Cat knack

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2005, 12:00am

STRANGE THINGS used to happen to Irish men when I was growing up. As soon as they hit 40, they started playing golf, wearing pastel-coloured jerseys, smoking cigars and driving Austin Princesses or Jaguars. The Jags would be polished to within an inch of their lives and as the doors opened, a cloud of Henry Winterman cigar smoke would waft out, followed by a large belly and, eventually, an uncle. If you were offered a ride, you risked incurring a nasty injury by sitting on a golf tee.

Superficially, the Jaguar X-Type is the sleek, powerful beastie I remember. As I get in, checking for sharp golf-related objects, I hear the voices of uncles saying: 'There you are, darling girl. Watch out for me leather seats with those terrible shoes now.'

Jaguar design has come out of the wilderness that produced such monstrosities as the Jaguar Sovereign. The marque has been around since 1935 and during the late 30s it could do no wrong. The SS100 won races all over Europe, including Monte Carlo and Marne Grand Prix of Reims. Then came the stunner that was the 256bhp, 3781cc engine and sleek body of the E-Type. All was going swimmingly - until the dark days of the early 80s.

Under Ford, however, Jaguar seems to have rediscovered the design spark that created such beauties as the XK120 roadster. Gone are the pointy flattened bonnets and those mean-looking headlights of the XJS and even the muscular body and gaping frog mouth of the XK8. Back are the gracious curves and wide-eyed foglights of the MkII and the XJR. This may be too many model names for most people, but put it like this: the X-Type Jag has elegance written all over it. The paint shows off the curves the way a satin dress clings to the hips, and the chrome Jaguar on the bonnet is positively leaping off with pride. This is a fine-looking car. It comes as a bit of a letdown to discover that, under the skin, this flash car is hiding a Ford Mondeo platform. There was a bit of upset about this from people who felt that a Jag should be 100 per cent Jag built - possibly people who are nostalgic about setting off on a journey in a car that will lose at least three of its components en route, one of which will be vital.

I disagree, the same style of underwear can be worn by 10 women to totally different effect. It's what you do with it and put on top that counts. This car may be sharing foundation garments with a Ford, but it's nothing like one.

I get to drive a limited edition X-Type 2.1 V6 Spirit. It's as flash as you like, with wire mesh grills that appear to have been nicked from a Bentley Arnage, rear spoilers, exciting alloys, a host of goodies and sports suspension. This car is boardroom solid. The maple dash screams steady and dependable. Not for Jaguar the brushed steel and industrial styling of Audi or the high-tech gadgets of BMW.

The boot is enormous. One of the brochures shows that the rear arm rest can be folded down so you can pack a pair of skis in there (useless in Hong Kong unless you substitute golf clubs for skis). I expect nothing less. After all, this car has proud ancestors that were responsible for transporting four large uncles, their golf clubs and a large supply of whisky on an epic trip across Ireland. You could pack a couple of strollers, the shopping and possibly the children into this car, no worries.

Feeling suitably grown up, I settle into the driver's seat. I struggle to get a comfortable position, although this is helped once I adjust the position of the steering wheel. Curiously for a car of this size, the cabin feels small. This may be because the windows are sports-car small or possibly because the roof feels low.

The finish, on the other hand, is heavenly. I'm surrounded by tactile surfaces and looking at a clear instrument panel. I focus on these because the position of the A-pillar and my inability to adjust the mirrors to a useful angle means that I'm virtually incapable of seeing anything other than straight ahead. Even this is a shocker because the rear-view mirror is so low. No lane changing for me, then.

The X-Type has fabulous road presence. The bonnet makes stately progress through traffic like an Ocean Liner. The back seats are spacious enough to carry three businessmen (pre-lunch) and the car is packed with the safety features we've come to expect: curtain airbags; front seat pre-tensioners; crumple zones; and side impact protection. The Jaguar is far more interesting to look at that the ubiquitous Mercedes-Benz. People stop to look at us - although this could have been my shocking driving.

Either my hands are shrinking or steering wheels are growing. I can barely get my fingers around the middle-aged spread that is the X-Type wheel. I compromise by gripping with my little fingers sticking out in the style of a Surrey housewife drinking tea. It makes me feel tiny and dainty, though, which is a bonus.

The five-speed automatic gearbox is notchy, but you soon get used to it. The only problem is that I don't seem to be able to get any acceleration. I fail to get enough speed up to over take a garbage truck on Nam Fung Road and end up dawdling behind it. Fortunately, the X-Type has an excellent air recycling system, so we aren't asphyxiated by the fumes of decaying rubbish.

The traction control and sports handling mean that this big car feels lighter than you might imagine. Having said that, it does feel a bit floppy on the corners compared with a BMW or an Audi. Not even remotely as tail happy as the XJS was, but wafty. This is easily solved by driving a bit more gently. The Jag lends itself to civilised driving. Overall, the handling is solid and reliable. It has strong direction and you don't have to fight it. The X-Type is unlikely to wander all over the roads when you brave the cross winds on the Tsing Ma bridge, and you certainly don't have to worry about it on the corners of Old Peak Road.

I switch into sports mode and put my foot down. For a moment, I'm under the impression that a helicopter has landed on the roof in the style of a James Bond flick. Sadly, it's only the roar of the V6 engine. My goodness but it's trying.

We do slightly better in this mode, but I don't have the feeling of zip and I suspect that the 2.1 litre engine just isn't powerful enough. The X-Type also comes in 2.5 and 3.0 litres, both of which promise to be much more interesting. In calmer mood, we cruise along. The X-Type is a perfect cruiser, gliding in and out of traffic and swallowing up the miles. Your passengers could happily kip in the back, cushioned from any bumps by the leather seats and excellent suspension.

OK, so the X-Type isn't the thrill ride of the year, but it's comfortable, safe and, above all, looks absolutely stunning. I have to admit that I get a lot more satisfaction looking down that heavenly bonnet or standing next to it stroking its curves than I do from actually driving it, but then I'm profoundly shallow. For everyone else, this is a car that screams 'style', fits a huge amount of luggage and, above all, stands out in a sea of boring designs. The uncles would be delighted.


Jaguar X-Type 2.1 V6 Spirit

What drives it? A 2.1-litre V6 engine with five-speed automatic box

How fast is it? 0-100km/h sprint in 10.8 seconds; top speed: 205km/h

How safe is it? Eight airbags (front, front side, front and rear curtain)

How thirsty is it? 7km/litre (urban), 10km/litre (urban and extra-urban combined)

Available: $329,000 from Jaguar Hong Kong (tel: 2520 0989)