The Cat Lands on Its Feet After letting reliability in its venerable cars free-fall for decades, Jaguar has changed its ways. The first thought that the company's S-Type conjures? Bloody well done.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – As anyone who survived high school can confirm, reputations are stubborn things. They linger and then haunt, and to shake a bad one requires a sustained act of transformative will. That, or a few hundred million dollars. Which as it happens is the approximate amount of cash Ford Motor has sunk into salvaging Jaguar's once-shaky rep since it purchased the aristocratic British marque in 1989. The bulk of the reclamation project focused on Jaguar's overall quality control, which, as they say over there, royally bit. In fact, Jaguar's giddy unreliability was so infamous it became, in a perverse way, celebrated--a badge of honor for anyone bold enough to steer a Jag off the showroom floor. Brave souls, they. Chunks of the engine clattered onto the highway in midcommute, wheels spun loose, and nodes of the electrical system blew, popping like Chinese firecrackers. The year Ford acquired the automaker, Jaguar ranked far in the cellar in J.D. Power & Associates's quality study, alongside the Lost Boys of the auto industry: Merkur, Sterling, and Yugo. And yet, like drooling hounds, besotted owners adored their Jaguars despite the flaws. Mostly this was because the cars were--and still are--beautiful. Back in the '70s, one of my father's business partners owned a gorgeous 12-cylinder Jaguar convertible, a priapic swell of a ride that looked to be 90 percent hood. One afternoon the driver's seat suddenly burst into flame, with him atop it. After the police put him out, and the car too, he had the vehicle towed, repaired, and returned to his driveway, where it spent countless hours being tenderly stroked with a chamois, awaiting the next foreordained malfunction. "It's a Jaguar," he explained more than once. "It's meant to have quirks."

Thus I approached the silvery 2005 Jaguar S-Type parked in my driveway with caution, alert to sparks. The S-Type is Jaguar's current entry into the hotly contested mid-luxury sports sedan sector, unleashed to steal sales from the BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes E-Class. After a brief initial stumble (the first Ss, back in 1999, offered a bit too much mechanical homage to Jaguar's past), the company reworked 70 percent of the S-Type, and tweaked it again for 2005. In the process, all glitches have been exorcised: This year Jaguar ranked third in J.D. Power's initial quality rankings, just behind Lexus and Cadillac. The more specific result of this stunning makeover is a polished, smooth-driving sedan that's a bargain at $48K. According to Jaguar, more than 200,000 of the cars have been sold, to "independent professionals who are successful, active, and style-conscious, but also practical and realistic." Ah, practical and realistic. Jolly good.

Of course, what such corpo-speak suggests is that the S-Type is not intended to be garish or showy, and in this Jaguar succeeds. Designers buffed all flourishes from the car's profile, leaving a modern, muscular slab atop 18-inch wheels. Every line on the car flows toward its face, which sports a rib-eye-steak grille garnished with Jaguar's signature leaping cat. It's better-looking than it sounds.

Gazing down the aluminum hood from behind the wheel, you aim the wee chrome animal at something, tromp the accelerator, and start the chase. Though Jaguar offers three power plants, including a supercharged V8, in the interest of politesse I drove the entry-level V6, a 235-horsepower knot of efficiency that was virile enough to drop almost all stoplight comers. Suffice it to say that the S-Type can scream--not that a practical driver would care about such things. In any event, the code of Jaguar's civility is hardwired throughout the car's DNA. Like most luxury rides these days, the vehicle offers every tech acronym: ACC (adaptive cruise control), CATS (computer active technology suspension), DSC (dynamic stability control), SPA (still paying attention?). In practical terms this means that the car tightens itself in corners, firms its ride over bumps, lowers its haunches at speed, and plays around with the revs and shift thresholds to indulge conditions and your idiosyncratic driving whims. Jaguar, however, incorporated these handy systems in blissfully understated fashion, resisting the urge to, as a company statement put it, deploy "technology for technology's sake." (Roughly translated: "Bugger off, BMW.")

Now, such humility is not to imply that Jaguar skimped on clever innovation. Exhibit A: The S-Type boasts an ultrasonic occupant-sensing system, which in anticipation of a crack-up instantly gauges the precise weight and posture of the driver, the angle and severity of the crash, whether one or multiple airbags should be called upon, and the exact amount of airbag inflation required, if any. The company makes no mention of what happens should the driver's seat catch fire, but I guess you don't have to sweat that anymore.

Anyway, forget about the past for a moment and slide inside the cabin, which is thankfully free of the constellation of lights and dials and pings and things that tart up comparable sedans. Jaguar opted instead for an atmosphere of rich, polished subtlety: Imagine a nook within a very swank club, with mute panels of madrona wood and bolts of fragrant leather and a handsome dash missing only a hidden panel to disgorge your evening tumbler of scotch. It's all very Anglophiliac, which is precisely the point. The U.S. market currently consumes 1.6 million luxury autos a year, and within the industry the "democratization of affluence," as auto executives refer to it, has clotted neighborhoods with GPS-equipped, XM-radioed land yachts of German and Japanese origin. The S-Type, by its price and cultured rarity, stands out--even though Jaguar does not strictly intend it to. Mine sat in the driveway each evening, its coat turning gray as the light fell away, and managed somehow to appear both expensive and affordable. Call it a quirk.

John Tayman is a contributing writer for Business 2.0.