THE JAGUAR XJ6 3.2 IN 0-60 SECONDS

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The Independent Culture
IF I OPENED my front door right now and found a suitcase containing pounds 30,000 in used twenties smiling seductively up from the step, the moral decision about whether or not to keep it might be a lot harder this week. Why? Because parked at the bottom of the steps is the car I've just test- driven, a silver-blue Jaguar XJ6, price pounds 28,950 - and I want one.

If you have even a tiny place in your heart for beautiful motor cars, the Jaguar XJ6 can unhinge you. It has purred off with just about every prestigious auto-press plaudit handed out in this country over the past six months. When you sit behind its sporty, leather-grip steering wheel, activate the furniture to electronically arrange you into the perfect driving position, then unleash the distant whoosh of the engine, it isn't hard to see why. Though a whisker under pounds 30,000 is nobody's idea of loose change, it's a bargain compared to several rival luxury cars accelerating away from the pounds 40,000 line.

Despite going under Ford's wing four years ago, the small Coventry company has kept its place in an exclusive club occupied by contenders from BMW, Mercedes and Lexus. Its survival at the top is an indication of how well Jaguar masters even the most elusive of design challenges. How, for example, do you conceive of a classic line that has contemporary rather than retro appeal? How do you use traditional materials (walnut, chrome, leather) without vulgarity, and combine luxury with the kind of performance responsiveness that enthusiasts appreciate? How do you put it all together for a price that has the edge on the competition, without sacrificing one iota of quality?

Jaguars always seem to be particularly British motor cars - whatever that means, and whoever now signs the cheques. It's an important aspect of the company's appeal, especially in the States. The more that concept of Britishness evaporates in the face of cultural reality, the faster Jaguar's mythological status may grow.

The response to the relaunch of the XJ6 last autumn was so ecstatic that it might have fooled the casually attentive into believing that this was a new car. But not only is the XJ6 outwardly very similar to its predecessor (if a little more curvy at the corners), it also represents a retreat from the rethink originally planned. Jaguar at first intended completely new V8 engines, an entirely rethought chassis, and an answer to the old problem of limited rear legroom. What happened was that Jaguar ran out of cash; Ford balked at the $500m needed for a full revamp. The company did, however, resculpt all the exterior panelling to make the car more graceful. It improved the XJ6's existing engines and its handling technology, extending both the car's performance and the legendary Jaguar operational refinement.

Though the current price range goes up to pounds 45,450 for the chart-topping XJR with its sensational supercharged 4-litre engine, the pounds 28,950 bargain- basement 3.2-litre model may well be the pick of the bunch. The engine is as smooth as a turbine, and though it certainly isn't as urgent in its responses as the bigger-engined models in the range, the 3.2 still delivers 200 brake horsepower and does 0-60mph in just under nine seconds - with good braking, grip on the road and uncanny stability to match. Handling and ride are exquisite.

It's the XJ6's cabin, though, that really makes you long for the pounds 30,000 suitcase on the doorstep. Any fool knows what "traditional materials" are - just about anything that wasn't manufactured by the petrochemical industry - and how to obtain them. But it isn't just a question of heaving into the cabin a confection of clippings and carvings that are meant to feel, shine and smell just right. Jaguar shapes these highly sensuous materials around you as if you had been measured for them. The bulky, Fifties-style seating, the big sofa-like arm rests, the thickly carpeted centre console, and the rich, mirror-finish woodwork framing those old- fashioned aircraft-style dials are magic. No luxury car comes anywhere near the XJ6 for elegance. Though the main market for this car will be the boardroom, it makes for wonderful family motoring (if you can stand the stress of crisps disappearing down the seams in the leatherwork). Ferry a team of under-10s in this, and all domestic tensions evaporate on the silent air.

GOING PLACES: Revamped version of the classic 3.2-litre Jaguar engine - now even quieter and better balanced, though not exceptional in performance. 0-60mph in approx 9 secs, 30-70mph overtaking speed in approx 8 secs. Smooth-changing automatic gearbox for pounds 850 extra. Silky power transfer to roadwheels. Untiring to drive, particularly on motorways.

STAYING ALIVE: Superb handling and grip, making a big car feel as agile as a hot-hatch on twisters. Power-steering feel improved to give near ideal combination of roadwheel feedback and effortless cornering. Roll very limited. Anti-lock braking standard, twin front airbags, improved bodyshell build quality.

CREATURE COMFORTS: The XJ6's strong-est card: limousine standard of interior finish even on base-level model. Very comfortable seating. Ride quality superb. Not much interior storage space, but boot capacious. Rear legroom limited. Full air-conditioning an expensive extra at pounds 2,100, but standard climate control very effective. Sunroof optional extra.

BANGS PER BUCK: Fully height-adjustable and reclining front seats; remote central locking with immobiliser; radio cassette, twin front airbags, anti-lock brakes, trip computer. Fuel economy approx 20mpg around town, 30mpg on motorways. Three-year/60,000- mile warranty, six years anti-rust. Price: pounds 28,950.

STAR QUALITY: Good price for its class. Brilliant chassis. Interior finish. Quietness.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Poor rear legroom. Engine performance unremarkable.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Audi A8 2.8 (pounds 35,000): fine performance, ride not so good, charisma limited, but a big leap forward for Audi; Lexus LS400 (pounds 43,300): eerie silence, terrific ride quality, roomy, less character; BMW 730i (pounds 40,000): well equipped, legendary performance and roadholding, cramped at the back.

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