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.
It’s probably accurate to say that the X-Type essentially bankrupted Jaguar. Certainly, the Ford-owned carmaker never recovered from the losses incurred by the X400 programme. According to a study carried out by financial analysts, Bernstein Research, Jaguar lost €4600 on every X-Type built – a net loss amounting to over €1.7 billion. Allow that to sink in for a moment.
Given that it remains the best-selling Jaguar to date with 362,000 produced over an 8-year lifespan, the reasons behind the X-Type’s failure and subsequent pariah status remain a matter of often intense debate, despite being widely viewed at the time as a well-engineered, broadly credible attempt at a compact 3-Series fighter.
But the difficulty one faces when discussing Jaguar of course is the heel of history – the unbearable weight of heritage. Jaguars have never been ordinary cars and if the buying public are a reliable arbiter, there remains little appetite for such a vehicle. Because viewed from the perspective of utility – fitness for purpose even, the X-Type was entirely ordinary.
The problem it faced was market perception, which was that of an ordinary car with ideas above its station. An unpardonable error, and ultimately damning, yet one which seems to have been etched into the X-Type’s being from the outset.
As an independent entity, Jaguar had no plans for such a compact model line. X400 came about for one simple reason. Having massively overpaid for it in 1989, Ford needed to recoup their investment fast. The storied marque turned out to be in far worse shape than they had been led to believe, so a new business plan was hastily cobbled together in the dark days of 1992, central to which were new models, aimed at making Jaguar a viable rival to the German marques, in prestige, quality and crucially, volume.
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, the bulk of this coming from X400, the model code for a compact saloon aimed at the lucrative junior executive market dominated by BMW, Mercedes and Audi.
Jaguar’s engineers had little experience of producing a world class rival to BMW’s state of the sector 3-Series and neither for that matter did Ford. Nor was there a suitable rwd platform. The result was a compromise, a fudge. Without a rear-drive architecture, a rear-biased four-wheel drive chassis was derived from elements of the contemporary Mondeo’s CD132 fwd platform. However, neither the lengths, widths nor wheelbases were shared, nor indeed was any visible interior or exterior component.
The 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 Jaguar. However, one unfortunate consequence of X400’s architecture would be the fact that it couldn’t accommodate Jaguar’s larger displacement engines, whereas rivals offered larger capacities and considerably more power.
Fears of diluting the brand by use of mainstream four cylinder Ford-sourced engines would further compromise the car’s prospects, especially throughout Europe, where most junior executive cars were fitted with engines of 2-litres or less. There appeared to be no consideration of diesel power units, despite their growing popularity in European markets; Ford’s US-centric attitude to product planning ensuring that X400 was tailored almost entirely to American tastes.
A similar mindset existed when it came to the car’s body-shape. X400’s styling was overseen by Jaguar design director, Geoff Lawson and is attributed to Wayne Burgess and Simon Butterworth, who created a stylistic homage to the larger XJ saloon, specifically its X350 iteration, then in development. This styling scheme came about as the result of a series of reviews where alternative proposals were proposed and rejected in favour of a rather tepid and safe execution.
Current Design Director, Ian Callum latterly revealed he was shown the X-Type’s styling before its launch and was “disappointed” by it. He expanded upon this, telling Jaguar World, “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.” A statement which confirms that X400’s structural hard points dictated some rather less than desirable visual compromises which Jaguar’s stylists perhaps failed to successfully mask.
The fact that Ford executives demanded an entirely old world aesthetic can only have tightened the cord around Burgess and his colleagues. In effect, what could have been a handsome, if conservative shape became fatally compromised by its slightly limp, front-drive stance, retro elements, canopy to body ratio and fussy graphics.
Like the car’s exterior, the X-Type’s cabin ought to have highlighted the advanced engineering underneath. Intended to appeal to a younger customer, Jaguar again shot themselves in the foot with a conservative interior style, compounded by the use of some cheap-looking plastics in conspicuous locations. While no item of 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 level of misapprehension which existed regarding X400 and its target market, which points to serious product planning errors.
Meanwhile, with X400 a priority Ford Motor Company 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 components shaved cost from the project, but any savings were quickly reabsorbed 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.
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.
X400 was launched in October 2001. Advertising illustrated 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, X400 came in saloon form only with a choice of two v6 engines 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 were promising. Criticism of the styling was conspicuous by its absence, especially within the UK motor press.
Ford execs believed they could achieve most of X-Type’s volume through the US market, where the lack of engine choice and body styles would be less of an issue. But there was trepidation too, Jaguar’s 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”.
Trouble followed swiftly thereafter however as X-Type’s honeymoon proved short-lived. While the 3-litre model performed well, the 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 was overtaken by events before it saw the light of day.
These being serious durability issues – (broadly if not entirely confined to the US market) – quickly gaining the model a reputation for chronic unreliability and expensive repair bills in its most vital market. Driveline faults were at root, the fragile transfer case being the main cause – as were electronic glitches. As the bad news spread, sales faltered, peaking in 2003 at around 70,000 per annum, well short of the model’s break-even point.
Jaguar’s rivals weren’t sitting still either. Audi 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 critically acclaimed 156. While the Jaguar was not disgraced by its rivals, it failed to land a serious blow either. 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.
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 marketing managers weren’t especially keen on something that looked like their dad’s Jag.
With X-Type sales collapsing in the US, all further thoughts of halo models were abandoned. Instead, Ford concentrated fire on the neglected European market, in a last-ditch effort to stem the losses now threatening to drive Jaguar towards bankruptcy.
In 2002, a 2.1 litre version of the AJ-V6 engine debuted, which broadened the model’s appeal slightly yet 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.
2003 saw this remedied with 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 the game appeared to be up. 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.
For the Ford Motor Company, not only the X-Type, but Jaguar itself had become 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.
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. Given the rival Alfa Romeo 156 was created from elements of a Fiat Marea platform, yet is justifiably regarded as an acknowledged styling classic, it really shouldn’t have been beyond Jaguar’s capability to come up with something gracefully modernist. (The other stylistic elephant in the room obviously being Mazda’s elegant Xedos 6).
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.
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.
Quotes/sources: Automotive News / Bernstein Research / AROnline /Practical Classics /Jaguar World /Autoweek.
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