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The Brave Pill | Jaguar XJR (X308)

As the XJ bows out it's time to celebrate one of the dynasty's greatest hits

By Mike Duff / Saturday, June 08, 2019

The end of production of the current Jaguar XJ has got us wearing mourning bands over our blazers and donning black cravats. It's all the excuse needed to scour the classifieds for a suitably reverential Brave Pill. Ideally this would have been one designed under the watch of Jaguar's long-serving design boss Ian Callum, who also announced his departure this week. Although this one was too early, we're pretty sure that Ian would approve of our choice.

There have been plenty of XJ highlights over the years, but the supercharged X308 XJR is probably the tallest of the lot. It comes from the sweet spot between Ford's takeover and the arrival of what might politely be termed more rigorous quality assurance processes, but before the brand started to get a bit too keen to chase the Germans. For those in search of a proper performance bargain the good news is that the market still doesn't seem to have much affection for these supremely wafty leviathans; prices are low and availability high.

The XJR of this vintage is one of a dying breed of car, a sports saloon that didn't fall into the trap of trying to be too sporty. Jaguar had made its reputation on refinement as much as performance, and the lesson hadn't been forgotten when the X308 was introduced in 1997. It built on the success of the first X300 XJR, but substituted that car's supercharged straight-six engine for a boosted version of the spiffy new AJ-V8 that Ford had paid many millions to develop (and which we learned this week will die at the end of 2020.) With the supercharger singing, the 4.0-litre engine made 370hp - 40hp more than the first XJR and requiring the still-novel use of a 155mph electronic limiter. But the R always delivered by the quality of its performance, not just the quantity.

Don't think of a velvet glove, the XJR wrapped its big, metallic fist in a cashmere mitten with pictures of kittens on it. The gentleness of the XJR's power delivery was almost perfectly matched to the pliancy of its chassis, capable of wafting with the best of them and burbling through town on its torquey low range as the Merc-sourced five-speed autobox shuffled its ratios to keep everything calm. But proper get-me-to-the-horizon urge was never more than a flexed toe away, the charger whining like a beaten Mancunian as the revs climbed and the numbers on the speedo turned increasingly serious.

The ride will feel soft by modern standards, with hard cornering producing some impressive lean-angles. But that doesn't mean the XJR doesn't handle and can't be hustled: there's proper steering feel behind the light assistance and a feeling of deftness that makes it a joy to thread along a twisty road. It's not a flying machine; without a limited slip differential, excessive enthusiasm in tighter corners can set the inside rear wheel spinning. But it's a supremely easy car to drive quickly with refinement levels that will still feel good; I remember being a passenger in one that was loping along at an indicated 130mph and having a conversation in normal tones.

Much of the rest of the XJ experience felt charmingly old-fashioned even when the car was new. The X308 still owed a significant amount of its structure to the XJ40 which had been introduced as long ago as 1986, and substantially designed in the 1970s. The A-pillars seem almost impossibly thin by modern standards, the glassline amazingly low. Visibility is, unsurprisingly, excellent, even when adopting the slouched driving position encouraged by the squidgy seats.

Ford's cost-cutters had mandated the use of a fair amount of plasti-wood, the bits on the top and bottom of the steering wheel being slippery enough to encourage the non-ironic use of driving gloves. The centre console with controls for the entertainment and ventilation must have a similar button density to a scientific calculator, from memory it can be hard to find the right one in a hurry. And yes, that's a cassette deck, although there will almost certainly be a CD player (player, player, play...) in the boot as well.

But the J-gate gear selector remains a piece of genius, and vastly superior ergonomically to the rotary transmission controller that eventually replaced it; unlike most older autos there's a natural feel to which gear the car is in based on the wood-topped lever's position. The gearbox isn't the quickest when being bossed around, but there's so much torque that it barely matters.

Naysayers will tell you that older Jaguars are basically parade floats at the Festival of Bork, but the truth is that a well looked after X308 is probably one of the safest bets from the brand's back catalogue. There are faults, but they are all well known. Like contemporary BMWs, early V8s had Nikasil cylinder bore liners which were sometimes damaged by the high sulphur content of early unleaded fuel; the fact this car had a replacement engine at 30,000 miles suggests it may have been one of the ones affected, but if so it will have got upgraded parts.

The XJR's plastic timing chain tensioners were as bad an idea as they sound; they can sometimes disintegrate, tending to take both chain and valvegear with them. Listen for rattling when cold. Bodywork is generally rust resistant, but the X308 is prone to corrode where the engine subframe meets the chassis, something that - to judge from the MOT history - this car suffered from in 2011. Advisories on the most recent ticket also suggest the next owner should budget for a suspension refresh; an X308 can pick up clonks and squeaks. There's also a mileage discrepancy, the car losing 19,000 miles between 2018 and 2019 - but the advert states the almost certainly correct 113,000 tally. £4,500 looks like a very fair price if the promised history file checks out.

A friend owned an XJR for three years and swore that, beyond routine serving and the pain of funding a 12mpg fuel habit while trundling around inner London, his only out-of-pocket expense was for a single rear bulb. He then sold it to a very famous TV presenter, and almost immediately regretted letting it go. Old Jaguars get under your skin.

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