The XF SV8 is proof that Jaguar is back. The XF line of cars has thankfully replaced the S-Type which always looked dated. The S-Type was shooting for a retro look but it never quite hit the mark. The dour grille-and-headlamp combination of the S-Type resulted in a car that looked permanently sorrowful, as if it wished it had been designed by someone in a better mood. And with a bit more energy. It looks as if the designer had simply given up by the time it came to creating the rear end, which has a touch of the Hyundai Sonata about it.
But the XF vehicles have managed to combine retro elegance with enough sharp lines to make admirers aware that this is a very modern machine. The XF, even the base model (although a Jag base model is still pretty darn plush), is a gorgeous car inside and out. The metal dash is a delight - little touches such as the air-con vents rolling out as you start the engine can't help but make you smile. Add to this luxury leather seats, a roomy glove box that opens at the touch of a finger and the reassuring big cat face roaring from the middle of the steering wheel and you know it's a car that's aimed at people who appreciate a touch of class.
Unlike the mournful headlamps of the S-Type, the lights on the XF range seem to have a happier, knowing look as if to tell you it knows it's a good looking car and it'll only be a matter of time before Lexus tries to copy the design, but will not be able to impart any of the soul. Performance is impressive too. The XF is a car that's not afraid of overtaking but the XF SV8 takes power and performance to new extremes. It's a supercharged V8 version with a 4.2L engine.
"This is a bonkers car," I was informed as I was handed the keys. Although when I say "keys", I mean a small black block with buttons for locking and unlocking the doors. There is, naturally, a push-button start. Opinions seem divided, however, on the dial known, at least by the marketing types, as the JaguarDrive Selector. When the car is switched off, the dial sits flush to the surface of the centre console, but once you start the engine, up it pops. My colleague, Neil, thinks it's pretty cool. I, however, couldn't help but think the chunky metal dial that allows you to choose Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive and Sports mode was a bit too reminiscent of a washing machine. A certain male tried to deliberately raise my ire by suggesting that this was to remind women that they should be at home doing the washing rather than driving great, big cars, but I chose to ignore that remark.
And the best way to ignore comments that belong in a cave (if indeed cavemen drove flashy, once-British luxury cars), was to give the XF SV8 a decent thrashing on a wide, straight, lonely road in the dead of night. First, I knocked the washing machine dial into Sports mode and instantly felt the surge in power. There weren't many cars out that night, but those I did encounter were joyously overtaken; the SV8 would have been a blur to them. At high speeds, it is still smooth, the automatic transmission keeps up nicely and not once did I feel as if I was in a flibbertigibbet of a machine that might fly off the road at a moment's notice. This is partly due to the superb suspension with adaptive dampers. There aren't too many opportunities on the roads here to corner at high speeds, but I'm guessing it'd be a brilliant car to drive through, say, the Swiss Alps.
The Sports mode noticeably ups the revs and uses the shift-by-wire technology that we first saw on the lovely XK. This is a system for controlling the sequential transmission so gear changes are slick and there's no sluggish hunting for gears at any speeds, the curse of many an automatic transmission. Then I decided to have a bit more fun and drive the car using the flappy paddles to change gear. It's a six-speed gearbox and I discovered that it can be driven at 160kph in third gear without any howls of protest from the engine. Back in the thick of Abu Dhabi traffic, it was just easier to drive it as a normal automatic. For stop-start city driving, the gearbox offered smooth, barely noticeable shifts so you could just sit back and enjoy the gentleman's club interior.
The SV8 was developed when the Jag marque was still owned by Ford but now the reins have been handed over to Indian manufacturing giant Tata. The Indian car maker must be jolly delighted. It really is a Jag that harks back to the grand old days when the company was still British-owned and stunning, refined cars, such as the E-Type, effortlessly rolled off the production line. Under the ownership of the struggling Ford, Jaguar didn't have the best of times. But under Tata, there could well be rosier times ahead for the big cat, notwithstanding. The XF SV8 is proof that Jaguar can still make cars that provide a delicious combination of style, performance and soul, the most elusive quality of all.