Leap of Faith

It was brave, it was a failure and its fate was etched in Jaguar’s past. 

(c) barrettjaguar.com

Acts of creative reinvention are rarely acknowledged at the time of committal, being far more likely to be misunderstood and derided by those whose expectations were, for a variety of reasons subverted or otherwise denied. Brave or foolish? There is a fine line which separates both polarities, because inevitably, whenever these adjectives are appended to matters of a creative nature, it tends to be connected to its failure.

The X351-series Jaguar was a brave design, attempting to break from the creative straitjacket the over-familiar, and overworked XJ silhouette had evolved into. But now, a decade on from its Summer 2009 debut, and with the curtain soon to fall upon its production career, we can determine that it has indeed failed.

But such a bald statement cannot stand unaided. There is nuance to X351’s disappointing commercial performance, and while some of it can be solemnly laid at the design team’s door, they ought not be asked to bear its funeral casket alone.

When Ian Callum was appointed as successor to the late Geoff Lawson at Jaguar’s Whitley design studio, the preceding X350 XJ body design had been signed off, and he found himself defending a design for which he played no part and held little regard for. He subsequently made it clear that the era of rehashing past glories was over, speaking of overseeing a “different form of elegance”.

But first it was necessary to convince senior management of the necessity for change, illustrating to them the manner in which Sir William Lyons had evolved the Jaguar line in an iterative yet stylistically progressive manner. Making the point that by jettisoning modernity, they were also losing relevance, he told them that it would require what he described as “a big jolt” to regain it. And while subsequent Callum-helmed designs would embed recognisable Jaguar styling DNA, they would strive towards a very different aesthetic – one I might add, which has not met with anything like universal approval.

As the X351 programme got under way, and with the 2007 XF already having made the necessary visual statement of intent, Callum and then Jaguar MD, Mike O’Driscoll agreed the next XJ had to be a radical shape. However selling Adam Hatton’s bold and uncompromising exterior style to senior Ford management was unlikely to have been a straightforward act, Callum later outlining to journalists how much of a fight it was to shepherd it through.

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X351 is not a design which brooks ambivalence – one either appreciates its audacity, visual drama and clarity of intent, or simply loathes the unflinching drama of its extremities. But while there is much to appreciate about the car’s appearance, it must fail the ‘Sir William test’ for aesthetic grace. That is not to suggest that Jaguar’s founder and creative Spiritus Rector would not have appreciated the rather dashing design theme – after all, he himself oversaw X351’s spiritual predecessor, (the equally daring, if unsuccessful Mark X) – more that he is unlikely to have countenanced some of its rather discordant design solutions.

But if the 351’s exterior was a somewhat uncomfortable jolt for the more traditionally minded marque aficionado, the cabin was a surprise of a far more pleasing variety. Overseen by Jaguar’s long-serving interior design chief, Mark Phillips, the XJ’s interior was a joyous symphony of broad-brush sweeps, playful highlights and well-chosen adornment. Traditional materials like wood, metal and leather were treated in a more contemporary fashion, combining a lightness of touch to offer perhaps the finest Jaguar cabin in decades.

But if the XJ’s body style acted as an impediment to success, another decision which was taken at senior management level is also likely to have harmed the car’s commercial chances. By pivoting Jaguar away from its long-standing pre-eminence in ride refinement and NVH resistance towards a more dynamics-focused behavioural package, X351 would manifest an agility which belied its size and garnered the plaudits of auto-journalists, but customers were largely nonplussed by such matters – after all, if an S-Class cosseted like a limousine, why couldn’t the Jag? It was a shift that was driven more by expedience than necessity, and it gained them nothing.

The XJ cabin debuted the so-called ‘Riva Hoop’. (c) gtopcars

Despite this, Ford deserves more credit than it subsequently received for sanctioning the car at all, given how the business was haemorrhaging cash and how radical a reinvention it was for Jaguar’s previously rather conservative client base. Nevertheless, from Burbank to Berwick Upon Tweed, the product was greeted with mystification and no little disquiet.

