Payne: Jaguar XF is one cool cat

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The XF's nose is framed by  HID bi-function xenon headlights. The headlights follow steering input and bend the beam in the direction of the wheels with Adaptive Front Lighting system4. Included in this option is Intelligent High Beam, which automatically switches to low beams as cars approach, then switches back to high beams as they pass.

I have a soft spot for pizza, and one of my favorite pie joints is Primo's, a small Birmingham convenience store just around the corner from the luxe showrooms of Auto Europe and Fred Lavery Porsche-Audi. Primo's has been in business since the Cretaceous Period, and its loyal, crusty employees have seen a world of exotics drive by their big, front window. I have come to their store in countless vehicles. I pick up my box, exchange pleasantries, head back to my ride. But a recent visit was different. The cashier couldn't take his eyes off the Polaris White, Jaguar XF I had parked in front.

"Wow, that's a pretty car," he ogled. Yes it is.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Ford Fusion copied the Aston Martin's grille because the Brit-mobile has the best-looking face in the business. Tesla copied the XF sedan's profile for its Model S sedan because the Jag sets the standard for four-door beauty.

Like its animal namesake, the Jaguar's blunt nose is the only feature on this cat that isn't poetry in motion. Narrow headlights sweep around the front corners. Curvy, chrome, lower-air intake accents frame the face like cat whiskers. From this crouched cowl, the vehicle's body angles upwards across muscular wheel haunches, meeting a tapered roof in one of the auto kingdom's most admired rumps.

This column's reader comments are often peppered with comments scolding me for reviewing 60 grand chariots afforded by the fatted few. But rolling sculptures like the XF are the industry's artistic standard. A young architect studying Frank Lloyd Wright may not re-create Fallingwater, but he can transform neighborhoods with attractive, affordable, Prairie style housing. So too the Jag.

Its first-class taste inspires every segment. There's the aforementioned Fusion with a fastback that is oh-so-XF-like. Or the forthcoming Chevy Malibu which GM has teased with an XF-like (or is it Audi A7-like?) silhouette. My tennis game pales compared to Pete Sampras, but my serve benefits from mimicking his classic stroke.

Seems the 2015 Jaguar XF I've been flying around in has done a little mimicking of its own.

Truth be told, despite Jaguar cars' Gwyneth Paltrow-good looks, they had always left me cold. Detroit-winter cold. Back when the brand was part of the Ford stable, I felt sorry for Blue Oval execs slip-slopping through Detroit winters in their rear-wheel drive, two-ton Jag sleds. Like Gwyneth in high heels on ice, winter driving in Jaguars seemed an exercise in caution. Where's the joy in that?

But since the English cat was freed from Ford's zoo, the beast has thrived in the backyard of India's Tata. Jaguar is shedding its caricature as a rolling, wood-paneled London business office — with handling to match. Jaguar introduced the snarling, V-8, all-aluminum F-Type coupe. Then the aluminum, BMW 3-series-fighting XE bowed at the Detroit Show this January. And when the 2016 XF takes center stage in New York next week, it too will get an aluminum structure. The gorgeous, Ford-developed XF got the brand back on track in 2008, but it was not until 2013 that Tata green-lighted AWD for the XF to match its midsize luxe competitors: BMW xDrive, Audi Quattro, and Mercedes 4MATIC.

A Jaguar powered by all four paws. Now that's more like it.

The XF is a sure-footed cat in snow and dry. February threw everything at it, yet this kitty eagerly attacked the elements every day. Claw-like brakes. Instinctive all-wheel drive. Predictable steering. The big cat was as comfortable in powder as Lindsey Vonn.

The all-wheel drive system flatters the rear-wheel-drive-biased XF in the dry as well. Despite its heft, I could throw the sedan through corners, its rear tail naturally rotating into place. At stoplights, the AWD grip is a perfect mate for the ferocious 340-horse, supercharged V-6 under the hood.

Short of an electric Tesla, there isn't a sedan on the market that will pin you to the back of your seat like the torquey, 320 pound-feet V-6. Locate the steering-mounted paddle shifters, grip the wheel and hang on for dear life as the buttery, eight-speed tranny launches the carnivore forward like it's spied a pack of peccaries. If this Jaguar had spots they would fly off under acceleration.

But climb inside this panting predator and you feel 100 miles from its engine's violence. Indeed, you can barely hear its throaty roar thanks to acres of sound-deadening material.

If the XF's chassis is a trained athlete, the interior is a high-calorie buffet on a silver platter. My XF came with delicious materials including Barley leather seats, Truffle upper fascia in Soft Grain Leather, accented with Knurled Aluminum with Gloss-figured Ebony. I gained 10 pounds just looking at it.

But I'm just getting started. Look up and the ceiling is swathed in "Canvas Jaguar Suedecloth Premium Headlining." Including the sun visors. I stroked the A-pillars like a Jaguar's pelt. If the XF ever rolled over on its roof, I would be tempted to stay in the car, take off my shoes, and walk around on the soft ceiling barefoot.

But wait there's more. The front windshield is heated with an extraordinary embroidery of microscopic heating wires. Push the starter button and the dash's flush, aluminum air vents spin open, the navigation screen illuminates, and a gear selector dial rises out of the center console like a game-show button. To the moon, Mr. Bond.

Yet for all this eccentric luxury, the Jaguar's is surprisingly practical.

Its Human Machine Interface — ergonomics to we laymen — is superb. Most luxury consoles these days require a six-week course to operate. The XF is as user-friendly as a Chrysler 200. Ample center console storage space that will actually hold (shock) a big screen iPhone 6. Intuitive climate buttons. Touch-screen infotainment system. Everything is designed to fall in your field of view from the console-centered, door unlock buttons to the heads-up display hovering over the hood.

Underneath its racy hind quarters is adequate rear passenger room and enough luggage space to store Big Ben.

Next week in the Big Apple, the 2016 XF will catch up to state-of-art electronics and aluminum structure. But its basic wardrobe will remain largely unchanged. It's already the standard. Just ask Tesla ... or your local pizza guy.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Jaguar XF

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear and all-wheel drive, five-passenger luxury sedan

Price: $52,100 base ($61,175 AWD, supercharged V-6 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo inline-4 cylinder; 3.0-liter, supercharged V-6; 5.0-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 240 horsepower, 251 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 340 horsepower, 332 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 470-550 horsepower, 424-502 pound-feet of torque (V-8)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (V-6 AWD, manufacturer)

Weight: 3,660 pounds base (4,145 AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/30 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (4-cyl); EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (V-6); EPA 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway/18 mpg combined (V-8)

Report card

Highs: Simply gorgeous; intuitive controls

Lows: Small nav screen; um, seat heater buttons buried in console display? (I'm really reaching here)

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★