Trompe Le Mondeo

A Mondeo in drag? Driven to write examines Jaguar’s much-loved X-Type to establish whether there is more to it than this shopworn pejorative might suggest.

Jaguar X-Type
Image credit: (c) carpixel

The costs of failure are time and again discerned; etched upon the epitaphs of product lines, carmakers often paying the ultimate price for their misguided ambitions. Car manufacture is fraught with risk – there can be no success without it. Each new product represents an educated shot in the dark, all the more so should it represent a new market sector for the carmaker in question. However, in the automotive game, the stakes are consequently higher than most.

Moving one’s product name downmarket carries perhaps the greatest risk of all, for the virtues to which customers have become familiar and value most must be offered in diminished form in a cheaper product, if at all. Nor does the cost of development fall, the gains being more rooted in sales volume and economies of scale. Furthermore, once a business has taken such a step, there really is no going back.

Mercedes-Benz demonstrated both extremes of this particular paradigm; first with the 1982 announcement of the W201 190-Series, a masterclass in brand management and perfectly pitched product strategy. Their second attempt in 1997 however proved the diametric opposite – an eye-watering financial and reputational failure.

The X-Type model to all intents and purposes bankrupted Jaguar; the Ford-owned carmaker never recovering from the losses incurred by the X400 programme. The figures involved are fairly sobering. According to a study carried out by corporate financial analysts, Sanford C Bernstein a number of years ago, Jaguar lost €4600 on every X-Type sold – an overall loss amounting to over €1.7 billion. Allow that to sink in for a moment.

However it also remains the best-selling stand-alone Jaguar saloon model to date with 362,000 produced over an 8-year lifespan, so while it has become a laughing stock amid the automotive press and something of a pariah amid certain sections, the story behind the X-Type’s charmless career is a little more complex than might first appear.

Part of the reason for this lies with the difficulty one faces when discussing Jaguar. For one must first encounter the heel of history – the unbearable weight of heritage, and it is here that the X-Type’s case becomes gossamer-thin. Prior to Ford’s 1989 takeover, Jaguars might have been many things, but they had never been ordinary cars. They existed in a slightly rarefied position – not as expensive or well wrought as a Mercedes-Benz or BMW, but more of a more indulgent, individualist’s choice.

Having spent a kings ransom on the purchase price, the Ford Motor Company, whose senior executives are said to have ignored warnings from elements within the company as to the profligacy of such a move, needed to justify their actions, especially in the wake of a brutal recession in 1990, which saw the blue oval having to pump $millions into Jaguar to keep it afloat.

The answer it was decided, was to expand Jaguar’s operations massively, more then trebling their annual output and pitching the marque into new sectors, right into the heart of the junior-executive car market, in direct competition with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz’s offerings.[1] Ford’s product planners were amongst the best in the(ir) business, but in retrospect they seem to have made a crucial error. They believed what they were told. The truth was that whatever their customer data was telling them, there not only was no precedent, but also little real appetite for a junior-Jaguar.

01geneva xtype x-type
A Wayne Burgess X400 render dated 1997. Image credit (c) AROnline

Certainly, if potential customers had been asked if they would like a new compact Jaguar at the price of a 3-Series BMW, they would probably have nodded in affirmation, but that must be understood in relation to the cars Jaguar were making during the early 1990s, which were very much the type of car they had always made – indulgent, crafted, non-mainstream.

Nor was there much enthusiasm in Browns Lane for that matter. As an independent entity, Jaguar had no plans of any description for such a compact model line, nor ambition to build one. Jaguar’s primary aspiration from a product expansion perspective was to produce a car in the mould of the Sixties Mark 2 model, something which would take shape as part of Ford’s new product plan (1999’s X200 S-Type), if not in a wholly satisfactory manner either.

Around 1994, the decision on X400 was taken, necessitating the largest investment in the company’s history, yet failure seems to have been baked into the X-Type’s being from the outset.

