I am not accustomed to riding for long stints in the back seat of an automobile; so it startled me a bit to see the eyes of my chauffeur popping into and out of the rearvew mirror as we talked.
I had been invited to drive and evaluate Jaguar's new long-wheelbase version of its XJ luxury sedans. For 2005, this flagship is newly available as a "stretch" version that is some five inches longer than its short-wheelbase sibling. Almost all of that extra length accrues to the rear seats-hence Jaguar's encouragement that we auto writers spend seat-time in the back during our meander through scenic Marin and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco.
"It's a fact, ye know," said my driver with an indelible Scots burr, "that the rear seats in an automobile were always the more expensive seats in former times. Today, everybody drives themselves around, and the back seats are the cheap seats. You could say this new Jaguar turns back the clock, aye?"
The eyes popped into the rearview mirror again, searching my face for some indication of concurrence. In truth, I could hardly have disagreed. I was surrounded by plush. My leather rear seatback was electronically adjustable. The pile of the carpet was bearskin deep. A folding tray had descended from the back of the front passenger seat, and I was taking notes of our conversation in an atmosphere of uncanny calm. Had we not been talking, I might probably have been lost within the plot line of a movie playing in the DVD system whose deck was at my elbow, whose monitor was embedded in the headrest before me.
I'm afraid my face had gone blank, however, and there was nothing for the driver to see in my expression. Here we were, barreling along Bohemian Highway in Northern California in a supercharged 390-horsepower "Super V8" version of the new XJ8 L, and I was not only virtually speechless but also nearly catatonic. I could scarcely have dreamed that one day I'd be driving through this kind of countryside in company with three-time Formula 1 Champion Sir Jackie Stewart.
But as it happened, he was my chauffeur; I was his fare.
"D'ye feel how how r-r-rownd and stable the ride is in the back?" he asked, eyes to the mirror again. "It's all to do with the longer dimensions of the car, you see. That dampens the ride; softens it. In the back of any other luxury car you could name, these road conditions would feel like hamm'r blows."
We were lacing corners at thrilling speed on country lanes supernaturally bereft of traffic. Sir Jackie's hands were imperturbable at their classic ten-to-two position upon the steering wheel. His unerring footwork with accelerator and brake seemed that of an organ virtuoso soft-shoeing a bass line at the foot pedals.
When our route map had brought us to the waypoint designated for a driver change, I was forced to snap out of it and to bear up under the challenge-the responsibility, even-of ferrying Sir Jackie and myself back into San Francisco. It's one thing, after all, to take an impromptu driving lesson from the likes of a man who has won 27 Grands Prix and bagged world titles for the years 1969, 1971 and 1973-the very years I discovered motor racing for myself. It's altogether another thing to discover that you must pass a pop quiz in his presence without even benefit of homework.
For all of its vaunted elegance and rear-seat serenity, the XJ remains very much a driver's car. Having already piloted a Vanden Plas version of the sedan with its normally aspirated, 294-horsepower twin-cam V8, I was struck not so much by this supercharged version's 100 additional hp but by its polite demeanor in spite of such brute strength.
Much of the credit for handling and ride in this new sedan owes to Jaguar's lavish use of weight-saving aluminum. Whereas it weighs only 53 lbs. more than the short-wheelbase XJ, the long-wheelbase Jag bests rivals from BMW, Mercedes and Audi by many hundreds of lbs. Indeed, the XJ's Super V8 model is as much as 800 lbs. lighter than BMW's own long-wheelbase flagship, the 760Li. XJ's high-tech monocoque chassis structure is 60 percent stiffer yet 40 percent lighter than the steel version it replaces.
This ultra-firm platform, as a result, gives the self-leveling air-suspension, enhanced with active damping control, a chance not only to react to changing road conditions but also to anticipate them. Steering feels precise and nimble. Braking is staggering; giant Brembo discs on the Super V8 interact with both computerized traction control and dynamic skid control to tame, gently but unflinchingly, a driver's occasional overindulgences.
But surely a talent like Sir Jackie must disdain electronic countermeasures on a car with the XJ's potential. "I've known a lot of great racers over the years," Sir Jackie confides, "but they're not always great in every race. You could say the same about the skill sets of every driver on the road. When you design a car like the XJ, there's a lowest common denominator that you have to keep in mind. It's the sophistication of today's electronics, then, that make all this performance available to everybody. You never even feel the systems working, so no matter who you are, the car is performing to very high degrees of safety and satisfaction."
So that explains it. On the highway, in the twisties, through the slalom course, I found the XJ brilliant to drive-in spite of myself, perhaps. Without those fabled eyes peering at me in the rearview mirror from time to time, however, being a passenger in Jaguar's new long-wheelbase XJ sedan is unlikely ever to be the same again.
5-pass., 4-door sedan; RWD; 4.2-liter DOHC V8 w/ vvt, 294 hp/303 ft.-lbs., 6-sp. auto, 18 mpg/City, 28 mpg/Hwy w/ premium; 4.2-liter DOHC supercharged V8 w/ vvt, 390 hp/399 ft.-lbs., 6-sp. auto, 17 mpg/City, 24 mpg/Hwy w/ premium; base prices: XJ8 L, $63,495; Vanden Plas LWB, $70,995; Super V8, $89,995.