Photos of Jaguar's next J-series sedan platform are now surfacing in the enthusiast pubs, and perhaps the best thing that can be said is that it looks as though the big cat is finely going to get a decent trunk. Beyond that, the design has sparked controversy as to whether it will be enough of a technological leap forward to keep up with offerings from the German manufacturers; although it will be an entirely new platform, one gets the feeling that Jaguar doesn't want to risk alienating its core British market.

Having recently spent a week behind the wheel of the XJR-100--the most outrageous development of Jaguar's soon-to-be extinct big sedan platform--I'm inclined to say technological evolution be damned. As top corporate mouthpiece Simon Sproule likes to remind us, a Jag's prime rationale is to make the driver feel refined and elegant, and the XJR-100 provides elegance in spades. It also provides enough performance whoopy to cause soilage of one's Savile Row trousers, but more on that later.

Moreover, Ford has been behind Jaguar long enough that this final year of the current J-series now boasts refinement that's as good as anything out there.

Thirty-four years in the making

 There's no little irony in the fact that Jaguar marked the Lyons centennial by taking 34 years to make its best sedan ever. Party gear includes a near-black metallic paint color called "anthracite" and a full leather interior, with perforated seat surfaces, in "warm charcoal," with red stitching on the seats, the "R Performance" leather steering wheel, the Momo shift lever, door panels and central console. You'll also find acres of a grey-stained bird's-eye maple veneer on the dash, door surfaces and console. The dancing shoes are Z-rated Pirellis on a special 19-inch, spoked alloy BBS wheel design called "Montreal," which first surfaced on the F-type concept car three years ago, and they nicely show off the humongous cross-drilled Brembos, with their silver four-pot calipers emblazoned with the Jaguar script in red.

The balance of the ambiance includes a DVD navigation system that is displayed on an unfortunately small screen, a premium nine-speaker Alpine sound system with the requisite (again unfortunately) trunk-mounted CD changer, automatic climate control, power memory tilt-and-telescoping steering column, dual-band fixed telephone, 12-way adjustable driver's seat with three-position memory, electrochromatic rearview mirrors, trip computer and front cupholders.

And yes, one does feel pampered inside the XJR-100. A city friend who spent a few days with we country folk confessed that her favorite memories were of riding around in the back of the Jag, feeling positively queen-like. I was all too happy to play chauffeur, because the 4.0-liter, 370-bhp, supercharged, intercooled V-8 is quite the secret weapon, and I felt like James Bond packing a Walther PPK, if he had to forsake the Q-issued Aston-Martin DB5 for the sake of carrying passengers.

Not so secret maneuvers

Consider passing maneuvers. With 387 lb-ft of torque available at 3600 rpm, the senses are flooded and pokey drivers comprehensively dispatched when you floor the throttle--you are shoved back into the seats, passing scenery blurs, the Roots-type blower whines and the V-8 roars. You signal, return to your lane and the whole episode is over in an instant, and the car you passed is but a receding dot in the rearview mirror.

The engine is mated to an electronically controlled five-speed automatic, creating a drivetrain that the press kit describes as "entertaining but refined" with typical British understatement. Astonishing is what I'd call it.

The drivetrain is also found in the XKR coupe, which we drove last December. In that context, the drivetrain and platform seemed completely integrated. The J-sedan underpinnings, which have been around since Sir William helped pen the first XJ-6 in 1968, are somewhat overmatched in the XJR-100, despite the very helpful presence of appropriately acronymic CATS, Jaguar's Computer Assisted Technology suspension. Cornering and braking will induce some wallow and nose dive from the fully independent wishbone/coil spring/damper suspension, but I doubt Jaguar's engineers could reduce such misdeeds to contemporary standards because of the mass inherent in the nose and tail overhangs that give this most beautiful sedan its character. Still, CATS' adaptive damping gives the big cat a remarkable degree of composure, and a motorcyclist who wanted to play tag on our bumpy, winding mountain passes couldn't shake the big, black cat at all. Maneuvering is surprisingly effortless, steering feedback from the variably assisted rack-and-pinion unit, superb.

British lowrider

The Jag thumbs its nose at modern design philosophy, and the driving experience is a bit of a nostalgia exercise that might be described as British lowrider. Thanks to the low beltline, you can see acres of hood from behind the wheel, and because the wheel positions haven't been extended to the corners, the car feels bigger than it actually is. But this also contributes to a somewhat narrow cabin with only adequate leg room. Most annoying was the fact that the emergency brake lever, mounted just to the immediate right of the driver's seat, tended to protrude into my beefy (well, once beefy) American thigh, so I had to raise the seat cushion to its max to minimize this intrusion, and then recline the cushion fully to keep my head off of the headliner, as those lovely lines compromise head room big-time. The resultant posture was quite Eddie Irvinesque, comfortable and efficient for hard driving, but a bit low to the ground for easy exit.

The thing is, I never really wanted to get out of the XJR-100. Sproule is right. What Jaguars do best is imbue drivers with a sense of elegance, a timeless quality that enhances your well-being and makes other manifestations of the contemporary car market, such as technological gadgetry, seem trivial in comparison. In an era where market evolution too often dumbs down the driving experience, I'd be perfectly happy to remain seated in the XJR-100, frozen in time.

2002 Jaguar XJR-100 4.0 S/C
Base price: $78,780
Engine: 4.0-liter, DOHC, supercharged V-8
Drivetrain: Five-speed electronically controlled automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 197.8 x 70.8 x 52.7
Wheelbase: 113.0 inches
Curb weight: 4063 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 16/22 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and side airbags, stability control, four-wheel ABS, traction control, front and rear fog lights, rain-sensing wipers
Major standard equipment: Cruise control; automatic climate control; 12-way adjustable, heated seats; leather seat surfaces, steering wheel and shift knob; power windows; telescopic steering wheel; heated electrochromatic rearview mirrors; multiple-function car computer; eight-speaker am/fm/CD stereo with subwoofer; BBS alloy wheels, Brembo cross-drilled brakes, reverse park control
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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