road test: 1988 Jaguar XJ6 3.6

xj40It’s hard to imagine now, but when the new Jaguar XJ6 (codenamed XJ40) appeared in showrooms in 1986, it was one of the most important car launches of the decade. For many years, the problem of what to do with the XJ6 had bedevilled not only Jaguar but auto industry commentators. Trouble was, the XJ6 Series 3 (for that was what was on sale back in the mid-eighties) was one of the best cars in the world…

Launched in 1968, it soon became apparent that the first ‘6 was a breathtakingly capable machine. At the root of its ability were three things – its powerful yet silky smooth XK engine, a wonderfully strong and rigid bodyshell that – in the days before crash testing – just felt sturdier than anything else around, and its brilliant double wishbone front and rear suspension. Together, this all came together to give a ride that was absolutely on a par to the Series 1 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow – or arguably even better – yet was faster and far more agile and responsive to drive. This prompted several magazines to proclaim it “the best car in the world”, much to Crewe’s chagrin. For once, this wasn’t mere hyperbole, as the XJ6 was head and shoulders above all its rivals as a driving proposition. Of course, it wasn’t as well made, but this fact only became apparent a little longer into the ownership experience!

By the third series, the car had received a minor restyle by Pininfarina, which was of arguable aesthetic success but still the car’s lines stayed beautiful, and by now they had become iconic too. The shape had been around for over a decade, and the press had photographed countless rich and famous owners stepping out of them – it connoted glamour, grace and a certain audaciousness, which is why it was the choice of both film stars and gangsters. Those wishing to make a bigger statement than any Mercedes could deliver would dashingly smoke around town in their “Jag”…

By 1985, the awful quality that afflicted Series 2 and 3 cars had gone. Jaguar boss John Egan had presented his suppliers with a fait accompli – sort out the quality or lose the business. Most had risen to the challenge, and the ‘6 was beginning to make inroads back into Jaguar’s all-important American market. The basic mechanicals of the XJ6 – engine, transmission and suspension – were all superlative, but the car was spoilt by niggly issues that soured the ownership experience. So when its replacement was announced, many were more interested in whether Jaguar could sort the quality than how the actual car performed!

The XJ40 was universally praised at launch. Levels of comfort, space, handling, noise and performance were even better than those of the Series 3. Ride wasn’t quite as good (nothing ever has been), but it was close and the rest of the package was so strong that most testers forgave it. In dynamic terms it was a quantum leap over the Series 3, feeling far more lithe and composed on the limit. However, the great debate centred over the styling and the engines…

Having rejected design proposals from the big three Italian design houses, Jaguar had decided to keep things in-house – and considering they’d previously come up with some of the most beautifully penned cars in history, it wasn’t necessarily a bad move. The result was a car that looked like a longer, lower, wider XJ6 S3, but without the beautiful sculpted frontal headlamp treatment. Bizarrely, Jaguar had originally aimed to give the car oblong headlights – which was very much the vogue at the time – but had focus grouped them and got cold feet. To wit, they went on upmarket Jaguar variants and all Daimlers, with a traditional quad round headlamp arrangement for the entry-level XJ6.

The two engines offered were as different to the old XK as the styling was between the Series 3 and the ’40 – which is to say fairly but not completely. The new AJ6 came in two flavours, the main 3.6 variant putting out 221BHP very smoothly, and the 2.9 around 200. The 3.6 was a new all-alloy inline six with four valves per cylinder, but still shared some DNA with the XK. It was a good deal more powerful, but never quite had the velvety feel of the old engine or its midrange torque. The 2.9 was effectively half a Jaguar V12, but never fulfilled its potential – it was easy and cheap to make, but developed reliability issues soon on. Given that the previous XJ also offered the option of Jaguar’s delightful, turbine-smooth V12, the new XJ40 was judged to be seriously compromised not to offer this. Truth was, Jaguar had thought the fuel crisis was going to stifle demand, and hadn’t originally designed the XJ40 with the V12 in mind. Also, stories abounded that Browns Lane had engineered the XJ40’s inner wings not to be wide enough for a V-engine, with the express purpose of keeping the Rover V8 out of their cars in future…

A manual XJ40 in 3.6 form was very swift – around 7 seconds to 60MPH and the feeling of power everywhere. You really began to notice the car’s superb handling because the gearbox let you stretch the chassis more, and it proved a brilliant drive. Trouble is, the Getrag box was heavy, as was the clutch, and it wasn’t a car you could drive with a feather touch. The automatic version of the car was however, but lost a lot of performance and a good few miles per gallon too.

