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Cat's whiskers

Calum Gordon

Jaguar's fortunes seem to be on the up following its recent takeover by Indian heavyweight Tata Motors. In the past decade, under Ford's direction and with a renewed commitment to development, despite a limited R&D budget, Jaguar has gradually begun to turn out better and better cars.

Early improvements came in the retro-styled S-type developed from the Ford Mondeo in the late 1990s, followed by the capable X-type, which was successful enough to keep the wolf from the door.

In 2005, the British marque upped the ante with a complete reworking of its 10-year-old XK range, which made one wonder whether a little belt-tightening and some deft design work was the key to innovation in the motoring industry.

And now that Tata has completed its US$2 billion buyout of Land Rover and Jaguar, there hasn't been a more anticipated Jag than the XF in years. It seems that Ford saved its best until last before selling up.

Jaguar's first coupe-like saloon, the XF is such a well-rounded car that it's more than capable of challenging Hong Kong's perennial favourites - the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class - for some of the lucrative mid-range executive market.

Another coup for Jaguar's Scottish design director, Ian Callum, the XF's exterior styling is both understated and strikingly dynamic for a luxury executive car. The strong grille emphasises the sedan's breadth and solidity, and a low nose, rising waist and roofline that sweeps back over its chunky haunches help imbue the XF with a sense of potency.

Other subtle exterior details - a woven mesh grille, restrained six-spoke Venus alloys, and front and side chrome-spliced power vents - add to the XF's tasteful appearance.

The same attention to detail is apparent when you sit behind the steering wheel. Neither gauche nor too sedate, the XF's interior is a calculated blend of appealing design and useful functionality that marries everyday practicality with touchy-feely ergonomics.

Below the deep leather-clad dash, the broad fascia is all 21st century with its iPod-jacked, Bluetooth-linked and electric everything (adjustable steering, mirrors, sunroof and rear sun-blind) accompanied by swathes of stylish leather, aluminium and wood veneer. Yet the hi-tech central touch-screen display that doubles as a CD console and rear parking camera is oddly at ease with classic fittings that remind you of Jaguar's British heritage.

One nice interior touch is JaguarSense, a proximity-sensing control for the glovebox release and front interior that gives out a phosphor-blue light that subtly illuminates the interior dials, instruments and door panels.

Flick on the keyless entry and press the pulsating (yes, really) scarlet start button, and your inner Mac-owning design geek will thrill to the clever ergonomics. As the engine purrs into life, the drive selector - a polished silver knob - rises gently from the centre console to nuzzle the palm of your hand as four brushed-aluminium air-conditioning vents turn upwards to open in the dash.

It may be seem like a gimmick at first, but the drive selector is so practical to use that what Jaguar calls the XF's 'handshake' will doubtless be copied in the future. As swish as the interior is, there's more to the XF than sleek design touches.

Out on the highway, the fluid ease of pace make the XK a memorable drive - which is possibly because the sedan's ZF automatic transmission is borrowed wholesale from Jaguar's coupe and the chassis has been developed from the XK's.

The V6 is new for the XF and its 238 brake-horsepower, 24-valve engine gets the 1,679kg sedan - which can seat five passengers and a generous 500 litres of luggage - moving with ease. The XF's aerodynamic 0.29 drag coefficient contributes to the sedan's impressively low wind noise, helps cut fuel consumption and gives it formidable high-speed stability.

On the back road to Shek O the 3.0-litre pulls to a bullish 6,800rpm without a supercharger in sight, yet there's an impressive composure in the ride. As in the XK, Jaguar's Computer Adaptive Technology Suspension is largely responsible for XF's seamless handling. The system is electronically controlled; adaptive dampers adjust the car's road positioning within milliseconds in response to road conditions and driving inputs. The result is a comfortable, stable drive.

Flick off the dynamic stability control and turn the gear selector to 'S' for sport, and you can sidestep any cosseting and have some fun testing the limits of the big sedan round hairpins and overtaking on the highway.

But if it's chucking it down outside, you can keep the stability control on and double your safety margin with a winter mode - a chassis setting that gives added grip and passes power less aggressively to the wheels.

However you drive it, the XF is a beautifully controlled and comfortable ride - softer than a BMW 5-Series but not as soft as a similar Mercedes-Benz or Lexus - and arguably a notch more stylish than its executive peers.

It's ironic that Ford spent years perfecting Jaguar's best all-rounder yet, only to hand over the fruits of its labours to a new owner. But whether you're an automotive giant or an individual buyer, the XF offers a welcoming handshake.