Significant and damning errors took place as X400 entered the scoping phase. Firstly, there no suitable rear-drive platform, widely seen as a prerequisite in this most class-riven sector. The result being a compromise. Without a rear-drive architecture, a rear-biased four-wheel drive chassis was derived from elements of the contemporary Mondeo’s CD132 front-drive platform. However, neither the lengths, widths nor wheelbases were shared. This would become the stick with which the resultant car would be beaten time and again.

Further compromise came about as a result of the product strategists’ market projections, which ensured that X400 was tailored largely to American tastes. Hence the exclusive use of large-capacity V6 engines at launch, which appeared to ignore the fact that throughout Europe, most junior executive cars were sold with engines of 2-litres or less. Fears of diluting the brand by use of four cylinder Ford-sourced units was allegedly at root here. Nor was there any consideration of diesel, despite the growing popularity (and sophistication) of the powertrain across most European markets.

The two V6 engines available at launch (of 2.5 and 3.0 litre capacities), were based upon existing Ford Duratec units, themselves believed to have been based upon a Porsche design. Cylinder heads and engine ancillaries were unique to X-Type. However, alongside the lack of smaller four-cylinder engines, another unfortunate consequence of X400’s compromised specification would be the fact that its transverse architecture couldn’t accommodate Jaguar’s larger displacement engines, whereas rivals offered larger capacities and considerably more power at the upper reaches of their model ranges.

Enlarging the car to help assuage some of these issues was also out of the question, not just because it was necessary to benchmark against its German rivals in dimensional terms, but also, a larger car would risk encroaching upon the more expensive S-Type model in overall size and interior space; itself uncomfortably close in dimensions to the flagship XJ series – the latter a car which had not been benchmarked in dimensional terms – it was a Jaguar after all.

Jaguar’s planners and strategists ended up with the worst of all possible worlds. Too risk-averse to obtain the powertrains that would ensure broad market appeal in European markets, they also failed to develop a halo performance model, which would have lent X400 some additional credibility, if not necessarily sales.

Design is the dress of thought, and a shapely exterior would do much to assuage any powertrain deficiencies. But perhaps the most regressive mindset existed when it came to the X-Type’s body-shape. By around 1997, when the X400’s styling was being finalised, Geoff Lawson’s small team at Whitley found themselves working to a rather restrictive brief.

Lawson had many fine qualities, was highly rated by his colleagues, and crucially was said to enjoy a rapport with William Clay Ford, but a visionary he was not. Under his leadership, Jaguar’s design became rearward-looking, tentative – the very opposite of that espoused by Jaguar’s founder.

Lead designers, Wayne Burgess and Simon Butterworth tried a number of different treatments for the new model; Burgess more recently displaying some of these renders on social media, some of which combined frontal aspects inspired by the X100 XK model, and even one which harked back to that of the XJS. Also rendered was a proposal for a convertible version – described as part of series of alternative body styles.

What these renders do illustrate was that Jaguar’s designers seemed unclear as to how a small Jaguar should look, and perhaps lacked clear guidance from their director. The weight of expectation piled further pressure upon them – heightened by two rival car designs in particular which not only preceded the X-Type, but illustrated how to successfully combine relative compactness with outstanding elegance of line.

Mazda introduced the Xedos 6 in 1992. This elegant four-door sports saloon, while based on Mazda’s mainstream Capella’s underpinnings, was clothed in a body of surpassing elegance, one which managed to successfully mask its front-drive architecture in a style which led many to (understandably) draw comparisons to Jaguar.

The other visual elephant in the room being the advent in 1997 of Alfa Romeo’s 156. Created from elements of the Fiat Marea platform, yet justifiably regarded as an acknowledged styling classic, the 156 was a superbly executed marriage of tradition and modernity – both cars proving object lessons to Jaguar’s designers.

And while some of the Jaguar proposals were not without merit, none were genuinely forward-looking; the chosen theme very much a stylistic homage to the XJ saloon, and most specifically its upcoming X350 iteration, then in development. The fact that senior management seemingly not only demanded an entirely old world aesthetic but insisted upon a packaging-led silhouette can only have tightened the cord around Burgess and his team. In effect, what could have been a handsome, if rather conservative shape became fatally compromised by its rather limp proportions, cab-forward stance, retro applique, canopy to body ratio and fussy graphics.

