Once again, Jaguar has entered intensive care. What are the symptoms, and possible therapy, this time around?
After decades of massive investment and changing managements (some of it of the competent variety) attempting different methods of reinvigorating Jaguar in a sustainable way, the British marque has yet again made headlines for all the wrong reasons: Lacklustre sales figures, ill-advised product decisions and redundancies.
Jaguar’s malaise under Ford ownership - when immense capital investment was undone by product planning that was as patronising as it was incompetent - is well documented. But the more recent decisions made under Tata ownership, as part of the Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) concern, have come under far less public scrutiny. So far.
Just as Ford mistook the company Sir William Lyons built in his image as the domain of retired dentists from Florida, JLR management under CEO, Dr Ralph Speth, made an equally crucial mistake almost a decade ago when mapping Jaguar’s path into the future.
For Jaguar, above all else, is not a style brand. It is the style brand - the one marque renowned for not building nice or pretty, but simply stunning automobiles. This is the brand’s raison d’être, just as Porsche’s is to build cars with excellent performance and handling. Therefore, a Jaguar that looks ‘okay’ is not a Jaguar - it is a waste of time and money.
For decades, Jaguar owners have forgiven their cars and their maker a lot, as they were given grace, pace and (mostly) value for money. Jaguar owners did not buy a car from Coventry because they wanted a cheaper BMW, but because they loved the way Jaguars used to look and how those looks set them apart from the mainstream. One did not choose a Jaguar because it was opportune - it was a conscious decision to value style over practicality, elegance over reliability.
Against this backdrop, the choices made in the context of Jaguar’s most recent saloon offerings, the XE and second-generation XF launched after 2015, appear rather baffling. For ‘okay’ is the most charitable description of their respective appearances anyone in possession of critical aesthetic faculties can possibly come up with. The current XF in particular is as entirely missed an opportunity as the worst of those misbegotten retro designs Jaguar launched two decades ago. Limp, anonymous, without any sense of poise or athleticism, Jaguar’s intended BMW 5 series beater possesses the charisma of a late ‘90s Japanese executive saloon - which is not a damning verdict per se, but most certainly not the kind of association a Jaguar ought to evoke.
The XE is less offensive. It shares its basic proportions with BMW’s very fine E46 generation 3 series, which are, unfortunately, prevented from making any impact by detail styling and surfacing severely lacking in delicacy, elegance, creativity or flamboyance.
The final shortcoming is particularly resonating, as Sir William Lyons’ overarching achievement with his Jaguar designs - which should, after all, still serve as spiritual inspiration - was to create the kind of flamboyance that miraculously never slipped into the realm of the vulgar.
About the last thing either XE or XF Mk2 could ever be described as is flamboyant though. Which illustrates just how far off the mark these pseudo-teutonic, middle-of-the-road designs really are. And that is even before the matter of cabin ambience is concerned, an area where Jaguar under Tata ownership have underperformed to a staggering degree.
Rumour has it these in almost every single regard shockingly lacklustre cabins were a consequence of escalating costs of JLR’s all-aluminium platform that underpins both XE and XF. If that truly is the case, it acts as yet more proof of the fundamental misunderstanding of not just the values, but more importantly the worth of the Jaguar marque, courtesy of its current custodians.
Two decades ago, as Jaguar was churning out one weak, self-referential retro design after the other, Audi, who had by then built a reputation for creating interiors of in every regard outstanding quality, were in the process of designing the second-generation of its A8 flagship saloon. This luxury saloon was intended to prove that Audi had come to the automotive upper house not just to stay, but to teach the competition a few lessons along the way - particularly with regards to cabin ambience. So when this generation of Audi A8’s cabin design was about to be finalised, then-CEO, Franz-Josef Paefgen, had one final demand: «Make it more Jaguar-like.»
It is quite unlikely such words are spoken within any design studio, anywhere today. It even remains doubtful whether the cheapest of Chinese knock-off car makers would bother copying any element of the current Jaguar saloons’ interiors. After all, they’re rather good at sourcing cheap-feeling, flimsy plastics themselves. The ergonomics, graphics and even colour & trim choices made at Gaydon are unlikely to inspire many imitators either - which is all the more surprising, given the Range Rover sister brand’s success in this field.
It appears as though the success Dr Speth and some of his fellow German executives enjoyed while they were still working at BMW has informed their reasoning to such an extent that they fail to grasp that any strong brand possesses very specific properties. Therefore, what is good for BMW is not necessarily good for Jaguar. In that sense, excellent handling is fine and dandy, but with Jaguar, even in the company’s prime, that always came as a bonus. It was the looks first and foremost that people bought. And what Jaguar continues to be renowned for, despite its undoubted expertise in this field lying dormant.
Fortunately, all is not lost. The I-pace electric car launched last year is by far the most charismatic design the brand has launched in a decade. That it is a divisive, rather than a universally loved shape must not be to its detriment: For every one onlooker who laments its lack of prestige gap and unusual packaging, there is someone else who appreciates its unapologetic flamboyance and unusual stance. Even its cabin design is acceptable.
For a brief time, right before Tata bought Jaguar Land Rover, the management then in charge had decided that chasing the German ‘premium’ brands - and hence volume - with as idiosyncratic a marque as Jaguar was a waste of time. Instead of being the smallest ‘premium’ brand, Jaguar was to become the biggest luxury brand - a more affordable alternative to Maserati and even Bentley, which, ironically, was how Jaguar had started out under Sir William. Regrettably, the first product devised with that aim in mind, the XJ (X351) saloon launched in 2010, proved to be too divisive and, on top of that, was launched into a shrinking market, right in the middle of a recession. It did, however, feature a rather wonderful cabin, with rather inspired colour & trim options. It was and remains a very flamboyant, yet not particularly elegant car. Its styling therefore cannot be called entirely successful. But it is a Jaguar, even if a deeply flawed one. Which could never be said about the saloons that came after it.
Jaguar will never be the British BMW - thankfully. It remains a marque capable of igniting enormous passion, but only if certain core properties are respected. In that case, deficits in terms of ergonomics, space efficiency, frugality and even quality shall be overlooked. As long as they are neither okay, nor nice, nor pretty, but stunning looking automobiles.
For such a rare quality, or luxury even, not millions, but still enough people will be willing to pay a premium. Particularly in a moment in time when almost the entire industry has lost its aesthetic calibration.
Photos: Audi AG (1), Auto-Didakt (2), Eòin Doyle (1), Jaguar Land Rover (20), all rights reserved
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