From the June 1980 issue of Car and Driver.
The Series III Jaguar XJ6—a refined and improved replacement for the old XJ6L—is one of the Western World’s more delightful mechanical manifestations, and anyone who has more than $20,000 to spend on a new car should take a test drive in one before making his or her purchase decision. Unfortunately, American prejudice and conventional wisdom are stacked against British cars. This is partly because our national love-hate relationship with the country that mothered us three centuries ago has always been a prickly one, and partly because unreliable electrical components have done so much to undermine the reputation of British cars on American roads. A lot of this bad repute is myth—there are plenty of contented British car owners here in Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean—but it’s a powerful myth, reinforced by just enough truth to keep it ever at the fronts of our minds.
This is a damned shame, because it will keep large numbers of Americans from going out and sampling an XJ6—surely one of the silkiest, most satisfying luxury cars available in this country. The inside of an XJ is as nice a place as any you can imagine. The XJ, either XJ6 or XJ12, is as rewarding a car as you’re going to find on the public roads today—as refined as any Mercedes-Benz or BMW, but utterly different. That difference was demonstrated very effectively once in an old Robert Taylor movie: Robert Taylor played a crusader bragging about the raw hacking and hewing power of his great broadsword, when his Moorish adversary demonstrated the strength of his own weapon by tossing a silk scarf into the air to be sliced neatly in half as it wafted down over the slender Damascus blade…a Jaguar man if I ever saw one.
If possible, the XJ is both the Damascus blade and the silken scarf. It’s smooth, effortless, and quiet—except for some wind roar where the windshield pillars and the outside mirrors come together—and it goes like a scalded dog. It is a truly luxurious sedan that should never, ever be driven at less than 80 miles per hour, especially on twisty, uneven two-lane pavement. If your first drive in an XJ is on a relatively smooth Interstate highway you’ll love the interior of the Jag and gain the impression that it’s about like any other fine car going down the road. If, on the other hand, your first XJ experience is on the above-mentioned twisty two-lane, you’ll be stunned. The Jaguar tears across the nastiness just as quickly and safely as any big-buck German car; but it doesn’t attack like the broadsword, it slips through like the Damascus blade. “Swift” is the word that comes to mind. You are not urged on with battle cries and exhortations; you are seduced.
What makes it such a seductive device? The basic specifications are such that it could have been produced in England, Germany, or Italy, but its personality sets it apart. I wouldn’t automatically categorize it as an “English” car, but it certainly doesn’t feel either German or Italian. Engineering tradition plays an important part. This six-cylinder engine with its double overhead camshafts has been lighting enthusiasts’ fires since 1948. It was Jaguar that showed the world what disc brakes could do, at Le Mans. Jaguars had four-wheel disc brakes when Detroit’s engineers were insisting that they couldn’t be made to work on passenger cars. Jaguars have always represented a lot of science and sex for the money.
Certainly, the car’s appearance is special. Nothing else looks like a Jaguar. My own prejudice always held that earlier XJs looked a little squished—the roof was too low—and I felt that the coarse-mesh grille texture was out of keeping with the rest of the car’s elegant physiognomy. Now they’ve fixed it. The Series III has a noticeably higher roofline with greater glass area, which does much to lighten and brighten the car, both inside and out, and the new vertical grille bars lend a classical touch. The stamped wheel covers are unfortunate, however. If Cadillac wants to hang Pep Boys wheel covers on the Seville, that’s their business, but a car as nice as this cries out for something really special. Also, the whitewall tires have to go. The ones on our Jag were Dunlop SP radials that worked well, represented a nice compromise between high performance and quiet ride, and featured a tough-looking tread pattern, but the dated whitewall did the entire car a disservice. Aside from these minor complaints, our blood-red test car looked like a million dollars. The Jaguar is one of a very small handful of modern cars with real character.
The inside story on the Series III XJ is much like the outside. Nothing revolutionary, just worthwhile improvements. When you open the door you’ll notice new, recessed door handles and new, centrally controlled door locks. Once inside, the first thing to impress you will be the new seat—still leather-covered, but firmer, with a more aggressively contoured backrest and a more sophisticated range of adjustment, including a new lumbar support with an inch and a half of travel. Fore-and-aft adjustment is manual, effected by a release at the front of the seat, while backrest angle is controlled by a lever-operated friction lock, which never seemed to offer exactly the angle one was looking for. A valuable addition is a simple, electrically operated adjustment for height, especially useful when we couldn’t get the backrest where we wanted it. Our tendency was to drive with the seat quite low, the backrest more vertical than we’d set it in most cars, and the telescoping steering column pushed all the way in. This put everything in reach, offered a fair compromise for best visibility, and seemed most comfortable. Our longest drive was about 500 miles—New York to New Pittsburg, Ohio—and it was a piece of cake, largely because of the very comfortable, cocoon-like interior.
Another useful addition on the Series III is cruise control, in this case one of the best we’ve ever used. Turn it on with the master switch on the console, then operate it with the button in the tip of the turn-signal stalk. If you’re trying to stay a fixed distance behind the guy up ahead with the Fuzzbuster on his dash, you just set your speed at, say, 75, and when you see that he’s edging away from you, match your speed to his with little taps on the button, then relax. The control works with micrometer precision, and shuts off with a touch of the brake pedal.
Both outside mirrors are electrically controlled now, and very logically too, by a pair of directional switches mounted at the front corner of the driver’s window, exactly where a manual control would normally be—no hunting around the panel for the right-hand-mirror control. Other electrical switches are a little harder to utilize, at least until one is thoroughly accustomed to the instrument-panel layout, and the radio controls are hopeless. The radio/cassette player itself is terrific, but the markings are minute, the controls tiny, with the result that one should stop the car for anything more complicated than popping in a cassette or changing a station. The instruments are as good as the radio controls are confusing, however, being white on black, placed exactly where you’d have put them yourself, and framed neatly by a redesigned steering wheel that doesn’t block your view of anything.
The XJ has two fuel tanks holding a total of 25.4 gallons, and these have to be filled separately, one filler on top of each rear fender (note: both gas caps and the deck lid lock when the central locking system is triggered). Two tanks are a drag when the temperature is near zero and you’re in a self-service gas station. We also found that it can be a fright when you’re sailing along at 80 and a tank runs dry. Running out of gas somewhere in the boonies is a heart-stopper, even when your mind is telling you that there’s another tank available at the touch of a finger. Range with both tanks full is nearly 500 miles, figuring twenty miles per gallon. We never went that far, partly because there’s always some other reason to stop, and partly because it was tough to trust the gauge twice—once for each tank.
If ever there was a car to refute the myth about British automobiles, it’s this one. It always started on the first twist of the key, even in below-zero weather; the Borg-Warner automatic transmission was smooth as glass; every component did its job exactly as it was supposed to; it was a joy to drive; and the quality of everything from the map light to the twin-cam engine was first-class. It might have been better with the 5.3-liter twelve-cylinder engine, I don’t know. The car is so seductive with six cylinders that twelve might have gotten me to undress right out there in the snow. One pays a $2000 premium for the twelve, but I’ve said before that anyone who calls himself an enthusiast should own one twelve-cylinder car before he dies. My only concern is that the twelve might not be as thoroughly scienced-out as the 32-year-old six. Besides, the XJ is so nice with six cylinders that I’m hard-pressed to imagine what real benefit one might find in six more.
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