Blog: Is The Jaguar XJ A Panamera Beater?

By Tom Martin

July 07, 2010

Well, folks, after a day spent driving the new XJL and the Panamera back to back, I’m here to tell you that the luxury sedan market has new players intent on upsetting the proverbial apple cart. As Seyth indicated in his coverage of the new XJ, Jaguar is back in a big way. As a measure of just how far Jaguar has progressed, my recent time in the XJL suggests that Porsche, more than BMW or Mercedes, is the required comparison. Lexus really doesn’t merit mention in this company. How times change.

Of course, to understand the significance of the Porsche reference, you have to understand where the Panamera fits in. And that involves a brief review of the competition (I leave Audi out of this because the new A8L is just around the corner, but not here yet).

In this class, Mercedes has the longest-running platform in the S550. As is typical for M-B, the S550 is a supremely well engineered car. Mercedes aimed at providing superb comfort and refinement, while retaining a sense of over-the-road solidity and control that is a benchmark. Driving dynamics are good, but you never get the sense that the S550 really wants to dance.

BMW set out to top the S550 by making a technologically more advanced car that can, on demand, reveal a sporting character. Unfortunately, the 750Li never feels completely at home in either its burgermeister or Nürburgring modes. The engine is potent, the features endless, but the drive on highway or winding road is never great.

Porsche then entered the fray last year. Succeeding where BMW fell short, the Panamera manages to waft like a Bentley and weave through the turns with joy. It isn’t as refined as the S550, but it has a sense of gravitas going over the road that seems appropriate, if slightly un-Porsche. And thanks to niceties like a relatively low curb weight (3968 pounds) and responsive PDK dual-clutch automated manual, the Panamera S responds. So, for drivers interested in this class, the Panamera is the car to beat.

To fully comprehend the Panamera S, you do have to understand what it is trying to be and what it is not. The Panamera is not an M5 competitor. It is not a CTS-V competitor. The M5 and CTS-V are sedans tweaked in the supercar direction. They have small back seats, are very fast, and lean toward intensity and away from comfort (measure against the sedan oeuvre). If that kind of driving is what you want, Porsche wants you to buy a 911.

Instead, the Panamera wants to be a big luxury car that drives well. And it is. To pull this off, the Panamera feels heavy. The spring rates are on the soft side, so it aims for and achieves a certain magic carpet ride. Balance is tweaked to understeer at street speeds and you can feel the weight as you enter turns. While this might sound bad, it isn’t. That’s partly because the Panamera goes down the road with a real sense of occasion. It’s also because when you dial up the wick a bit, the Panamera hunkers down and starts to swing.

As you realize the car’s capability, you start grabbing lower gears with the quick-shifting gearbox and let the V-8 rev. It sounds nice and moves along well. It isn’t super fast, but it certainly feels quick.
The Panamera sets a high standard, which you might think would be a problem for Jaguar. The last XJ was a good car, but not a standout. And, if you’re the weakest brand in the segment, you need to be a standout.

The XJL is that car. You might assume, as I did, that Jag would cover the comfort stuff but fall short on the driving dynamics bit. You would be oh so wrong. For starters, the XJL, which weighs 163 pounds more than the Panamera, feels quite a bit lighter. The suspension tuning is firm and tight, which makes the Panamera seem slightly sloppy by comparison. The XJL has a long wheelbase (124 inches, versus 115 for the Panamera), but it doesn’t feel reluctant to turn like, say, the 750Li or the (last-gen) A8L.

What impressed me about the XJL is that you get this fun-to-drive setup, and yet the car still feels pretty stately and serious just cruising down the highway. I’d give the edge in wafting to the Panamera, but the XJL feels great, and the winner of this cruise-mode battle is likely to be a matter of taste. Both cars are more rewarding in ride and handling than the standard competition.

In his review, Seyth waxed rhapsodic about the new 5.0-liter V-8 in the XJL, and I’ll second that. It is surprisingly like the V-8 in the Porsche. Both have a nicely guttural V-8 tone and ample punch. A quick peek at the specs reveals very similar numbers, so perhaps this isn’t a surprise given the nearly identical mass the engines have to push around.

What might come as a surprise is the excellence of the Jaguar automatic. If you didn’t know what technology was beneath the console and you drove the automated manual Panamera and then tried the conventional auto in the XJL, I think you’d be hard pressed to guess correctly. That’s because the XJL paddles snap off shifts with impressive alacrity. What you would eventually discern is the inevitable slight drivetrain slack in the XJL that comes from having a torque converter. Of course, you gain a smidge of smoothness while you give up some direct throttle response.

I’d say the Jaguar steering is the best of the lot, too. Our Panamera didn’t have Servotronic, so that might (or might not) equalize things. But in any event, the steering on the XJL is quite good given the isolation mandate that accompanies this class. I was also impressed with the steering wheel shape on the XJL, which feels good to hand, and very thankful that Jaguar decided not to make the rim partially out of wood (an anti-ergonomic approach unsuitable for modern times).

So, the Panamera and the XJL are impressively well done from the driver’s standpoint. But if you are spending $80-100K, you want some superb design properties to go along with your dynamics. Some of this is ultra-subjective, but a few comments may be useful.

For starters, Jaguar and Porsche have opposite configuration and pricing philosophies. Almost everything is standard on the Jaguar at just under $80K; there are more than one hundred options on the Panamera S, which starts at just under $90K. It isn’t that the base Porsche is a stripper—far from it—but you are simply going to pay more for the Porsche. Getting the Panamera MSRP under $100K takes some discipline (and probably a custom order). Lease rates might give some insight into how depreciation will or won’t equalize these numbers. And Porsche now offers a pretty healthy V-6 to get you $10K closer to affordability, if that’s a concern.

Beyond such tawdry matters, we have interior function. The Jag has very nice seats that have a bit better shape than the Porsche’s (whose optional lumbar adjustment is un-anatomically shaped). The XJL also offers impressive rear legroom that will truly make you think “limousine.” The Panamera gives up some legroom, going from immense to very good. Neither car has fantastic rear headroom, though the edge here goes to Porsche.

Porsche counters with a hatchback and folding rear seats to make the car almost work like a wagon or small SUV. Adding to that concept is available all-wheel drive (Panamera 4 or 4S or Turbo). Looked at through this different lens, the Panamera (and the BMW 550i Gran Turismo when it gets AWD) are among the first true crossovers. For this application, the Panamera also offers an optional air suspension with adjustable ride height.

When it comes to style, well, there are choices to be made. Frankly, the new XJL is a stunner outside and in. The shapes are interesting and innovative without being weird. And the color choices are as wide-ranging as they are beautiful. The only place where you might have a question mark is in materials selection. Not in the Asian sense of mismatched plastic (there’s precious little obvious plastic to be found anywhere), but in the use of a bit too much chrome and other shiny surfaces on the interior.

Porsche marches to a different drummer. Like Mercedes and BMW, the Panamera aims at looking substantial and significant, not at being pretty. When you seen a Panamera on the road (and you must see it in the metal, not judge it in pictures), you feel as though you should step aside to let it pass. The interior, when configured correctly, also looks rich and imposing and sophisticated. Of course, you may be tempted to spend a bit to get there (two-tone leather interior, $5790; Mahogany Yachting interior wood, $3100, etc.).

Two excellent cars, both of which do lux and sport quite well. Two different cars, offering a distinctive and desirable look and feel.

Welcome Porsche. Welcome back, Jaguar.