Ian Callum, speaking to Jaguar World magazine revealed that he was shown the X-Type’s styling around the time of his appointment in 1999, saying he was “disappointed” by it. “Because the X-Type was on a front-drive platform, the overhang was quite large and the wheel to dashboard measurement very short, so you sensed it was not quite as powerful-looking.,” he went on to say. A statement which confirms that X400’s structural hard points dictated some rather less than desirable visual compromises.

Jaguar X-Type cabin. Uncredited

Like the car’s exterior, the X-Type’s cabin ought to have been modernist and appealing. Intended to appeal to a younger demographic, Jaguar again shot themselves in the foot with a highly conservative interior style, intended to reflect that of the larger, more expensive models, which was compounded by the use of some cheap-looking plastics in conspicuous locations. While no item of interior trim or switchgear was shared with the Mondeo it was partly derived from, X400’s interior too failed to shine.

As a means of lowering the median age of Jaguar’s customers, both interior and exterior styling illustrates the misapprehension which existed regarding X400 and its target market. Because despite being a well-engineered, broadly credible attempt at a compact 3-Series fighter, the X-Type as sanctioned was entirely ordinary. Worse still, an ordinary car with ideas above its station. An unpardonable sin, especially for a car bearing a Jaguar badge.

Meanwhile, with X400 a priority project, resources were flung at Jaguar’s Whitley engineering centre to expedite development. Extensive use of computer aided design slashed gestation time and prototypes were sent to far-flung outposts from Timmins in the Canadian wastes to the high speed Nardo circuit at the heel of Italy.

Intelligent use of shared componentry shaved cost from the project, but any savings were quickly wiped out by the necessity to refit and re-purpose the former Escort plant at Halewood in Merseyside to the tune of £300m. As costs escalated, the break-even point for the car rose exponentially. Volumes of over 100,000 per annum soon became essential for the viability of the programme.

Producing a world class rival to BMW’s state of the sector 3-Series was perhaps the most onerous task that could be asked of an engineering team who were not only undermanned, but for this manner of vehicle, lacking experience. Not that Ford themselves could realistically offer much assistance, apart from resource.

With three disparate production facilities in Coventry, Birmingham and now Liverpool, Jaguar had become a rather fragmented business and from a logistical perspective, a difficult one to manage, but it seems that Ford executives had already started looking at shifting production out of Jaguar’s spiritual Browns Lane home.

Image credit: (c) Autoblog

Management believed they could achieve the bulk of X-Type’s volume through the US market, where the lack of engine choice and alternative body styles would be less of an issue. But there was trepidation too, Jaguar’s then US sales chief, Mike O’Driscoll telling Autoweek in 2001; “We’re in the risk-taking business guys. We’ve got hundreds of millions invested in this car and if people don’t like it we’re in trouble”.

The X-Type was introduced in October 2001. Advertising (courtesy of McCann Erikson) showed glamorous looking thirty-somethings smouldering at one another over an atmospheric Chris Isaac soundtrack. The “New Jag Generation” tagline featured prominently.

Initially offered minus several key strands to its armour, X-Type came in saloon form only with a choice of two V6 engines (3.0 litre only in the US) and standard AWD. Alternative body styles were promised, as was the prospect of smaller displacement engines. Initial reactions to the car were broadly positive and early sales looked promising. Criticism of the styling was conspicuous by its absence, especially within the UK motor press.

It wasn’t all good news. While the 3-litre model performed well, the cheaper 2.5-litre unit proved underpowered yet cost as much to run. Because the X-Type was designed for a transverse installation, an image-building performance model would need to be derived from the existing V6. A supercharged model was believed to have been developed, but it was to remain stillborn.

