With the push of a button, the car suddenly felt capable of handling the 470

Jaguar XJ

Most people with a passion for things automotive can remember a time in their youth when they steamed up a face-size oval on a local showroom's window while absorbing every curve and gleam of a must-have new car. Two of those moments remain sharp for me in an increasingly crowded and foggy memory: one was at age six in 1961, when I first laid eyes on the E-Type; the other was my 1968 introduction to the first XJ saloon, which looked like a piece of the future in the showroom near my school. Both were "Jags," and a far cry from my dad's black 1956 Mk I saloon with its rear fender skirts, whitewall tires and narrow gap-toothed radiator grille.

The E-Type earned a place in the heart of many a red-blooded male (and the girls lured into the passenger seat by its well endowed ­bonnet line), and the XJ was so right-first-time that the core ­design ­endured half a dozen facelifts until it was ­euthanized this year. The big saloon/sedan crouched low on massive, widely separated paws and bore virtually no resemblance to the absurdly wide and (for a Jag) vulgar Mk X/420G that it ended up replacing.

Jaguar has finally made a similarly clean break from the essential XJ, a shape that had survived for more than 40 years-a few of them beyond the sell-by date. The ­original XJ's racy roofline compromised rear-seat ­headroom, a ­shortcoming that Jaguar's designers chipped away at for years while for the most part preserving the ­appeal of the first XJ. In recent years, chipping gave way to more ­extensive re-profiling that (with the exception of the exhilarating and suitably big-footed XJR) made the final renditions of the XJ resemble matronly Lincolns.

In the context of the new XJ, the smaller XF sedan suddenly makes sense. When introduced in 2008, the XF looked to me like the result of a tryst between a Buick and a Lexus after the lights went out at the Jacob Javits ­Center one April night during a New York Auto Show. At the time, the XF struck me as remarkable only in that it had ­probably caused Jaguar patriarch Sir William Lyons to turn in his grave.

Maybe the XF laid the groundwork; maybe the new XJ hits a target the XF missed. Either way, the exterior, interior and performance of the new XJ hit the bulls-eye, emphasizing just how long overdue this clean break from the first XJ was.

The parking lot at my dad's golf club in the late 1950s and 1960s was a microcosm of England's social strata. The seriously wealthy rolled up in Bentleys bearing a set of MacGregor Tommy Armour Silver Scot clubs, and ­senior-management types and restrained self-made ­businessmen turned up in Jaguars, Humbers, Rovers and such. Below the stratospheric echelons of Bentleys, Rollers and the odd Facel Vega or Ferrari, the Jag was probably the most prized marque among the elevated common man.

History repeats itself because in 2011, unless nothing other than a Bentley cuts the mustard, the new Jaguar XJ is as far as you need look if it's a Bentley's leathery aura you desire. Outside it has a leaping cat instead of a ­flying B, but the feel and aroma of the XJ's interior is every bit as alluring as a Bentley's. If you analyze the two cars strictly rationally, the swift conclusion will be that you're ­paying a hefty premium for the warm fuzzy that comes with driving a Bentley.

The fit, finish and overall quality inside the Jag are close to faultless, my only gripe being the excess of chrome in the center console. In bright, high sunshine it is ­dazzling to the point of distraction, and I'd keep a small towel handy to drape over it when needed. From the front seats, the precise curving sweep of leather and burl wood from one side windowsill to the other as it traces the base of the windscreen is a powerful but understated design element. The blunt prow of the new XJ is Jaguar's response to the pedestrian impact regs that seem to be gradually disfiguring the familiar snout of many a new car design these days. Again, maybe the XF laid the groundwork, but this new XJ schnoz works.

Until I discovered and selected "dynamic mode," the XJ seemed a bit flabby and flustered by rough road, but that ­vanished with the push of the button and the appearance of the checkered-flag symbol in the liquid-crystal ­depiction of the instrument cluster. Suddenly the car felt up to the task of ­handling the 470 hp produced by the supercharged ­five-liter V8, which drives the rear wheels through a ­six-speed ­automatic transmission with selectable ­manual paddle shifting. Jaguar offers six flavors of XJ, comprising three V8 engines (385-hp ­naturally ­aspirated and 470- and 510-hp supercharged) and two wheelbases (standard or the five-inches-longer L).

The car tested mated the 470-hp supercharged ­engine with the standard wheelbase and standard 20-inch wheels and had a sticker price of $88,500. Its ­exterior paint was indigo blue and the interior was jet/London tan. A standard-wheelbase, naturally aspirated car weighs 4,045 pounds and carries a base price of about $72,700; at the other end of the range, a long-wheelbase 510-hp "Supersport" weighs 4,323 pounds and costs $113,200. India's Tata Group now owns ­Jaguar (along with Land Rover/Range Rover), and the XJ parts content ­includes approximately 55 percent UK, 25 percent ­Germany and 1 percent North America. The cars are ­assembled in Castle Bromwich (pronounced ­Bromm-itch, like Greenwich but not like sandwich), England, where the brand is known as Jag-yew-wuh. ­Jag-wah is in Mahwah, N.J., the company's North American ­headquarters. Well, at least the XJ speaks one ­language, understood by anyone who appreciates a ­spirited, capable and comfortable motor car.

The new XJ has the usual array of electronic entertainment and safety gizmos expected of cars in this class (Bluetooth, MP3, climate seats, dynamic stability control, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, a 1,200-watt Bowers & Wilkins sound system and so on) and ­Jaguar long ago put to rest the jibes about Lucas, Prince of ­Darkness, and the passenger seat being there for the ­mechanic to ride along.

The 1973 E-Type I'm restoring will not be 100­-percent original because, while it will retain its original V12 ­engine and four-speed stick, many of the hidden but ­crucial ­components that inspired the jokes are out, ­replaced by ­reliable modern substitutes. What does this have to do with the new XJ at hand? Jaguar is rightfully proud of a nearly 80-year heritage that produced some stunningly beautiful cars, XK120s, E-Types and XJs among them, and with its modern cars it has at last laid to rest the reputation for crankiness that those old beauties had acquired. This car deserves a close look.