Jaguar made just a few changes to its XF sport sedan for 2012: nips and tucks to the front end, flashier taillight treatment and an updated navigation system. It doesn't sound like much to rave about, but added to what's already one of the better-driving cars in the segment, it's a winning formula.
There may be better all-around midsize luxury sedans out there, but for shoppers interested in performance, the 2012 Jaguar XF is the clear winner. Sorry, BMW.
You can thank the XF's standard V-8 engine and relatively affordable starting price for that declaration.
What's new The exterior changes are so subtle you wouldn't expect them to have a major impact on the XF's overall look, but the slimmer headlight assemblies -- now with xenon headlights and LED running lamps -- alone make the new XF a sleeker cat than the 2011. The tighter grille and revised hood help make the 2012 both more aggressive looking and more similar to the flagship XJ sedan.
The taillights -- also LEDs for 2012 -- have been trimmed down, and the silver bar bisecting both sides of lights is no longer adorned with the name "Jaguar." The leaping cat emblem is all you need to know this is a Jag.
My test car in white was a looker. My wife and I spent a weekend in downtown Chicago, and the XF drew stares from passers-by on Michigan Avenue despite the fact that this XF has been on the market -- sans design tweaks -- for a few years. It looked flashy enough amid a sea of luxury cars.
Thankfully, the potent range of V-8 engines under the newly sculpted hood haven't been tinkered with for the new model year.
The base XF comes with a stunningly powerful 385-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 engine that hits 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. You'll pay roughly the same for the base V-8 in the XF as you would for the less-powerful twin-turbo six-cylinder in the BMW 535i, but it's a few thousand more than the supercharged six-cylinder in the Audi A6. The XF costs thousands less than the 420-hp Infiniti M56.
Besides being a good value proposition against the competition, the XF also feels the most like a sports sedan without sacrificing ride quality. That means when you're carving a corner in the XF, it's a more exhilarating experience than in any of the three cars mentioned above, with no more ride harshness than the BMW.
Driving the base V-8 was a satisfying experience even for someone who regularly tests cars with even bigger numbers on their spec sheets, but for shoppers who aren't as impressed, Jaguar does offer more powerful trim levels. The next step up is the 470-hp XF Supercharged, which not surprisingly has a supercharged version of the base car's 5.0-liter V-8. Next up is the XFR with the same supercharged V-8, but in this case putting out 510 hp. Both feature unique wheels and other exterior and interior trim differences.
While Jaguar has upgraded some aspects of the interior -- new seats and button treatments -- cabin quality remains inconsistent. There are rich leather treatments on the steering wheel and dashboard, but the silver paint that adorns much of the center control panel remains cheap-looking.
There's plenty of room for front occupants. The driver's seat slings you back more than the competition, amplifying that sports car feel. But that sacrifices backseat room, which is tighter than many others. At 5-foot-10, I fit behind the driver's seat where I had it positioned, but it wasn't a spacious feeling, like you find in the Infiniti.
The shift knob that rises upon ignition is still present and still a conversation starter if ever one was planted in a car's interior design. The motorized air vents also hide away when the car is turned off.
Features and pricing It might sound odd to say a $53,000 sedan is well-priced, but you get quite a bit for the XF's starting price, which is more than other luxury marques. There are the bi-xenon high-intensity-discharge and LED headlights I mentioned earlier -- which also get their own washers -- plus rain-sensing windshield wipers, a moonroof, leather seats (they're heated in front), and keyless entry and ignition.
The multimedia system with navigation is also standard. It features a 7-inch touch-screen -- small for this class -- a USB input, Bluetooth for phone and audio, a 30-gigabyte hard drive to store music files and a 10-speaker stereo system.
Many of our editors aren't fans of the touch-screen system because it takes a long time to switch between menus and because you have to use the screen to access features like the heated seats and steering wheel. However, after a week of driving it I became more familiar with its eccentricities and had my own method of using it down pat.
Also, when my wife hopped into the car for the first time she found the heated seat controls instantly -- something at least one savvy automotive editor in the office complained about.
The only feature I'd add to the base car is a $2,300 Bowers & Wilkins sound system that was included in the Portfolio trim level I tested. Its sound was worth at least 22 Benjamins.
There are plenty of optional safety, technology and luxury packages you can add to any of the XF trims, but they aren't going to improve my impressions of the base car drastically.
Like many other luxury models, the XF has not been crash-tested by either the federal government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The Jaguar has a basic suite of safety features and airbags but no unique features to separate it from the rest of the class. A list of its standard safety features can be found at Cars.com.
XF in the market If you were making your car-buying decision based on driving chops, value and looks, the XF would be the clear winner in this category. However, Jaguar has always been known as a brand with questionable reliability, and that hasn't changed much in recent years. Consumer Reports gives the XF -- along with the BMW 5 Series -- its lowest reliability grade, and J.D. Power's 2012 Vehicle Dependability Study has the XF at the bottom of the segment, along with the Lincoln MKS.
Those are clear warning signs to shoppers that the XF might not be the practical choice -- but that doesn't mean it's not worth driving to determine if it's worth the risk.