MOTOR MOUTH: The contrary cat

MOTOR MOUTH: The contrary cat - I had to talk about the Mona Lisa at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, so I took the new Jag for a spin. It is not very often you get a chance to write a sentence like that, but my point is that 200 or so miles there a

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I had to talk about the Mona Lisa at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, so I took the new Jag for a spin. It is not very often you get a chance to write a sentence like that, but my point is that 200 or so miles there and back in five hours provided an opportunity to test the X-Type in an environment different from my familiar psychotic inner-city scrum.

Cultural anthropologists have long studied the habits of Jaguar Man. One of his natural habitats was Cheltenham, 'Capital of the Cotswolds'. Think gin and tonic, colourful V-neck woollies, golf, roaring fires. But just as Cheltenham has changed (prim spa neo-classical and genteel ladies are now complemented by rainwashed sub-Texan malls and unwashed feral youth), so has Jaguar Man. And there will soon be a lot more of him too. In a conceit so resonant it might as well be poetry, X-Types are mass-produced on the old Ford Escort lines in Halewood. Talk about the disappearance of the middle market!

To reflect this change, X-Type ads are directed at a fashion-conscious late-20ish audience, not arf-arfing tipplers in blazers. Thus, Young & Rubicam decided the models should be wearing Prada, not Pringle. The stratagem is to position Jaguar as a branded luxury product; so the points of reference are now the long straight of Bond Street rather than the long straight of Mulsanne at Le Mans.

But no matter how much time is spent on image-management, we know enough about product semantics to be certain that, while Versace and Saatchi can come and go, the basic Jaguar proposition will always depend on an elegant appearance and an accomplished performance. The X-Type mission is to offer this package to customers normally tempted by something small and German.

Jaguar's big problem is Beauty. I was saying to Ian Callum, the company's talented chief designer, that there were 20 achingly beautiful old Jags. But while my vivid red X-Type Sport certainly attracted a lot of attention, most of it positive, I wouldn't say it is going to make that figure 21.

Although it's a handsome car, there is something ever so slightly pinched about its appearance, but to be neither exquisitely over-bred nor immaturely threatening is perhaps to start a new visual language. And in our quagmire of post-modern relativism and wearisome late-industrial abundance, old paths to Beauty are ready to be re-trod.

Although the harder suspension of the Sport set-up compromises the effect, the X-Type has superb ride and fabulously seamless power take-up. The engine makes its own contribution to the pleasingly relaxed effect: it is exceptionally smooth and will not scare you. To be frank, the 2.5 V6 feels underpowered: I was, somewhere between Burford and Minster Lovell, by no means certain I was ever going to get past an ugly Nissan towing a caravan. The corners are better: to disguise its front-wheel-drive Mondeo foundations, this Jaguar has the back wheels driven too. The system works well, as does the speed-sensitive power steering.

So far, so good, but there are signs of trimming inside. Jaguars have always had a special ambience and here, too, the X-Type breaks with tradition. Materials are not great. The dashboard features a hideously shiny plank of grey wood. The front armrest-bin is so shoddily constructed that at first I thought it was broken.

There have also been small development shortcuts. For instance, you can't reach the electric seat knobs with the door closed; the display for temperature and time is unreadable in any light, secondary controls are fiddly and would make a BMW ergonomist snigger. Oh, and there's nowhere to put your left foot when it's not on the clutch.

But these things can be fixed. And I'm sure the available 3.0 litre will go harder. In all its fundamentals, the X-Type is very impressive, although not everything is relaxing about it: the satnav was mad, telling me to take the fifth exit from a roundabout that had only three. And the automatic wipers had a mindless of their own.

Maybe these little flaws are there as a result of a thorough 'English character' research project by chief Jaguar Man, Wolfgang Reitzle. Dr Reitzle, head of Ford's Premier Automotive Group, which owns Jaguar, is German. One day this may show in the cars: for good and for bad, it's not showing yet. If you want an Audi, you won't like the Jaguar. That, of course, is the point.

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