In 1990 the car got a bored-out 4.0 to replace the 3.6. This was usefully torquier, but only 4BHP up on power and it lost some of the sweetness and rev-happy demeanour of the 3.6; the standard fitment of a catalytic converter was partly responsible for this. The 2.9 engine disappeared in 1990, to be replaced by the 3.2 which was a downsized 3.6, rather than any relation of the previous engine. It proved a smooth and pleasant little motor, as well as being a lot more reliable. The V12 that followed in 1993 was of course sublime, with power everywhere and a refinement that make even a V8 Rolls Royce feel somewhat agricultural – but it made the XJ40 a tad nose-heavy and just wasn’t as much fun to hustle down the road as an original 3.6 manual. 15MPG if you were lucky didn’t help its cause, either…

Early XJ40s were heavily criticised for their digital dashboard. This was the nineteen eighties, and like rectangular headlights, it was a badge of modernity, but sat uneasily with the conservative buyers who wanted cars such as this. A hybrid design with standard speedometer and tachometer, but fluorescent bar graphs for fuel, water temperature, oil pressure and volts, it boasted an elaborate trip computer and message display called a ‘VCM’ (vehicle control module) which often displayed faults that didn’t exist, from ‘bulb failure’ to ‘low coolant’. This, plus public disapproval at the look of the dash, lead Jaguar to go back to conventional dials in the autumn of 1989.

There were more problems too – stupid ones like door handles (inner and outer) falling off when you tried to use them, the solenoids on the central locking failing and water leaks into the sunroof, which soon made for saggy headlinings. Bootlids rusted in exactly the same place with depressing regularity, and climate control systems died; resistor pack failure meant the low speed heater fan settings failed and with age the VCM found ever more reasons to tell you that your car wasn’t working as the maker intended, even if – perish the fault – it was! The back axle was another issue, a design fault making them susceptible to premature wear and noise by about 75,000 miles – a fluid change did a lot of good here.

By 1993, Jaguar had ironed out these faults and the later XJ40s were very well made indeed, making them a lovely car to drive. The body was and is even by modern standards very strong – it was once second only to the Land Rover in EURO NCAP crash tests – and the AJ6 engines were generally trouble-free, as were the ZF 4-speed plus overdrive transmissions.

Today, the AJ6 engine likes clean, fresh coolant and regular changes of 10W40 full synthetic oil – afford it this and it will go on and on. Being such a heavy car, the Boge shocks sag by about 60K miles, so changing them really freshens up the drive. Scrapping the metric wheels is another popular upgrade as it makes tyre replacement cheaper – even if the ride on a fresh set of Michelin TD tyres is as good as any XJ40 can get. If on sixteen inch wheels, go for the original Pirelli P6000J tyres, which are expensive but ride very nicely – it’s a shame to have such a capable car and spoil it for a ha’porth of tar!

Jaguar’s X300 successor is a better car in many ways, but a good XJ40 feels special in the way the X300 doesn’t quite manage. It’s got just a wee bit more character, quirkiness and agility – it is pure unalloyed Jaguar before Ford got its hands on the brand. A decent specimen still offers a combination of ride and handling better than almost any other executive class car in the world, including Jaguar’s later X308 XJ8 – which is really saying something. It is a car that makes you feel like a film star when you drive it, and cossets you like a butler too. Trouble is, such luxury living comes with a sting in the tail at the petrol pumps, as if you average 25MPG you’ll be one of a select few. Still, many still think that’s a price well worth paying!

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