(first posted 8/11/2015) It seems even the ugliest Jaguar is still a beautiful rolling sculpture of a car. The British luxury brand has manufactured some of the most gorgeous sedans and coupes over the years, almost always boasting sumptuous wood and leather-lined interiors, luxurious ride quality and athletic handling. With the bar set so high and the pedigree so strong, “lesser” offerings like the XJ40 Jaguar of 1986 end up receiving scorn. Jaguar’s first new car of the 1980s, codenamed XJ40 but sold under the XJ6 and XJ12 nameplates, represented Jaguar’s effort to stay modern while preserving some measure of old world charm. Now, it remains an overlooked classic, bookended by the desirable and long-lived Series III XJ and the slinky X300 of 1994.
The Series III XJ6 had led a resurgence of the Jaguar brand, and sales volumes had risen considerably. Reliability and assembly quality had improved immensely under the reign of Chairman Sir John Egan, helping to eliminate one of the major hurdles to more widespread Jaguar ownership. The Series III may have experienced a late-in-life boom in popularity, but it couldn’t last forever. A new sedan was needed, and on its shoulders would rest the fate of the Jaguar brand. It had to be good, because the XJ6/12 series was Jaguar’s core model.
Although the XJ40 may have arrived in the middle of the 1980s, development had commenced all the way back in October 1972. A multitude of factors contributed to this huge delay between conception and production, including a lack of funding and direction from British Leyland. Sir Michael Edwardes and Sir John Egan helped separate Jaguar from its sickly parent, and by the 1980s the XJ40 program was finally running on all cylinders.
The exterior styling had similar proportions to its predecessor, being lower and slinkier than its rivals and boasting gently arching haunches, but the lines were much more angular. Lower trim XJ6s retained the heritage round headlights, but those bearing the Sovereign, Vanden Plas and Daimler nameplates had modern, rectangular headlights.
If the exterior was somewhat of a shock to the Jaguar faithful, they would have been relieved to see the interior. An abundance of burled wood trim and sumptuous Connolly leather made for a gorgeous and warm interior. However, in another nod to contemporary trends, early XJ40s received digital instrumentation. This feature would be axed after 1990.
During the XJ40’s lengthy development period, the world had seen two major energy crises. Jaguar’s sales during the 1970s had dipped due to the lack of smaller engines in the range. Accordingly, a V12 option was given little consideration. Instead, the XJ40 would debut with two new, smaller inline six-cylinder engines: a SOHC, 12-valve 2.9 and a DOHC, 24-valve 3.6, both with an aluminum block. The former had 165 hp and the latter a hearty 221 hp (189/195 hp in North America, depending on the year), and both were available with a four-speed automatic. The 2.9 was a fairly small engine for such a big car though, and performance was mediocre. Consequently, it wasn’t introduced in North America, nor was the five-speed manual transmission.
Those seeking a V12 XJ40 would have to wait until 1992 – or 1994 for North American consumers – when a V12 option finally arrived. The old Series III actually remained on sale in many markets until 1992 to fill that gap in the lineup. The new XJ12 had a 6.0 V12 with over 300 horsepower and commensurately poor fuel economy.
In the US market, the base XJ6 initially received only the 3.6 inline six. List price in 1988, its sophomore year in America, was $43,500; the even more luxurious Vanden Plas added an extra $4k. This priced the XJ40 series between the BMW 5 and 7-Series, and smack bang in the middle of the Mercedes E-Class lineup. It was also a price jump of around $4k from its Series III predecessor. Cheaper XJ40s were available in its homeland: you could purchase an XJ6 with cloth seats, wheel covers and a manual transmission. A base XJ6 2.9 was £17,000 in the UK, which was actually £2,000 cheaper than the new Rover Sterling.
The XJ40 may have been sized between the BMW 5 and 7 Series sedans, but actual interior room was average. A wide console up front and a tall transmission tunnel in the rear of the cabin made the interior feel somewhat cramped compared to its Teutonic rivals.
The XJ40 was met with critical acclaim, some magazines declaring it the best sedan in the world. Its sophisticated independent rear suspension, manually shiftable J-gate automatic transmission and smooth inline six engine meant it was a delight to drive, although some remarked the steering was overly light. The interior was warmer than its German rivals and its pricing was sharp, and there was still that sumptuous ride quality Jaguars were renowned for.
It wasn’t perfect, though. The digital instruments, that most un-Jaguar aspect of the XJ40, were notoriously unreliable. Indeed, all of the electrics in early models were prone to premature failure. After Ford’s purchase of Jaguar in November 1989, quality control improved, especially after an extensive renovation of the antiquated Browns Lane factory in 1993. However, many XJ40s would eventually rust in peculiar places (at the base of the headlight and in the corners of the hood, for example) and the available self-levelling rear suspension could be temperamental. Like the digital instruments, this feature was also dropped during the XJ40’s run.
There were other positive changes made to the XJ40. An enlarged version of the 3.6, now displacing 4 liters, was introduced for 1990 and offered 15 more horsepower. The European-market 2.9 made way for a bigger 3.2 mill with 35 more horsepower. A long-wheelbase variant was also introduced for 1990.
Neither improved quality control nor gutsier engines could help arrest the XJ40’s sales slide. In 1988, just fewer than 40k units were manufactured. In 1990, 30k XJ40s were produced, and in its last four years of sale it only surpassed the 20k mark once. In the US market, the XJ40’s debut year saw 17,271 units sold, a couple of thousand fewer than its predecessor in the year prior. Sales would dip slightly for 1988 but remain fairly steady until its penultimate year. It wasn’t a sales disaster, but those numbers weren’t terribly impressive either.
The 1994 X300 shifted to a less original representation of the Jaguar design language but underneath it was much the same as the XJ40. But while the X300 was instantly recognizable as a Jaguar and featured exquisite, classic lines, it boxed Jaguar into a design corner. Its X350 replacement would feature technologically advanced aluminium construction and adaptive air suspension, but it so resembled its forebears that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just the same old Jag with a few botox injections. It took Ian Callum’s striking 2010 X351 to finally shake up a design language that, although beautiful, was becoming repetitive and just a little bit stale.
In a way, the XJ40 was like the current X351: it was Jaguar’s attempt to embrace contemporary trends, like more angular styling and digital dashboards. But where the X351 makes a clean break visually from its predecessors, the XJ40 took a more conservative approach and attempted to retain the same proportions but with new design elements. Setting aside its styling, the XJ40 was an immensely capable sedan. But when you are talking about a company so renowned for its beautiful cars, you sometimes can’t set aside styling.
N.B. The featured Jaguar XJ6s were photographed in Brisbane, Australia and New York City, respectively.