Saturday 23 July 2011

Realworld Rides: '95 Jaguar XJ6 3.2 Sport

In British 1970's crime movies the villains always drove MKII Jags, with the police in hot pursuit in Zephyrs and Wolseleys. They were always slightly shabby, down at heel, but the duck-tailed Jaguar was the official East-end gangsters conveyance of choice.

Today, with used car values on the floor, and the roads flooded with more and more unmemorable cars that just get the job done, where does the King of the Council Estate head where he wants a rolling endorsement of his status on the street? Well, all big luxury cars depreciate so badly that even the most small-time gangster can still afford an early 90's Lexus, Merc S-Class or BMW 7 Series. But none of those have quite the same sawn-off shotguns in the boot cachet he'll be looking for.

No, the only choice is Jaguar. For all your back-street murder and extortion requirements, I give you the 1995 XJ6.

The XJ6 was launched to much well-deserved fanfare back in 1968. It was a leap forward for the British car industry, and could rightly be described as a world-beater. It was certainly a fitting stable-mate for the E-Type, the car that had really put Jaguars name on the map as a maker of sensuous, exciting cars. After its launch Jaguar could pension off its ancient body-on-frame designs and shed the old-man's-car stigma that these models had been burdened with.

The basic XJ6 package was developed for the next twenty-two years, finally spluttering to a halt in 1990. Several face-lifts helped it on its way, including a masterful Pininfarina-led re-style in the late 'seventies, which combined a slightly enlarged greenhouse and even more rakish proportions, with a tragic decline in build quality. To be honest, this latter point was rife across the whole of the nationalised British Leyland juggernaut, and would taint any associated brands for some years to come.

By the 'eighties it was obvious that the original XJ6 couldn't last for ever, and so development of a successor begun. The replacement, codename XJ40, was launched in 1986 to partial applause but also occasional shrugging of shoulder and slight bewilderment. There could be no doubt that the new car was less dated than the old; in this shoulder-padded decade curves were definitely out and straight lines were the order of the day. In fact, the XJ40 was a very handsome machine indeed, but it lost the delicate features of the original.

Painfully, the fluted bonnet had gone, and those signature twin-headlamps were now seen only on the most basic model, the others having the de rigeur trapezoidal lamps that were seen as the cutting edge of fashion, despite the fact that the same logic was applied on the “wedge” Princess models of the 'seventies; as if anybody wanted to be reminded of those. The dashboard, too, had been attacked by the future, with the charismatic black bevelled dials of old being usurped by a synthetic blend of analogue and digital electronic dials.

For a while the old and the new co-existed side by side; the previous bodyshape remained in production for another four years in Daimler Double-Six form, housing the legendary Jaguar V12 engine. By now that car had become a wheeled anachronism, selling exclusively to people who wished to rekindle their memories of the good old days, when Britain had an empire and gentlemen wore hats. In singularity it was a car of astonishing restraint, taste and beauty, but whenever it was compared to rival machines, in terms of whether it was subjectively any good, it was found wanting in significant areas. It was embarrassingly outclassed in every way, except, weirdly, desirability. It was culled in 1990 and an XJ40 derivative became the new V12 of the range.

By the standards of the time the XJ40 was a good enough car, but not one that pushed things forward. It was soon improved by the deletion of the anaemic 2.9 engine in favour of a new 3.2, and by the dashboard reverting to all analogue displays. Structurally they even began to build them right, although a reputation for niggling faults and electrical strangeness never subsided totally.

It was fair to say that one part of the XJ40 always worked rather well; the bit between the front and rear windscreens; the passenger compartment. It was shapely and well proportioned and wasn't disastrously cramped (for the time, anyway). There was nothing wrong with it whatsoever, even the latest XJ40 dashboard was deemed good enough, so it was no surprise that it would make a reappearance in the middle of the new Jaguar XJ6 when it pounced in 1994, codename X300.

There was massive relief when this new car was launched, cheers went up in Coventry and share values rose spectacularly. The industry knew that Jaguar, in the protective embrace of new owners Ford, had done something very right indeed. Gone was the power-dressing of the 'eighties, feminine curves were back. So were round headlamps, with technically advanced ellipsoid lenses, even the rear triangular light clusters celebrated the seventies. It looked like Jaguar were trying to pretend the XJ40 never happened, and well they might; for in the X300 they had produced a car that people could love again.

It's slightly difficult for me to comprehend that that was seventeen years ago, when I was in secondary school and still reading Asterix comics and playing with LEGO. OK, I still do, you got me, but the point is that we're now three generations on from the X300, yet this one is still the one that comes to mind when I think of the XJ6. And the reality is made even more strange when I find cars like the one I'm driving today.

The Carnival Red XJ6 you see before you came in as a part-exchange for much less than a thousand pounds. It has ninety four thousand miles under its belt, and a big ring-binder of history and receipts. The bodywork is generally straight with just a handful of small scrapes and dents that give the car a pleasing “don't mess” patina. The cream leather is in good shape, the rear seat could scarcely ever have been used. And all for throwaway money.

I'm going to be honest here, I had never driven one of these before today. I had literally no idea what it would be like other than the myriad road-tests I devoured when I was younger. Their impression of the XJ6 was that it was a fine-riding, well balanced car with great roadholding, that never managed to completely disguise its bulk but could certainly handle more power. Actually, that's all just a guest, I don't have any of those old tests to hand, but that's what I remember. With the two Ford-Sourced keys in my hand, I sunk into the deep drivers seat, ready to make my own mind up.