Timing is everything in life and having been launched in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks on America, the economic climate, which was still feeling the effects of the failed dot-com bubble was anything but favourable for the advent of a luxury car – even a relatively inexpensive one. So while America, soon to begin sliding towards war and economic recession was undergoing something of a recalibration, buyers proved harder to find.

Furthermore, durability issues (broadly if not entirely confined to the US market), would rear their heads, gaining the model a reputation for unreliability and expensive repair bills. Driveline faults were at root, the fragile transfer case being the main cause – as were electronic gremlins. As the X-Type’s reputation was hit, sales plateaued, peaking in 2003 at around 70,000 per annum, well short of the model’s break-even point.

Jaguar’s rivals hadn’t sat still either. Audi had launched a new generation A4 in 2000, the same year Mercedes’ W204 C-Class debuted. Both were available in multiple body styles and engine permutations. As was Alfa Romeo’s acclaimed 156. While Jaguar was not disgraced, X-Type failed to land a serious blow. However, BMW’s E90 3-Series did when it launched in 2004, Jaguar’s pipe and slippers ambience shown for the creative cul-de-sac it was.

No pussyfooting

Furthermore, X-Type also failed to chime with a New Jag Generation, finding favour with a one of a more senior mantle. Popular with downsizing retirees, X-Type’s customer profile did nothing to reverse Jaguar’s ownership median age. After all, thrusting young managers weren’t especially keen on something that looked like their dad’s Jag.

With US X-Type sales in reverse, all further thoughts of halo models were abandoned. Instead, Jaguar concentrated fire on the neglected European market, in an effort to stem mounting losses.

In 2002, a 2.1 litre version of the AJ-V6 engine debuted in Europe, which broadened the model’s appeal slightly but remained on the wrong side of affordable tax bands in several key European markets. This model was only made available in front-wheel drive form, the first Jaguar-badged car ever to be sold with this layout. Meanwhile, the lack of a diesel option remained a glaring omission.

Around this time, Jaguar executives were debating whether to green light a compact mid-engined sports model, designed under the guidance of Ian Callum and Julian Thomson. This attractive, Boxter-esque design was to use the X-Type’s transaxle assembly and powertrain and promised to be exactly the image booster the leaping cat required. However, with X-Type sales in retreat, it was decided to funnel resources towards salvaging its prospects – in Europe at least.

2003 saw the introduction of the first Jaguar diesel, a 1993 cc Ford-sourced power unit (from the Mondeo), again driving the front wheels. A year later saw the debut of the more visually harmonious estate. These additions improved the model’s fortunes to some extent, but by mid-decade development had more or less stalled and with all three Jaguar saloon lines now selling poorly, it was a case of all hands to the lifeboats.

Four years too late? The revised 2008 X-Type Sportwagon. Image credit: (c) Automotivesreview

For the Ford Motor Company, not only the X-Type, but Jaguar itself was becoming an unsustainable liability. Having invested $billions chasing rainbows, they’d seen only deepening pools of red ink and the prospect of never-ending financial dependency. It was time to cut their losses.

Ford’s Joe Greenwell admitted as much to MPs following the Browns Lane factory closure in 2004, saying “It was a failed growth strategy. We were over optimistic and we under-estimated the amount of competitive activity, which is a typical and dangerous assumption to make when you are in management.

Having withdrawn the model from the US entirely the previous year, X-Type received its first significant facelift in 2007. Considering that no sheet metal changes took place, it was a decent improvement, centred mostly on improving the visuals and interior ambience. The facelifted car debuted a new, more powerful 2.2-litre turbodiesel, with the 3-litre petrol now the only petrol option available.

Following the financial crash of 2008, X-Type experienced a mild sales resurgence, buoyed by its refreshed appearance and generous deals available to cash-strapped customers. Now something of an embarrassment for Jaguar bosses, when asked about the model at a press event in 2009, Mike O’ Driscoll quipped, “Do we still make it? I’d like to put a stake through its heart.”

Newly formed JLR was also producing Freelanders at the Halewood plant, the Land Rover sharing a great deal of below-skin componentry with X400. But with the architecturally similar Range Rover Evoque about to begin pilot production the following year, time ran out for the X-Type in late 2009.

