the visual drama with an aggressive new front end, big five-spoke wheels, quad exhaust tips and a lip-style decklid spoiler.
Of course, the engine is the real news here, and big news it is. This 550hp version of Jaguar’s 5-litre V8 is not an unknown commodity in the range; the engine powers the fearsome XKR-S coupe and convertible, the XFR-S sedan and the coming F-Type R Coupé. And although the previous top-dog XJ, the 510hp Supersport model, was no slouch on road or track, the XJR feels dramatically, almost frighteningly swift. Jaguar claims the XJR will bolt from zero to 60mph in 4.4sec, but the car, rearing and pulling and yowling under full throttle, feels several tenths quicker than that. Top speed is an electronically limited 174mph.
The engine drives the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel-mounted paddles for manual control. Unfortunately, the gearbox feels somewhat less decisive than the snappy eight-speed in the F-Type. Downshifts can be hesitant, and paddle-actuated shifts can take a beat longer than expected, although the selectable Dynamic mode greatly sharpens the transmission’s reflexes – along with throttle response and adaptive damper rates.
Dynamically, the big sedan has evolved from a soft-sprung boulevardier to a hard-charging executive express. The steering has been tightened for R duty, spring rates have been boosted by 30%, and 20in lightweight alloy wheels have been wrapped in fat Pirelli tires – 265-series up front and 295-series at the rear – specially developed for the car. So equipped, the XJR, even the long-wheelbase model, drives much smaller than it is – startlingly so, in fact. It was difficult to believe from behind the wheel, hustling along the canyon roads above Malibu, California, that there could be quite so much automobile aft of the front seats. The stretched XJ is very large, but it hides its enormity like few other cars.
Some credit for the XJ’s agility goes to the its aluminium structure, which keeps curb weight low – a tidy 4,147lbs for the tested long-wheelbase car, which is some 500lbs less than any of its rivals. In fact, the stretched XJR is only 13lb heavier than the smaller XFR-S.
With all due respect to the scintillating F-Type, the XJR is perhaps the most Jaguar-like of Jaguars. It is the ultimate embodiment of the old ad tagline, Grace… Space… Pace… The car is very fast, of course, as anything with this much power should be. And it is luxurious, with a sweeping dashboard that evokes the bridge of a motor yacht and a rear compartment that can make any passenger feel like a prime minister. But there is more to the XJR than its prodigious capacity for speed or its sumptuous cabin. This charismatic Jag brings something entirely new and irresistible to a very serious class of cars: fun.