BY LOOKING back, Jaguar has taken a step forward with its new XJ6 range. Its predecessor did not look as good as the Series-3, halted back in 1986. Jaguar wanted a car that looked more like the old-timer - so its new model has four headlamps and much more roundness about it, including a curvaceous bonnet. It looks a little retro but, technically, it is more advanced.

The XJ6 is not actually a brand new car. The body is, but the suspension and floorplan are carried over from the old model, as is much of the cabin architecture. Rear head- and leg-room remain poor, and the front occupants still have to cope with a high, intrusive centre console as well as a low roof. Once the door is closed, however, a Jaguar's cabin becomes something special. Nobody makes leather-and-wood interiors as well as the British. In German cars, you sit in an office, spartan and efficient; in the Jaguar, you are in a drawing room full of character and history.

Jaguar's new touches include handbag-sized set into the side of the front seats. On all but the base- line pounds 30,000 model, the cabin is lined in top-quality hide and wood. Switchgear, though new, is rather haphazardly arranged. And the boot, though bigger, is still too small for family holidays.

The range of engines has been heavily upgraded. The 3.2- and 4.0-litre six-cylinder normally aspirated motors are smoother and more muscular. The silken but thirsty 6.0-litre V12 continues, but a supercharged 4.0-litre six has been introduced to power the sporty version of the range, the XJR.

The new six-cylinder engines are quieter, but a little vibration can still be felt in front of the driver's toes. The state-of-the-art V8s now used in the Lexus, Mercedes S-class or Audi A8 are smoother.

Jaguar's strength has always lain in its suspension. The new Jag rides as well as ever, but marries low-speed float to high- speed sure-footedness. If the driver wishes to press on, the new Jaguar is much more sensitive to commands. And the steering is much sharper.

The advantage of Ford's big hand in overseeing the engineering of this car is apparent. Previous Jaguars have invariably been unreliable; the last XJ6 range suffered appalling electrical problems early in its career. This car quite clearly has been more professionally developed, and has been easier to assemble. Jaguars are still not as well made as Mercedes or BMWs, but the new XJ6 proves that they are catching up.

Prices have been raised about 5 per cent across the range, but are still good value compared with German rivals. The usual XJ-series model designations continue (apart from the supercharged XJR): base XJ6, the XJ6 Sport, progressing through the Sovereign (as tested) and the V12 models (XJ12 and Daimler Double Six).

Most people buy a Jaguar saloon for emotional reasons. They will continue to do so, but they should not kid themselves that they will possess the most seamlessly competent saloon in the world. This new car is too cramped and noisy at speed - from the engine and the wind.

But if you want something more than just a big car, this new range improves on the traditional Jaguar virtues.

Its cabin exudes a gentlemen's clubbiness quite at variance with modern design, and it drives in a silken and cosseting manner. You hardly ever feel the need to hurry, not even in the new supercharged model. And if you also demand normal car virtues - space, reliability, performance - you will obtain more of these than ever before.

SPECIFICATIONS

Jaguar XJ6 Sovereign 4.0 pounds 42,950

Straight-six engine; 4.0 litres, 249bhp. Four-speed automatic gearbox; max speed 143mph, 0-60mph in 7.8sec; average fuel economy 22mpg.

COMPARISONS

Audi A8 pounds 46,699

Lighter, faster, better handling and much roomier. Beautifully discreet styling, but lacks the 'warmth' of the Jaguar, inside and out.

BMW 740i pounds 46,700

More composed at speed, roomier and quicker, but too noisy and lacks the steering precision. Looks rather dull, too.

Lexus LS400 pounds 42,863

This is the mechanical sophisticate of the class, offering fabulous engine refinement. Jaguar offers a much more attractive cabin, though, and rides better at low speed. Rationally, the Lexus is brilliant, but emotionally rather dull.

Mercedes S320 pounds 45,000

Most comfortable big car in the world, fabulously cosseting and extraordinarily roomy. It's very quiet, too. Bulky though, and not much fun to drive.

(Photograph omitted)

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