Jaguar shows off at traveling Alive Driving Experience

From the flagship XJL to the red hot XFR-S, Jaguar invites the public to test its cars during one of its 18 driving experience events.

Jaguar XJL sedan
Jaguar let us test its full line of vehicles in a variety of real world and simulated conditions. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

When many people think Jaguar, they think of slippery British sports cars lead by long, flowing hoods. They think of the E-Type: one of the most beautiful cars ever built. However, maybe more people probably think of the awkward S-Type and the questionable reliability of just about every Jaguar model built before the turn of the century. Clearly, Jaguar has some work to do to improve its reputation.

Recently, I was given an opportunity to experience the automaker's latest reputation repair tool: an 18-city Jaguar Alive Driving Experience program that allows the public to try out the automaker's entire line up of vehicles on a variety of real world and simulated conditions ranging from public roads to a small autocross course.

Now, we've tested just about every model in Jaguar's three chassis lineup that consists of the entry-point XF and its variant, the XK coupe and convertible , and the XJ large sedan . However, I hadn't yet had an opportunity to drive the long-wheelbase XJL. After signing a few waivers, I settled into the 20-way power-adjustable leather bucket seat of the big sedan.

The 2012 XJL
The XJL has been stretched about 5 inches over the standard model. This increase is reflected directly in the sedan's additional 5 inches of rear legroom. Nice touches like small foot rests tucked beneath the front seats, wooden trays that fold down from the front seatbacks, a massive panoramic moonroof, and available rear-seat entertainment had me convinced that the rear bench was the best seat in the house. The XJL's back seat is very tall-passenger friendly and, for my average-size 5'9" frame, there was plenty of room to really stretch out.

The first leg of the event took place on public roads where the XJL's cabin technology package could be tested in real-world conditions. I absolutely fell in love with the available 20-speaker, 1,200-watt Bowers & Wilkins premium audio system -- it truly is one of the best in the business. However, my longtime disdain for Jaguar's touch-screen infotainment system once again reared its ugly head. My issues with the system mostly stem from my belief that Jaguar relies too much on the touch screen for functions that should have physical buttons. I don't want to have to go to the climate control screen to adjust the heated seats when most other cars will let me tap a button. I also don't like the odd Jaguar menu system organization, which makes it difficult to find the options you need. For example, it took me almost 2 minutes to find the audio tone controls to adjust the bass. (Hint: they're not under the audio menu.)

The Jaguar XJL's additional length is made more obvious when parked next to the standard-wheelbase XJ. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Next, we were taken to a handling course where the sedans' various drive modes and traction control systems affect the vehicle's performance. Starting in Winter mode, I noticed that the vehicle was a bit relaxed in responding to my throttle and steering inputs, presumably so that the vehicle wouldn't be jerking about in potentially slick conditions. As I was driving, the course instructor switched the vehicle to its standard mode and I immediately noticed a boost in responsiveness as the sedan came alive. On the final lap, the Competition mode was activated, which allowed a bit more rotation in the turns from the rear-wheel-drive sedan before the traction control stepped in.

The XLJ was tested on an autocross course, on public roads, and on a refinement course that simulated a variety of rough road conditions. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

A refinement course demonstrated the XJL's chassis rigidity and the performance of the adaptive suspension system. Jaguar claims that the XJ and XJL's all-aluminum bodies are the stiffest in their class and hundreds of pounds lighter than they would be were they constructed of steel. The rigid platform allows the automatic adaptive suspension to work more efficiently -- soaking up bumps, smoothing out vibrations, and keeping the tires planted without being to harsh or too mushy. The refinement course featured a variety of obstacles (including speed bumps, heavy steel cable, and rubber hoops) laid in the vehicle's path to simulate rough road conditions, pavement cracks, and potholes.

This portion of the event was restricted to 15 mph (Jaguar didn't want us getting airborne), so after a slow warmup lap, I tackled the course at exactly 15 mph. Imagine hitting a speed bump going 15 mph in your daily driver. Now imagine going over four in rapid succession. It's upsetting, to say the least. Although the suspension couldn't completely mask my abuse, it did an admirable job soaking up the harshness of the bumps. True to its claim, the Jaguar handled itself as well as could be expected with nary a creak, groan, or rattle.

The last portion of the even involved a short autocross course where the vehicles could be tossed around without fear of damage or law enforcement. This is the part of the day where the XJL's 5.0-liter V-8 could shine. Making either 385 horsepower in its naturally aspirated form, 470 horsepower in its supercharged form, or 510 horsepower at the Supersport trim level, the XJL was not left wanting for grunt. Loads of power always beget loads of grins, but the XJL doesn't really seem at home screaming around a tight corner. Grand tourers such as this need space to stretch out. Too bad there wasn't a freeway portion of this event.

Before heading home, Jaguar gives every attendee a special treat. After trading into a 550-horsepower Jaguar XKR-S coupe, we were given an opportunity to line up on a drag strip and make a maximum-acceleration run before flooring the brake pedal to test the coupe's ability to stop. The combination of G-forces was literally dizzying.

The 2012 Jaguar XJL starts at $80,700. That's $7,000 more than the standard XJ for 5 extra inches of automotive ego. Step up to the XJL Supersport with its 510-horsepower supercharged V-8 and that price balloons to $117,700 before options. There's even an insaneJaguar XJL Ultimate hitting the market in winter 2012 that rolls in every optional feature available and then adds a pair of docked iPads to the rear-seat entertainment system, coats the car in unique black amethyst metallic paint, and swathes the interior with unique ivory semi-Aniline leather. Jaguar's flagship of flagships will run you an even $155,000.

 

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