Few tears were shed, but a great many commentators who ought to have known better subsequently queued up to inform the world how they’d called it from the beginning – the majority of whom had lauded the X-Type to the skies in 2001.

Alfa-esque? The 2008 X-Type interior. Image credit: Jaguarforums

It’s a little pointless throwing stones now, so asking whether it was Jaguar’s compliance or Ford’s arrogance which sowed the seeds of the X-Type’s failure is in some ways academic. However, the blue oval really cannot be absolved from a large portion of responsibility. Ford’s product planners misread the luxury car market – not just with the X-Type, but also with the larger S-Type and contemporary XJ saloon.

X400 was well received at first, but its styling proved ephemeral and its allure quickly faded. Its prospects were hampered by its US-centric positioning, lack of suitable engine choice and initial lack of alternative body styles. A swiftly-gained reputation for mechanical frailty also killed its chances in the US market it was squarely aimed at.

Once sales plateaued around 2003, Ford starved it of development, allowing it to stagnate even further. Damningly, the 2000 Mondeo from which 19% of the X-type was derived has proven to be a design with greater appeal and longevity, proving more appealing to more buyers than its more expensively developed and priced Jaguar derivative. In fact, one could argue that the Mondeo was a better, more rounded product overall.

But it was the car’s styling which proved the fatal error. it really shouldn’t have been beyond Jaguar’s capability to come up with something gracefully modernist.

How much design interference took place is unclear, but given that X400 appears to have been a predominantly Ford project, there is likely to have been rather a lot. By then however, just about everyone else was doing Jaguars better than Jaguar did themselves.

Last of the line. The revised 2008-2010 X-Type. Image credit: (c) motordesktop

Instead, the X-Type’s finer qualities were overshadowed by its disappointing appearance and lack of body and engine choice. Over-eager, Ford executives rushed the car into production believing it would sell by dint of its badge.

But no matter what is said in the car’s defence, one inescapable fact remains. The X-Type (a car Browns Lane didn’t ask for or want), gave Jaguar volume, but lumbered them with costs that would cripple the business, playing a pivotal role in Ford’s decision to offload the marque to Tata Motors in 2008.

X400’s failure continues to resonate; Ian Callum more recently providing this neat summation. “If the design had been strong enough, the Ford platform could have been forgotten, but nobody was in love with the car and the press had a swipe at it.”

What can we add to Callum’s definition of the X-Type? A car that continues to give Jaguar executives nightmares, perhaps best described as a perfectly pleasant car, but a decidedly second-rate Jaguar, and we can’t have any more of those.

[1] Chairman, Sir Nick Scheele bullishly informed journalists in 1998 that volumes of over 200,000 cars per annum was a realistic aim for the new generation of Jaguars.

Quotes/sources: Automotive News / Bernstein Research / AROnline /Practical Classics /Jaguar World /Autoweek.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

5 thoughts on “Trompe Le Mondeo”

  1. Very interesting, particularly in light of the abject failure of the dull as dishwater XE to have any meaningful impact on the market. Does anyone really care about Jaguar anymore? Do they have a single unique selling point?

  2. The failure of the XE, Cadillac ATS and Alfa Giulia to make a significant splash is quite heart breaking. Good cars all, but probably a decade too late and fighting the market’s rush towards SUVs.

    Speaking of which… the new Jaguar E-Pace is also based on a transverse / FWD platform. It’s the car Jaguar said it would never make. It is deeply mediocre in every respect (but has Ian Callum’s competent and modern design ethos).

    Who will bet against it outselling the XE?

    The unfortunate lesson that the car makers will draw from this is that heavy investment in bespoke engineering is not something that the customer will appreciate and pay for.

    1. If viewed very cynically, the E-pace is a development of the X400. The X-type’s pricing was optimistic, but not as scandalous as Jaguar’s rebadged Freelander.

    1. Extra humiliation? It was an effective enough engine and not hopelessly slow like the 2.0 but oh my god was it unrefined.

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