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Post Ford Jaguar Claws Back

Njuguna Kabugi | 5/2/2013, 9:13 p.m.
Iconic British carmaker Jaguar wants the world to know that it's making money and growing.

Iconic British carmaker Jaguar wants the world to know that it's making money and growing. Just five years ago, as the world's recession-wracked economy was imploding, Ford, then Jaguar's owner, had lost $14.6 billion. Ford was in no position to fund a comeback for its bleeding luxury brand and many doubted Jaguar would survive. A desperate Ford unloaded Jaguar (and fellow British premium brand Land Rover) to Indian manufacturer Tata for about $1.7 billion – roughly a third of the price Blue Oval paid for the two luxury brands.

Though reliability still remains a concern, new models seem to indicate a bright future, as the brand introduces modern designs sprinkled with a fair share of the old-world luxury of the British upper classes. The new Jaguar lineup includes a terrific product line-up of cars that are not only fantastic to drive, but also offer state-of-the-art technology and seductive design.

That said, the luxury market terrain remains a big challenge for Jag. Renewed competition from BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and a host of other premium brands with sporting portfolios will be a tough huddle to clear. Lacking the marketing muscle of these bigger companies, Jaguar has begun playing to its strengths by providing a close-up driving experience that it hopes will reel in additional U.S. drivers.

Recently, I was given an opportunity to experience the automaker's latest push to getting people to experience a Jag where it still has a big advantage – behind the wheel. Dubbed the Jaguar Alive Driving Experience, the carmaker is inviting a limited number of likely buyers and journalists to experience the luxury, performance and capability of select models from the 2013 and 2014 line-up during an 18-city U.S. tour.

Locally, Jaguar hosted the event at Redskins FedEx Field and featured various supercharged and all-wheel-drive models from the XJ, the XFR and the XK / XKR-S series. Also in the lineup was the F-TYPE, an all-new two-seater convertible sports car.

Invited guests were offered "simulated" city drives, different types of racing, or if one felt nostalgic, they could simply view some vintage Jaguars under the beautiful white tents. In several closed simulated driving courses, we were accompanied by professional race car drivers, who encourage us to test Jaguar's high performance vehicles to their limits, while at the same time teaching us about safe performance driving, including accident avoidance, handling, braking, and acceleration.

I have driven many Jaguars before and I can affirm that the Jaguar Driving Experience was one of the best. To really appreciate what sets the new Jags apart, you cannot do it from afar – you've got to get behind the wheel.

One of my favorite drives was the XJ. Reworked, it ditches the formal looks of the 2004-2010 model years for a more modern one – from its rakish front end to the slick kicked-up tail. The cabin wears lots of gloss piano-black trim, leather, wood and chrome – and though it sacrifices some space for the roofline, it's still a usefully roomy sedan. Handling and steering are superb, deft, and light to the touch. And with a choice of a 385-horsepower V-8 or a 510-hp supercharged V-8, straight-line performance is thrilling.

"The first thing about the car – any Jaguar, really – is it's all about proportions, the visual architecture," said Ian Callum, Jaguar's chief designer. "We try to sort out the proportions right from the beginning – the big picture – to make sure it looks like a beautiful car from 200 yards. Then we get into the surfacing, the lines, and the details," he said.

After years of watching other car companies have fun selling lots of cars in the luxury segment, I can't say for sure, but knowing what I know, it seems to me Jag will be with us for a long time. Obviously Jaguar's current savior, Ratan Tata, hopes so too.