Jaguar's new XJ range has just been launched after a pounds 200m development programme backed by parent company Ford, writes Mark Catterall.

The styling is softer and more reminiscent of Jaguars of old. The quieter engines pull harder, the suspension smooths the ride while sharpening the handling, the steering is vastly improved, and the famous interior ambience more seductive than ever. Jaguar is confident these cars can rival anything that Germany throw at it for build quality and reliability.

Back in the days of the Mk2, Jaguars were sporting luxury saloons that appealed to young bloods and conservative seniors. That younger clientele has long since defected to BMW but the new line-up seeks to change all that, offering three distinctly sporty versions as well as the regular XJ6, Sovereign and Daimler models. There's the XJ6 Sport, with a 219bhp 3.2 or 4.0-litre motor, and a truly sporting XJR

which matches a super-charged engine to specially developed Pirelli tyres.

Jaguar enthusiasts worried about the Ford influence in the new range need not fret. The cars are more Jaguar than ever. Designer Geoff Lawson said: 'We've retained the XJ40's visual virtues, but we've put back the sculpture of the Series III (the last version of the original XJ6). So once again we have four round headlamps and stronger tail.'

Prices start from as little as pounds 28,950 for the XJ6 3.2, rising to pounds 59,950 for the Daimler Double Six. Although every body panel is new, much of the old car survives under the surface. More than 100 engine components have changed between the old AJ6 motor and the new AJ16, although the basic twin-cam, 24-valve all-aluminium design remains.

Whether it proves as sturdy or reliable as a Mercedes remains to be seen. There is, however, no doubt that the quality problems of the past are over, and the new XJ will be the best Jaguar ever to own.

(Photograph omitted)

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