Perhaps not since the ’70s advent of the XJ-S was there a new Jaguar which proved quite so visually polarising. X351 hastened the XJ’s slide in the luxury saloon sweepstakes, confirming that in addition to the above, the model had become too physically large – because even in the US, where bulk is not an impediment, the market has not accepted full-sized Jaguars since their 1950s heyday.

Compounding matters was Ian Callum’s stubbornness over the XJ’s stylistic weaknesses, missing an opportunity to address them when the car was mildly refreshed in 2015. Whether it would have made much difference is debatable – we would perhaps instead be decrying his moral climb-down, so it’s equally possible he was damned either way.

Ultimately then, where does this leave the ‘351 in the XJ pantheon? Certainly, as an outlier, if purely by consequence of its appearance, which at first principle remains at odds with every other XJ-badged car Jaguar made. In retrospect it proved a miscalculation on Jaguar’s part perhaps – a leap too far which failed to match customer’s expectations with Mr. Callum’s vision for a new Jag generation.

(c) Jaguar.com

And yet, like so many brave failures, there is much to appreciate. It’s a striking car of enormous stylistic confidence and one which has scarcely dated (inside or out) in the decade it has been in production. It is also every inch a Jaguar, which is more than can be said for some of the vehicles currently bearing the fabled leaping cat emblem, regardless of how much Whitley’s outgoing design chief might laud them.

All of which places us in something of a quandary – for isn’t it preferable to fail gloriously than tentatively? But conversely, opportunities at Jaguar for reinvention come so infrequently, the danger is that as X351 production winds down this July, the sands of time may be running out for the XJ saloon.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Leap of Faith”

  1. I think this is a very fair verdict, and I think the reference to the commercial failure of the Mark X is an important point.

    Curbside Classic had a scan of a 1965 Car and Driver comparison which included the Mark X against the Mercedes 600, Cadillac, Lincoln, Chrysler, Rolls Royce. It gives some insights on how the Mark X fell short as a luxury car in America.

    http://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/vintage-reviews/six-luxury-cars-a-car-and-driver-test-from-1965-with-some-cc-pictures/

    Ride isolation was an issue with the Mark X, and I think the move to delete the X351 front subframe and go for more “Nurburgring” handling was a mistake for that segment.

    X351 problems were not all exterior styling.

    Given the mandated interior size, any car that size was always going to be a stretch for really elegant styling.

    However, when I think about elegantly styled long wheelbase sedans (post-war) the Mark X and the Citroen DS would be at the top of the list.

  2. That’s still a lovely interior, particularly the judicious use of wood and the sweeping curvature that seamlessly connects the dashboard and door tops. One of Jaguar’s best ever interiors, I think.

    However, the blacked out D-pillars, awkwardly drawn boot shut lines and those rear lights don’t get any better with familiarity, do they? The slope of the rear lights makes the rear end look tall and narrow, and getting narrower towards the base of the boot lid, an effect exacerbated by the D-pillars giving the impression of a very wide rear window above:

    It’s a great shame that the opportunity was not taken to alter the rear end when the car was facelifted. With body-coloured D-pillars and horizontal rear lights, the look of the car would have been transformed, since there’s nothing wrong with the underlying contours. Here’s a speculative rendering of an XJ replacement that gives some idea what might have been achieved at not a great cost:

    One aspect of current Jaguar badging annoys me to an irrational degree; the use of the “leaper” badges on the rear end and steering wheel. It seems irrational to have the big cat leaping sideways, and especially so as it’s leaping to the left*. The “growler” badge would be much more appropriate in both situations. The leaper is only suitable as a bonnet mascot, or on the lower front wings, where it would be leaping forward in the direction of travel.

    * Even as a left-hander, this looks a really odd choice to me. Why is it not leaping to the right, the usual (Western) direction of travel across a page?

  3. Twice Ian Callum teased the public with something special, and twice he disappointed.

    The XF concept was well received, yet when the production car was unveiled the sleek, narrow headlamps had been replaced by items roughly twice the size which gave the car a slightly unfortunate, startled look. The midlife facelift made amends, and the car sold well, but it was a big initial mistake.

