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It’s not just that sense of déjà vu. You know you’ve seen it before. Rather, it’s that feeling you get when you see a familiar face that’s somehow changed. But with the all-new, sixth-generation Jaguar XJ sedan, it’s more than just a nose job. And many of the car’s most significant changes are not immediately apparent.

The XJ series is the longest-running nameplate in the history of this venerable British marque. Having first debuted in 1968 with what later became known as the Series I, this is without question the most recognizable Jaguar on the planet. Indeed, half of all the Jags on the road these days are XJs, though the percentage is rapidly shifting as the automaker puts more emphasis on its newer and more downmarket models, the S-Type and X-Type.

Still, the XJ is the marque’s flagship, the vehicle that has and will continue to define the brand. But that definition is undergoing a radical change as the car that hits U.S. showrooms in the second quarter of 2003 will demonstrate. Jaguars have always been about style, usually at the expense of function. They’ve all-too-often been an emotional, rather than logical purchase. With the debut of the new sedan, known inside Jaguar by its codename, X350, that’s about to change.

“It’s a rational buy now,” declares Jaguar chief designer Ian Callum. “It’s also an emotional buy, but…it is rational, too.”

Package goods

With the old car, in Callum’s language, “packaging was its weakest point.” Anyone who has tried to squeeze into the back seat of an earlier XJ understands. If you didn’t fall into the legal definition of child or midget, you were going to spend your time with your head bent at an awkward angle pressed against the ceiling. Even up front, headroom was minimal. And as for the trunk, well, there are sports cars with more cargo space.

In the increasingly competitive “high-luxury” market, manufacturers are moving to a “no-compromise” approach with cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the third-generation Audi A-8. So while there was no question the new XJ would have to bear a more than passing resemblance to the car it replaced, an even higher priority was squeezing in a more generous amount of passenger and cargo space.

So the most obvious change in the ’04 XJ is its size. The car is about four inches longer, an equal amount wider and a good five inches taller. And that’s the short-wheelbase model. A long-wheelbase version is likely to follow in about two years.

Though the design cues are unmistakably reminiscent of XJs past, the proportions also offer a hint of Jaguar’s S-Type, the mid-size model that tried to demonstrate that the automaker could design a roomy car.

A closer inspection shows a lot of more subtle changes in exterior styling. The waistline stands a little taller and adds a bit of wedge. The trunk has been raised, and not just to add cargo space but to improve fuel economy. And the rear is adorned by an elegant set of LED taillights. The wheelbase has been stretched a good bit, with the front tires pulled forward, almost to the bumper. In general, gaps have been tightened markedly. Rubber seals are smaller and less obvious around doors and windows.

“The car has real gravitas, real presence,” Callum proclaims. The 2004 XJ very definitely has a more refined feel of craftsmanship than the sedan it replaces.

Cabin fever

That’s true on the inside, as well. This is a Jaguar, after all, and you’d expect plenty of wood and leather. But the leather in the prototype was notably more refined, a word that could be used to describe the entire passenger compartment. The initial feel is traditional Jaguar, but with what Callum calls “little pockets of modernity,” such as the 7-inch LCD screen linked to a DVD navigation system, and the electrically adjustable pedals.

There’s no iDrive, the controversial centerpiece of the BMW 7-Series. Jaguar doesn’t want you to feel like the 2004 XJ has been transformed into a computer on wheels. The automaker has taken a relatively cautious approach to technology. There’s also no keyless ignition system, for example.

But there is room, plenty of it, with this 6’2” correspondent finding no problem sitting in the back seat. And the seats in the new Jaguar may be among the most comfortable in the industry right now.

As earlier noted, a significant number of changes won’t be immediately obvious—like the fact that the new XJ is made of aluminum. Unlike the Audi A8, which is built around a complex aluminum space frame, Jaguar has stuck, as much as possible, to a conventional unibody skeleton, though it turned to the aircraft industry for help in putting the lightweight but challenging metal together. There are virtually no welds in the X350. Instead, the car is constructed with high-tech adhesives and self-tapping rivets, much like a modern jet. (The XJ body, incidentally, will be assembled at the automaker’s Castle Bromwich plant, which produced fighter aircraft during the Second World War.)

The approach resulted in a body that’s about 60 percent stiffer than the old XJ. It’s also 450 pounds lighter. In fact, the 2004 sedan weighs less than the smaller S-Type. Now add in a new, computer-controlled air suspension system, and that’s likely to bring some very good news on the performance front.

The new car will offer several different powertrains, but the primary package will feature the smooth and powerful 4.2-liter V-8—supercharged in the XJR—mated to a six-speed automatic.

The public will get its first in-the-metal look at the new XJ later this month at the Paris Auto Show. A U.S. debut is scheduled for Los Angeles next January. Sales in Europe begin early in the new year, while American buyers will have to wait a few months longer.

2004 Jaguar XJ (preliminary)
Base price: $68,500 (est.)
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 294 hp; supercharged 4.2-liter V-8, 390 hp
Drivetrain: Six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 200.0 x 73.5 x 57.0
Wheelbase: 119.4 in
Curb weight: 3600 lb (est.)
EPA City/Hwy: 16/22 mpg (est. for supercharged V-8)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, Dynamic Stability Control, traction control, adaptive cruise control
Major standard equipment: Computer Active Technology System (CATS) with self-leveling air suspension; cruise control; automatic climate control; leather seat surfaces, steering wheel and shift knob; power windows; telescopic steering wheel; heated electrochromatic rearview mirrors; AM/FM/CD stereo
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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