Overall rating: 4/5
OK, so pretty much everyone's actually going to buy the 2.0-litre diesel powered Jaguar XF, but if you've got the cash, the 3.0-litre XF S, in either petrol or diesel form, unlocks so much more potential than the four-pot.
In the Metal:
You can read elsewhere on CompleteCar.ie about the technical background to the new XF but I'll give you a quick re-hash here - it's shorter but roomier, lighter, made mostly of aluminium, has new diesel and petrol engines, is more efficient and now you can have a manual gearbox. It looks familiar but is entirely new from the Pirelli tyres up.
It does look disarmingly similar to both the old XF and the new Jaguar XE though, so much so that you will easily mistake the three cars for one another at a glance. Useful building of brand recognition, as Jaguar says? Or a depressing Audi-esque attitude to cookie-cutter styling? You be the judge, but in isolation, this is a classic Ian Callum design - handsome, subtle and striking in roughly equal measure.
The mountain road swung and looped up through the Cantabrian Mountains, criss-crossing back and forth across the French and Spanish frontiers. About an hour outside of Pamplona, there are few bulls, but we did find some cows, clinging happily to a neat vertical rock-face above the most azure blue mountain lake we'd ever seen. The cows all had bells that clanged as they walked, and it occurred to me for a moment that a high-speed clanging noise must alert local farmers that another bovine has taken a vertiginous tumble.
Actually, the cows seem to be amazingly sure-footed, almost lithe for a creature that big. Perhaps that was why Jaguar had let us loose with the new XF saloon up here in the fractionally thinner air of north east Spain. If the cows can be that nimble, perhaps the theory goes, imagine what the cats can be like...
Down at a lower altitude, the track awaited - the Circuito de Navarra, a tight and complex little race track, apparently built to F1 standards, but looking to me rather like it's better suited to bikes. Suited to a large, leather-lined executive saloon it didn't seem at all, but Jaguar were insistent that we were going to take the V6 S version of the new XF out on to the sun-bleached tarmac to see what it could do.
Our track car for the day was also a little more advanced than the cars we'd been driving on those Alpine-style roads, in that it was running the next-generation of Jaguar's In Control Touch Pro touch-screen system. Quite apart from looking much whizzier than the current setup, it also controls Jaguar's 'Configurable Dynamics' system (or at least it does on V6-engined models), which allows you to setup the suspension (adaptive dampers on this model), steering, throttle response and gearbox shift style to your taste. My track instructor for the day, George, had already been fiddling with the system and decided that the best option was to switch everything to Maximum Attack mode. Quite right too.
Maximum Attack means something rather more profound in a V6 S XF than it would do in the more humble 180hp 2.0-litre diesel. You can have a diesel V6 XF, with 300hp and a whopping 700Nm of torque, but for the track we were using the surely more appropriate supercharged petrol V6 3.0-litre, taken more or less directly from the wonderfully lithe and noisy F-Type sports car, and packing 380hp and 450Nm of torque.
And at first, it's a little disappointing. In the F-Type, we've gotten used to this engine roaring and singing its head off at Springsteen-on-a-Marshall-amp volume and it's utterly glorious. Anyone who doesn't involuntarily burst out laughing the first time an F-Type V6 S does its overrun pop and crackle isn't a proper car nut and you should shun their company entirely. Here in the XF though it's smoother and more refined than Roger Moore sipping Cointreau. It's quiet, and even when you give the throttle pedal some socks coming out of the Navarra pit lane, the sensation is that most of the noise is happening behind you. Oh dear.
Should we really expect anything else? After all, the XF isn't an F-Type - it's a big, comfy executive saloon, designed primarily to give managing directors and CFOs the opportunity for some company car park one-upmanship over the hordes of BMW 5 Series and Audi A6s. Yes, you may well have a cold, efficient German saloon, it says, but I've got a Jag and that makes me cooler and more likely to live the life of a Terry-Thomas-esque cad. Lock up your daughters, etc. Well, that's what it says to me.
My 1950s Ealing Comedy reverie was upset by the arrival of the first corner at Navarra, a tight right hander that George, trusting fool that he was, was telling me I should keep the right hand pedal pinned to the floor mat for. What should have been a positive orgy of bent metal and tinkling glass instead, of course, turned into the XF majestically sailing through the corner, perfectly balanced, before braking hard for the tighter sections of Turn 2.
Some have criticised the XF for having less than excellent brakes, but I just don't see it. Our car was pounding around for lap after fast lap, with only a brief cooling-off period (in 36-degree heat) between sessions, and the brakes never seemed to wilt. In fact, coming into the tight right hander at the end of the back straight, pulling 160km/h at the braking point, the XF would still come to a complete stop before the apex, if you shoved hard enough on the pedal.