Firstly, another word about the cars looks. In my opinion this generation was as right-looking as the original XJ of '68. Parked in a long row of Mercedes at work, the Jag looks impossibly low and imposing. And, viewed from the front, this car has an air of quiet menace that none of the later Jags could hold a candle to, even those smattered with intakes and vents. This model is the 3.2 Sport, essentially an entry-level car, but one which carries a chrome mesh grille that's the spit of that seen on the very rapid supercharged XJR from the other end of the range. Also, the fact that this car is missing the plastic insert in the lower front air-dam makes it look hard as nails. Don't, whatever you do, spill this Jags pint.

Even getting inside is an event; the proportions are such that you have to duck your head and lift your feet high over the sills, in exactly the same way as you would in the 'sixties original. This, again, is how Jags used to feel inside. You have an inspiring view down that long, corrugated bonnet, and you sit low so you look sideways at lorry wheelhubs and at the Armco, rather than over it. The dashboard holds no surprises, clear, relevant dials and fewer extraneous switches and buttons than on the XJ40 or the X350 that would take over in '03. And, after sixteen years, this particular machine feels epochs from falling apart. Everything is still in its right place, there are no cracks or warps, it even smells good. It feels like a Jag. A real one.

It's when you start it up that the real strangeness comes on stream, you immediately find yourself in a time-warp and re-entering territory that Jaguar left fourteen years ago. It's the sound. The X300 was the last Jag to have a straight-six engine, as found in Coventry products for all of time. All Jaguar six-cylinder engines sing a comparable tune, albeit one which can vary in pitch or timbre depending on the model and tune. This engine is one of the later AJ16 units, and as such is technologically quite a long way removed from the original XK engine made famous by the E-Type and MKII. But still, it issues that same sonic signature missing from today's big cats.

In a Jaguar saloon, a straight-six always emitted a dulcet woofle; a rich, subtle but complex tune of bass and baritone. Their sports cars, freer breathing and more aggressively tuned, would share the song but add more bite, and more treble at the top end. The E-Type, particularly, offers a pronounced zing as that stainless steel exhaust resonates, and a distinct soprano section at high revs that gets emasculated on the saloon cars. This was a constant; a Jaguars voice was an important part of it's identity.

Yes, it's less authentic with the AJ6 and AJ16 engines, but it's still there, and still manages to sound a world apart from the similarly configured engines in German products; a BMW six has its own aural appeal, but one far more mechanical and busy than the Jag. Today, it's gone. Jag has taken a vee-shaped path, using their own V8 and Ford-derived V6 units since '97. They all sound terrific Per Se, but terrific for a car, not for a Jaguar, if you see what I mean.

This is, most unenlightened people would say, and elderly car. Yet it starts immediately, exhaust woofle and all, and the traditional Jaguar J-Gate gear-selector engages smoothly. Ambling past the rows of comparatively faceless modern cars before I reached the road, I imagined myself to be receiving admiring glances, even despite the cars almost total lack of financial value. I then reach the road and swing imperiously onto it, flooring the throttle. The car rolls a little, but not unacceptably so, and that delicious chorus heads for a crescendo as the 'box blurs the change into second. It's not dazzlingly quick, this car, sixty took just under nine seconds to reach from rest, and that was back when it was new. This, we must remember, is the least powerful X300 ever offered, 216bhp is a goodly number, but this is a lot of car and as such it gathers momentum rapidly, rather than slingshotting its occupants down the road.

But even that feels right. Stately. You make good progress, accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack and very probably frightening fuel consumption. Onto bigger roads and going for a kickdown to inject ourselves into the outside lane with its Sprinters and Transits, and the 'box hesitates and jerks a little before the engine rises to the challenge. It rewards us with more than adequate acceleration (albeit that would be deemed sluggish by todays standards) and soon all is peace and tranquillity in the cabin at an indicated 80. There's nothing to suggest that, given time and patience, the engine shouldn't continue in its relaxed way to push the car onwards to its theoretical maximum of just under 140, it feels quite linear in its delivery, and seems to offer torque in preference to power.

I like it. A lot.

There's hooliganism available on demand, too. On my local “private racetrack”, a couple of well spaced roundabouts offer a handy chicane to test the reflexes, and the Jag responds well. There's roll, maybe more so than when the car was new, but it's well controlled. I make a conscious effort to swing the back end out, idiot-style, and the old-school Pirellis screamed that they were reaching the end of their terror, but there wasn't quite enough grunt to break traction and a jaunty wiggle of the hips was all I provoked. I suspect, though, that the sharpness of the corner was too great, and that instead the Jag would excel on fast, meandering country roads.

It does. On these kind of rural playgrounds the XJ is as good a steer as I've had in a long while. It's not spectacularly responsive, doesn't set your adrenaline pumping but simply reminds you of the joy of motoring. Switch the climate out, drop the windows and relax with the straight-six bouncing off hedgerows and enjoy the view down the bonnet. It's when you do this that you realise just how quickly you're covering ground. 

When I park up back at work I'm suddenly made aware that we're storming headlong into a future we don't really want. Product is developing for the sake of development. A Jaguar now is a totally different entity to a Jaguar then, for better or for worse. It's change, and change is inevitable; inescapable. But not necessarily progress. The AJ-V8 engines that replaced the straight-sixes when the X308 update came along were plagued by problems with their Nikasil cylinder liners. A great many of these cars have met a premature demise dues to engine failure. 

If I was the East End thug I opened with, this is the very Jag I'd buy. The 4.0 is quicker, but I doubt I'd drive any faster than I would in this, anyway; the supercharged XJR would be fun, but costly to run. No, the 3.2 Sport has the looks, the manners and the feel-good factor I'd be looking for. And the centre console is easily big enough for a Desert Eagle.