WARNER SPRINGS, Calif. -- We're driving a zigzag course in descent to a sand-swept canyon, walls of granite to our left, a sheer drop into thin air on the right, and ahead on the canyon floor the bleak expanse of California's Anza Borrego Desert.
Our vehicle, the sleek new XF sports sedan from Britain's Jaguar cast with sensuously smooth aluminum body panels and a huge V8 parked below the rippled hood -- behaves itself superbly on this dicey road, rear wheels throwing torque muscle into each turn as the speed-rated tires claw for traction.
Twist a rotary shifter dial one notch to the right for Sport mode to activate shifter paddles on the steering wheel and you can play the upshift/downshift game when slicing apexes in the curvy stuff at a swift clip.
Or put your foot into the pedal on the straightaway at the canyon floor but hang on -- this thing, packing a supercharged version of Jaguar's 4.2-liter V8 -- leaps to action.
It's so quick off the line, capable of ripping from a stoplight start to 60 mph in about five seconds and passing the quarter-mile post in something under 14.
The maximum potential speed is listed at the illicit mark of 155 mph.
Jaguar's big V8 -- displacing 4.2 liters off an aluminum block with 32 valves and four-cam configuration -- in the naturally aspirated version makes 300 hp at 6000 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm.
However, with an Eaton blower attached as well as dual air-to-water intercoolers, the supercharged edition gushes to 420 hp at 6250 rpm and pushes the torque out to 408 lb-ft at only 3500 rpm.
All that torque translates through a sophisticated six-speed electronic automatic transmission with the Jaguar Sequential Shift System (SSS) which brings the option of one-touch manual gear-change control via those paddles planted on the back side of the steering wheel.
Further, there are three transmission modes -- Normal, Dynamic, Winter.
And the clever JaguarDrive Selector is the industry's first rotary shift interface. Mounted on the center console, the round knob allows the XF driver to select a transmission setting -- Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Sport -- by simply twisting the dial.
Spend time in the XF, as one driver manages through a series of tests on roads in San Diego County, and its performance and handling traits will no doubt impress, as will the comforts provided in a passenger compartment pitched toward unabashed luxury.
But this one also dazzles the eye.
A new design language is employed on XF, according to Jaguar's Design Director Ian Callum: "The new XF pushes boundaries away from the 'three box' style and creates a four-door, five-seat saloon with strong coupe-like lines."
There are styling cues on the face lifted from the 1960s icon XK-E, thanks to that extended hoodline and aerodynamic prow.
The prow contains pairs of unequal-size articulated headlamps flanking a bright mesh-clad grille, with ripples of lines sweeping up a bowed hood and over the low roof.
While Callum's design scheme incorporates some familiar Jaguar styling lines, the look is aggressive and clearly provocative.
Jaguar forges XF sedans as the first entirely new cars for the line in seven years. XF replaces the S-Type mid-size and rear-wheel-drive (RWD) sports sedans.
The ultra-stiff unibody structure is composed of 25 grades of steel (including high-carbon steels, with bake-hardened boron steel wrapping sides of the passenger compartment), plus aluminum and magnesium to shave weight.
XF cars have a four-wheel independent suspension in aluminum, with unequal length wishbones in front and a multi-link design in the rear and sub-frames at each end.
Jaguar's Computer Active Technology Suspension -- the anagram spells CATS -- delivers automatic shock damping with electronically controlled hydraulic valves which adjust the shocks individually and all calibrations designed to maximize handling and driver control.
The electronically controlled CATS suspension is standard to XF Supercharged.
Speed-sensitive variable-assist power rack and pinion steering and giant brakes with computerized anti-lock brake system (ABS) controls plus electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA) improve motion maneuvers for XF cars.
Further, a dynamic stability controller (DSC) and cornering brake control (CBC) device are aboard, applying brake and throttle automatically to correct potentially dangerous yaw behavior.
Added too is understeer control logic (UCL), which can decelerate the vehicle to restore tire grip when the front wheels lose traction in a turn.
Wheels of aluminum alloy are standard at 18 inches, with options for 19-inch and 20-inch versions.
As a premium luxury car geared for high performance, the XF design scheme tucks between the long prow and brief tail a passenger compartment with four doors and seats for up to five riders.
Space is adequate on the back bench but up front on broad buckets clad in soft-grained leather there's virtually every conceivable feature for luxurious comfort.
Trim consists of slabs of polished hardwood in Satin American Walnut, Burr Walnut or straight-grained Rich Oak.
Also, panels of cool aluminum line dash and console, and the instrument panel holds round analog gauges in easy-to-read electronic displays.
Touches of whimsy also appear:
* Upon entry to the XF cockpit, the start button on the console pulses in red, like a heartbeat.
* When the engine starts, the rotary JaguarDrive Selector rises from the console and slips into the palm of the driver's right hand.
* Wheel-like dashboard vents rotate to open position when the engine starts.
Added features for XF include a Blind Spot Monitor, Front and Rear Parking Aids, Rear Camera Parking Aid, Adaptive Cruise Control, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, Bluetooth compatibility, JaguarVoice to operate navigation and telephone functions, iPod/MP3 interfaces, a digital radio and single or six-disc CD player.
Jaguar offers the XF in two versions, XF Luxury ($49,975) and XF Supercharged ($62,975).