The V6 engine does in fairness come a bit more alive when you're doing things like this. I still think it needs a proper sports exhaust (hopefully Jaguar will add just such a thing to the SVO options list before too long) because it just doesn't sing quite loudly enough, but its low-down supercharged oomph covers up all manner of cornering line mistakes, and it has enough grunt to get the XF's tail twitching out of line on the exit of slower corners (closed road, professional driver, don't try it at home etc. etc.).
For all its impressiveness on the track though (flat cornering, high grip, friendly on the limit) I can't help feeling that the XF is far better represented by the drive up through the mountains. Here, we were in the other V6 S, the diesel model and it's probably the best XF of all. Yes, the 2.0-litre diesel is more than powerful enough for most and is an excellent and sensible choice. Yes, any red-blooded enthusiast is going to be instantly drawn to the 3.0 V6 S petrol variant. The V6 S diesel does seem to make a good fist of being the best of both though. It's exceptionally refined (save for an occasional gurgle and whistle when you're not quite expecting it) and that whopping 700Nm torque figure, combined with the aluminium body shell's relatively svelte 1,750kg mass means that even the London Underground Escalator slopes of the mountain road up to the French border might as well have been pancake flat. It defines effortlessness.
What's loveliest and best about the XF, though, is the way it moves. The sensations coming back to your fingertips and palms through the steering wheel are both tactile and informative - it's as if proper hydraulic steering had never been abandoned, and it's easily the best electric steering rack we've yet found. The XF points deeply into an early apex if you want it to, the weight of the bigger diesel engine on the nose causing it to run slightly wide as you do so, before a quick modulation of the throttle pedal brings everything back to where you want it. The body stays utterly flat as you do all this, so you've got an exceptionally stable platform to work from, which is good when there's a sheer rock face on one side, a tumble into a shadowy valley on the other and the 9.10 bus to Pamplona is coming inexorably the other way.
Better still is the ride. I don't think you're ever really going to need to trade up to an XF with adaptive, adjustable suspension because the 'passive' setup is so darned good. The wishbone front, 'Integral-Link' rear suspension is more or less copied from the smaller XE but the dampers have an extra valve in them that opens when you're travelling at low speed, softening off the suspension's responses and making the XF genuinely relaxed around town, even on broken surfaces. Speed up and the valve closes and everything feels a little tauter and tied-down, which can in fairness lead to a little too much rumble and jumble over really bad tarmac, but we'll take that as a trade-off for the wonderful body control.
What's great though is that the XF feels mannered and full of deportment at all times. There's none of the heavy-footedness you get from an A6, nor the over-firmness of an M Sport 5 Series, and its steering is sharper by far than that of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. It's head-and-shoulders the best car in the class to drive right now, and Jaguar's exorcism of the ancient (Lincoln LS-derived) steel chassis that underpinned the old XF seems to have ensured that it can compete with the Germans on a proper technical assessment.
What you get for your Money:
We just need to know the price now. Jaguar Ireland has thus far told us that it will start at the same â¬44,500(ish) of the outgoing version, but that the car will now come as standard with a manual gearbox, instead of the old XF's standard auto. Figure on spending around â¬52,000 for a properly-equipped 2.0-litre diesel auto in desirable R-Sport trim, closer to â¬80,000 if you really, really want a petrol V6 S. It's not the bargain the XF once seemed, to be honest.
Audi A6 3.0 TDI BiTurbo: the petrol S6 exists on a rather different plane of power, but the BiTurbo diesel matches and beats the XF for grunt and has remarkable depths of performance.
BMW 535i M Sport: beaten by the Jag in power terms, but the Beemer's silky-smooth straight-six turbo is still a formidable weapon, and the 5 Series a formidable car.
Lexus GS 450h F Sport: hybrid assistance means Jag-like wallop with affordable motor tax. Not as sharp to drive or look at but you can't beat the quality.
Ok, so we'd like to see (actually hear) a little more drama from the exhaust pipes given that the engine is so much more musical in the F-Type. What price a sports exhaust option, Jaguar? Even so though, this is a soulfully balanced sports saloon (in either diesel or petrol forms) that combines the effortlessness and luxury you expect from a Jaguar with some really engaging driving sensations. It's more fun than any of its German or Japanese rivals, and arguably comes with more sex appeal too.
All of which leaves me wanting to go back and study those cows some more. Surely any creature that can flourish while standing on an apparently vertical wall like that can teach us ever-more about chassis balance?