When I was young I knew an elderly Scottish gentleman who had the good sense to fall for and marry, despite his advanced years, an American widow of verve and charm. Nor did he lack those qualities himself: although half crippled by childhood polio, he became a pilot and a keen motorist. His cars smelt intoxicatingly of Turkish cigarettes.
At that time his stable included a Jaguar XJ Series 1 (1968–73) and a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow of similar vintage. I was somewhat in awe of the latter but he insisted the former was the better drive and kindly let me canter each over those empty winding Speyside roads. He was right.
The XJ was a sensation at its launch, a kind of automotive Usain Bolt that, at a stroke, changed the game. The last model designed under the influence of Sir William Lyons, Jaguar’s founder, in subsequent V12 form it became the world’s fastest saloon. But even from the start no other big saloon handled or drove quite like it, or looked so good. It wasn’t for lack of imagination that Jaguar continued breeding from that car until the demise of the last model that looked like it, in 2009. Nor is it lack of imagination that persuaded them to continue the XJ designation with their current range- topper.
It was partly memory of that comparison that prompted me to test the new XJ after last month’s enjoyable excursion with the Rolls-Royce Ghost. After all, if you can’t afford £200,000-plus for the Ghost this month, you might just cough up £67,400 for the long wheel base XJ diesel. A more appropriate comparison, of course, would be with the 5-litre V8 petrol Jaguar, but the 3-litre oil-burner is the one most UK customers will choose.
Like the XF, its junior sibling, and like nearly all saloons now, this XJ is a two-box shape. (Its predecessor was three-box — bonnet, body, boot.) Yet there’s something about these Jaguars that makes them stand out from the crowd. Presumably, Ian Callum, their designer, knows why — or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he can just do it, like other artists, without fully understanding how. Part of the secret may be the low swage line which stretches rearwards from the front wheels to create a muscular, forward-looking profile, while the upper half of the car — capped by its panoramic glass roof — is slimmer and lighter. Just like that first XJ, in fact.
That said, the rear of the long wheel base version is less successful than on the shorter models. There’s more room for prime ministerial legs, of course — though the headroom still isn’t that great — but it’s just a bit too prominent. It compromises that beautifully sculpted front end.
But that’s about it: there’s no other drawback I could find. Get in it and you’ll find this one of those rare cars that make you want to drive and drive and drive. Handling and performance are all that Sir William would have wished (and better than anything he would have driven). Over 500 mainly motorway miles, but including town driving and Welsh farm tracks, it returned 37.8mpg at an average of 40mph. At a steady 70mph you’re on only 1,500rpm, averaging 34.3mpg.
The cabin is a seamless combination of digital modernity and traditional comfort and simplicity. I particularly liked the clarity of the analogue clock (there’s also a digital one) and the way the speedo lights up in segments to draw your attention to the fact that you’re in the 60–70mph segment in a 40mph limit (easily done). The seats — along with Rolls and Bentley, only Jaguar can do the leather-and-wood thing properly — are like a really good pair of shoes: you forget you’re in them. Operation of the six-speed auto-box is via what they call their Sequential Shift system, a retractable knurled aluminium knob with which you simply dial your (gearbox) desires. It’s easy to use and surprisingly satisfying.
So where do the Jag and the Roller stand now? There was really no contest between the first XJ and the wallowing Shadow. Now, there’s much less to choose between them. The Ghost is higher, of course, but its handling is so well mannered that if you drive both cars within legal and safety limits you’re not going to notice the difference. It’s only when you crack on that the XJ’s lower centre of gravity and handling pedigree become apparent. Prime ministerial limo it may be, but it’s also a real driver’s car. And you can park it and leave it and feel relaxed about it.
But the Ghost remains something special. The answer, as that Scottish gentleman found, must be to have both.