    This XJ was teased with an overhead shot and the internet melted over the significance of that blacked out D pillar. Some kind of novel glazed arrangement, like the partially see through A pillar on a Volvo concept from years ago? Nope, just an apparently pointless piece of gloss plastic trim.

    Overall he did a good job (I think this is best evidenced by the I Pace, which despite being a blocky, tall, cab-forward hatchback, somehow looks like a Jaguar) but mistakes were made in taking the public with him.

    1. In fairness to Jaguar, the slim headlights of the XF concept couldn’t be made with the technology of the time and so the arrival of lights which were truer to the original design had to be awaited.

  4. Coincidentally, on the Autocar website today, the facelifted XE is tested. Ever the Jaguar cheerleader, Steve Cropley describes its appearance as “greatly improved”. He continues:

    “Sportier bumper designs and new LED lights front and rear have made the car look sportier, more planted and above all more modern.”

    Well, maybe, but I don’t think the relatively minor changes will even be noticed by most potential buyers. The slimmer rear lights look more distinctive, but it’s a moot point as to whether or not the changes to the front end are an improvement.

    You only get a second chance to make a first impression if you make a major change, like Jaguar’s excellent facelift to the first generation XF. This is not in the same league.

  5. Let’s take a look at the last picture: when Jaguar flagship model resembles a Tata (yes, I know) Indica/Bolt or a 1st gen Hyundai i20, in my book, is destined to failure….

  6. Well, the thing is an absolute whale in the flesh. Its bottom bodyline sheetmetal/plastic also slopes too much upwards behind the rear wheels, so if parked such that the rear wheels sit at the edge of the top of even a minor slope, it is old-fashioned to behold from the rear with the gubbins exposed and the bumper outline looking far too high. The length of the boot also seems exaggerated if you look at it from the side parked with the front perhaps 25 degrees away from you. An awkward whale. That has always been my take on it. There’s something not quite right to my eye.

    Photos of the XJ like the first one in this article always disguise the rear profile by looking downwards on the car just slightly. Look at it in pure profile and you should spot the rise in the rear sheetmetal.

    I could say the same thing about the dash area too. Not quite right. Somehow.

    All my personal opinion of course, but one has to wonder why potential buyers stay away from this thing in droves. If it had been indubitably gorgeous rather than just a bit iffy, it would have sold like hotcakes, because to those who can afford such things, a bit of suspect reliability wouldn’t matter a bit, but it never really matched the pre 2009 model in takers. Looking at sales figures it died on the vine several years ago while then plummeting in 2018 to levels not worth making – about 3,000 cars per annum. Time to can it and move on.

  7. To me, the Rover 75 makes a better job of a relatively similar rear end treatment. The pre-facelift XJ lamps remind me of upturned Rover 75 facelift ones, too, and I’m not keen in either case.

  8. Only just got to this properly, having been away. For the second time today I am going to write … I think we are going to really miss this car when it has gone.

    I followed one today for a while up the M1 and then edged passed it through a speed restricted road works section. Yes, I know, blacked-out rear pillars. Yeah, I also know boot shut-lines. And rear lamps … But, it’s imposing, distinctive, imperious and, in a way, has a swooping elegance as it swooshes down the road.

    The 7 Series and S Class look dull and conservative in comparison. It’s definitely a car which divides opinion; but I want that. Interestingly, when in Rome last week, I saw three XJs and 4 I-Paces and nothing else from the current Jag range. The two share a radical, modern Jaguar look. They both polarise (my wife and daughter did not get the I-Pace at all), and are brave attempts to step outside of the silhouette of their German rivals.

    No current BMW (i-cars aside) or Merc gets close to either in terms of singularity of concept. I hope the new XJ, should it happen, is more like this than the tepid and cautious XF and XE. Take a bit of the visual bulk and the fussy details out by all means, but let’s have that clarity of design retained and enhanced, not binned.

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