By Ollie Kew - Top Gear
Is the XF talented enough to stun BMW's exec saloon?
Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was a Jaguar you didn’t have to make excuses for? Yes, Jaguar has possibly the best-looking car range on the planet – which bathes in a warm glow of heritage its most sworn enemies would give their entire marketing budget for – but imagine if the British manufacturer had a car that didn’t drop practicality clangers, weigh a bit more than it ought to and hadn’t left its tech homework on the bus? Good news… the new XF might just be a Jaguar no one needs to make excuses for.
As per usual, it’s an attractive object in über S trim, but neither that nor the initial handshake of the interior grabbed me much. However, the first few yards driving were critical. On the move, the XF instantly feels like an extremely special piece of kit. Oily. Athletic. The sort of car that could give an ageing king of the class, like a BMW 5-Series, a damn good hiding.
Ironically, this is exactly the sort of ‘50-metre feel’ Jag harped on about when we first had a crack at the smaller XE saloon. The idea you could sense the car’s driving position, control weights, comfort and, well, ‘feel’ were all in sync, before you’d reached third gear. The XF nails this like no other mainstream car I drove in 2015. Maybe there’s some truth lurking in the jingoistic fug after all.
That’s not to say the XF perfects its first impression before you’re underway. No complaints about the exterior – it’s reassuringly expansive for a kick-off and, wearing that snowplough of a front valance, properly imposing. The combination of bluff nose and an exquisite diving roofline gives it a marauding presence the BMW 535d we’ve brought along for a control doesn’t match. Beauty and beastliness. The BMW is a bit too familiar for that. But it’s familiar because it’s popular, so the Jag has work to do.
When you first open the XF’s aluminium door, with the triple-decker insert miles better executed than in the cramped XE, the cockpit you drop down into isn’t as inspiring as you’d hope. Besides the rotating vents now banished to the outermost reaches of the dash, it’s, well, it’s an XE. It feels identikit. The materials are good but not exceptional. You also have to suffer the InControl Touch touchscreen system, which is no more at the races here than it is in its little brother, or any other Land Rover or Jaguar product. I mean, it has a loading screen to sit through when switching between listening to the radio and your smartphone. Not sure I’ve been inconvenienced by one of those since I owned a PlayStation 2. And when the Bluetooth appears to have a cold, it doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence in Jag’s attention to detail. Forget 50-metre feel – you haven’t even left your driveway and the infotainment’s playing silly buggers.
This is bad news when you’re up against a BMW 5-Series, because iDrive has been honed into a properly sorted interface these days. I reckon it’s the easiest in-car system to use without taking your eyes off the road, which has to be priority number one for in-car gadgetry. The Jag’s fight-back caveat is a new system that’s coming on stream within months, called InControl Touch Pro. I had a play with it in the Evoque Convertible a few weeks ago, and it’s the best touchscreen I’ve ever come across in a car. Seriously, eat your heart out Tesla. The graphics, the multitouch, the speed – it’s a game-changer. Optional to the XF, and the best £1,200 you could possibly spend on it. In the meantime, this 3.0d S strides into battles with one arm tied behind its back.
Ropey on-board tech is a hangover the old XF suffered from, but its other wrongs have been righted. This time, you’ve got a gorgeous machine adults can sit in the back of. Objectively, a 5-Series is a better airport taxi. But by no means is the Jaguar red-faced. Three adults in the back? You really could. And despite the fact it’s been built out of you know what, you needn’t be a keen potholer to fit through the door aperture.
Let’s pause. I imagine a few of you are frowning: “For pity’s sake, TopGear, why are you obsessing over a shonky touchscreen and how big the rear seats are?”
Two reasons. First off, these are not cheap cars. And if you’re dropping £50k on a posh saloon – the flagship diesel model, no less – you’re probably not the sort of buyer used to feeling like a chump. This is where the 5-Series knocks spots off the XF, because the everyday minutiae – the crispness of its displays and slickness of its in-cabin operation – beat the Brit. Simply igniting a heated seat should not require a press of a button then multiple jabs at a knock-off iPad. Not in 2016.
The second reason is that for the rest of this test, we’re going to talk about driving. And that means from here on, the BMW doesn’t get much of a look in.
Word is that Jag V6s aren’t long for this world, with lighter straight-sixes expected to take over in a few years. The BMW 535d is already there, deploying a 3.0-litre straight-six aided by two variable-vane turbos. It is a freak of a powerplant. No diesel has a right to pile on revs with this sort of frictionless appetite. It’s still pulling with unseeming ease after the Jag’s bi-turbo V6 has started to tighten up and lose its serene composure.
But, where the BMW nails the high notes, the XF’s V6 does the dirty on it from the get-go. It offers a monstrous landslide of torque (albeit needing a few more revs for the full 516lb ft), but the throttle is sharper than the 535d’s, so minute dalliances surge the Jag forward properly quickly. It just feels so strong, a bulletproof powerhouse. It’s not at all fussed by the Beemer’s linear top end, because the Jag has already booted itself down the road, and the 8spd automatic is doing a sterling job of marshalling up the gears and starting the whole onslaught again. Jag has been threatening for some time to nail the calibration of this transmission as well as BMW works the same hardware, and the XF is where it hits the mark.
But the powertrain plays second fiddle to the handling when it comes to the XF’s real trump card. Where the BMW can feel like a bit of a pudding, a bit of a barge, the XF shrugs off its girth and glides. The steering has none of the BMW’s gloop and uncertainty off-centre, just a clean, beautifully crisp response.
And because you can place the XF so accurately, and because it’ll breathe with the road better than any current Jag, XJ and F-Type included, it shrinks around you. And it feels light. Leagues lighter than the 5-Series, so it’s agile, but it still rides with decorum. The Jag ups its game, while the 5-Series remains a hefty, slightly wallowy express. It’s still decent, in isolation, but the XF really shows the German old guard the way home now. An actual, bona fide, class-leading Jaguar, with negligible excuses to make. For once, believe the hype.