That’s not to say the XJ isn’t an attractive and feature-packed car, however. Radar-adaptive cruise control, satellite radio, dual headrest DVD players, airplane-style seatback trays, supple expanses of leather and luxurious deep-pile wool carpeting are spotted on the briefest of glances at the vehicle’s spec sheet. But that’s not where the charm of the XJ lies. The atmosphere in its cabin, the feeling you get looking at it from across a parking lot, the shoved-back-in-the-seat acceleration when driving with a heavy foot - these are the things the XJ does so well.
To really understand the XJ Super V8, it helps to understand where the car fits in the Jaguar lineup - and that’s essentially right at the top. Featuring all of the luxury amenities of the Vanden Plas plus most of the performance features of the XJR, the Super V8 is Jaguar’s ‘best of both worlds’ offering. The car does an admirable job in both of its split-personalities, a surprising result as compromise cars are usually disappointing. The Super V8 continually raises expectations - its constantly-adjusting air-ride suspension offers both fantastic ride quality and precise handling, for example. Likewise the car’s high-speed stability is so great that rear-seat passengers will have no reason to suspect a 100mph (160km/h) dash is anything but a sedate 50mph (80km/h) cruise.
A 4.2L supercharged 90-degree V8 engine turns out 400hp and 413lb-ft of torque, with the peak twist available at a reasonable 3,500rpm. Forced induction isn’t a common feature on moderate-displacement eight-cylinder ultra-luxury limousines, but it should be. The XJ Super V8 provides a level of acceleration and performance that belies its size and its market segment. Sub-six-second 0-60mph (96km/h) times and strong throttle response throughout the rev range make the car eminently driveable. You’d have to upgrade to the S600’s V12 engine or an AMG model to find more power in the Mercedes S-Class, and the V12 is the only engine BMW offers with more power as well - but upgrading to V12 engines is a costly proposition.
The route between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo involves a particularly enjoyable and tortuous stretch of mostly two-lane blacktop called San Marcos Pass Road, or at least the route can accommodate that stretch, if one is so inclined. Your humble reviewer was most certainly so inclined.
Arriving into the area just as night fell on the foothills, settling into a comfortable yet brisk pace was an easy task. The road-holding ability of the chassis was impressive, aided by the massive and grippy 20in high-performance summer tires on the Callisto alloy wheels. Sweeping bends are the Jag’s sweet spot, as once the suspension takes a set, only indelicate application of the throttle or sawing at the wheel will unsettle it. Approaching tight curves presents the opportunity to exercise the ample power of the 14in brakes, which though large are dwarfed inside the rim of the huge alloy wheels.
So the XJ Super V8, with its supercharged engine, electronically-limited 155mph top speed and performance-oriented exterior image lives up to the hype. But this is an executive limo, not a sports car, right? How is it when not being relentlessly flogged through the night?
Simply brilliant. On the open highway, activating the lane-departure warning system and radar-adaptive cruise control enables smooth and safe cruising no matter the conditions. The conservative-but-adjustable radar setting allows ample room in front of the car for emergency stops, brakes smoothly but swiftly if another car cuts too closely in front, and accelerates equally well to pace when the way ahead is clear. It’s a really brilliant system and at least the equal of any other on the market in terms of functionality and smoothness.
Inside, the story is much the same. Rear-seat legroom is fantastic, which is a definite must for this class of vehicle. In fact, the right-rear seat controls offer the favored position the option of moving the front passenger seat about at will with only the press of a button. Ride quality has been mentioned as excellent, but it’s worth expanding upon the subject. Around town, the car soaks up bumps and dips readily, though the steering wheel never feels truly vague or numb. It seems to almost float down the highway when cruising at constant speed - there need be little worry over spilled drinks as long as the driver restrains his right foot and his desire to point the car abruptly toward the next bend.
The dual nature of the car’s handling is as impressive as its capability - the very large XJ Super V8 combines its supple ride when at a leisurely pace with responsive and confident handling when pushed with subtle finesse. This is no doubt the work of the air suspension, but the system operates completely transparently, so you’d never know it was there if it weren’t for the impossible range exhibited in the car’s tuning.
Flip down the rear center armrest, which houses the rear-seat cup holders, plus the telephone, stereo and DVD controls, and you have complete access to all the systems requisite to hold a serious business meeting, address colleagues from the road or review a presentation or proposal. Let down the seatback trays and the car becomes a full workstation, complete with writing surface - though it would certainly easily double for a lunch table should one find the need to eat on the go. Front-seat passengers aren’t left as afterthoughts, however, and appropriately so - in America, this car is at least as likely to be driven by the owner as it is to be piloted by a chauffeur. Comfort and accommodation are equal to the back seat, though leg room for the passenger isn’t quite as ample.
Like all cars, it has a few rough spots, however. The fit and feel of the gear selector, for example, is a bit flimsy and imprecise compared to the rest of the controls in the cockpit, though only the driver will notice this minor flaw. Similarly, the front sun visors are among the cheapest Ford Motor Company has to offer, despite the nearly $95,000 MSRP. Rear passengers have to make do with manual sun shades, which once pulled from their rests can be fidgety to secure and even more so to return to their place.
Another point of possible improvement is the satellite navigation system. Though it functioned admirably once set to a destination, finding that destination and avoiding routes no longer available due to construction or other alterations often required manual intervention and the assistance of an iPhone 3G. Finally, the all-aluminum construction, which turned out to be such a benefit to the performance and handling, may have something to do with the relatively high level of noise transmitted through the cabin.
Look past these inconveniences and you have a car that functionally equals the German class-leaders but does so with a style and panache they can’t approach. There’s surely a lot to be said for the technical excellence of precision engineering, but it doesn’t warm the heart or send shivers up the spine like the passion that drives the Jaguar XJ Super V8.