When Jaguar executives rolled out the new flagship model - the XJ - at London's Saatchi Gallery last week, something was glaringly absent when the Jaguar range was described to the assembled journalists, writes Dave Leggett

XF, XK and the new XJ were all highlighted as key constituent parts to Jaguar's status as an upscale luxury sports brand. It was as if the X-Type, still in production though not sold in the US any longer, had been airbrushed out. The X-Type, you may recall, was a rather sorry attempt by Jaguar's previous owner, Ford, to mix it in the higher volume executive segment with the likes of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. But the Mondeo platform-based car failed to hit the spot.

It was seen by many as a poorly executed car that betrayed those mass market Ford underpinnings, threatening to do permanent damage to Jaguar's upscale brand image.

Fast-forward to 2008 and Jaguar - along with Land Rover - has been purchased from Ford by India's Tata Motors. The new owner has borrowed heavily to take those brands away in a distress sale from financially challenged Ford, but sees the acquisition as something of a coup. These are, after all, global upscale brands with good long-term prospects. Moreover, it emphasises Tata's elevation to the world stage.

Unfortunately for Tata, the mother of recessions then hits. Jaguar Land Rover starts racking up the losses and lost GBP281m in the year to the end of March. Most of that is at Land Rover, with Jaguar at least getting some uplift from the newly introduced XF model.

And the XF - a replacement for the S-Type - marks an apparent shift in direction for the Jaguar brand. The styling marks a clear break with the previous tendency to go for a conservative 'trad Jag' three-box saloon look. XF is about breaking with tradition and preparing the way for some reinterpretation of Jaguar values in the design of the cars.

And now, sitting above the XF, we have the new XJ - Jaguar's flagship model. Its design is important because of what has gone before it. The current XJ is seen by some as a modern car wearing old clothes. That traditional three-box shape lineage for the XJ goes back to the XJ6 introduction in 1968, though a case can be made that the big Jaguar saloon look was pioneered on the Jaguar Mk X luxury saloon which debuted in 1961.

Impressions of the new XJ? This car is a very bold statement from design head Ian Callum's team. Most of the journalists I spoke to liked it. Just as BMW gets more conservative with the post-Bangle 7 Series, here is Jaguar throwing down the gauntlet. Playing safe this is not. Exterior styling is dramatic.

It may be the current XJ platform underneath, but everything about this car looks very different from the current model.

Jaguar design director Ian Callum is up on the stage next to the car and waxes lyrical about things like the visual lines of the car, its proportions and so on. But the key words he speaks are these: "This is a modern Jaguar flagship, needed to fit in with the 21st century.

"The new XJ is a thoroughly modern interpretation of the quintessential Jaguar. Its visual impact stems from the elongated teardrop shape of the car's side windows, a powerful stance and wide track. It is the most emphatic statement yet of Jaguar's new design direction," he says.

Callum goes on to describe how the muscular lower half of the car is contrasted with the slim and graceful quality of the roofline, which takes inspiration from the original 1968 XJ saloon. This is important because it gives us some insight into the controversial treatment at the rear. The wrap-around rear screen reduces the visual weight of the pillars, and gives the impression of an exotic 'floating' roof, he says. The C-pillar is unusual looking - it's barely there, though it's shape is marked out with a line of chrome.

There's more striking styling with the rear LED light clusters. They wrap stylishly over the rear wings and feature three dramatic red, vertical strips. It looks Italian. And it looks good.

There's another trick the designers have played, visually. There's a short front overhang and a much larger rear one, with that glass roof sweeping down to a highish boot lid. It perhaps sounds odd, but the distinctly asymmetric overhangs provide an element of dynamism to the car's stance. It does look very sporty. And, if you use your imagination, a bit like a leaping cat.

Inside the cabin, there are a couple of interesting surprises. One is the lack of a 'physical' instrument cluster display in the new XJ. Instead, a 12.3-inch high-definition screen provides all of the functions performed by traditional dials. Jaguar's designers have also taken advantage of the freedom provided by virtual instrumentation to help prioritise the most useful information as well as creating a real sense of theatre for the driver.

As the XJ starts, three virtual dials build on the screen. The centre dial houses a speedometer, flanked on the right by a rev counter and on the left by an information window with fuel and temperature gauges. To maximise clarity, the display employs a 'spotlight' effect to highlight the areas showing the most important information, such as the current speed or engine revs. When required - for example, if fuel is running low, or the driver is selecting a radio station - the rev counter fades away to be temporarily replaced by the required warning message or menu. You can put the sat-nav map in there, too.

It seems to work well (see short video clip below). Pretty clear.

There's also a dual-view touch-screen display in the centre console. 'Dual-view' allows the driver and front passenger to look at completely different content on the same screen. For example, the passenger can watch television or a DVD movie, while the driver views route navigation mapping (perish the old-fashioned thought that driver and front passenger might actually, you know, prefer to have a realtime conversation with each other).

And the Jaguar people also enthused over the latest 'interactive voice control system', which uses the cluster display to present a list of prompts for key words to control a particular function. This new "say what you see" approach quickly allows the driver to gain confidence and familiarity using systems such as the in-car telephone, navigation or audio, Jaguar says.

The engines are pretty much what you would expect to see. Prices start at GBP52,500 for the SWB 3.0-litre V6 diesel. Orders are being taken but deliveries start in early 2010.

What's the car like to drive? Not many outside Jaguar have got behind the wheel yet, but Jay Leno - who was hired for the glitzy VIP-rollout also at the Saatchi Gallery last week (other VIP guests included 'The Hof' David Hasselhof, Elle Macpherson and Sophie Ellis-Bextor on music decks) -  has had a go. He knows his Jaguars and  reckons the new XJ is very good to drive and a very competent car that will appeal to traditional Jaguar customers and a more modern set.

Writing in the Sunday Times at the weekend, he maintained that it's a Jaguar that can be purchased rationally, but which will also be purchased irrationally by people who are bowled over by its looks.

New XJ will certainly need to be good to properly mix it with some very strong competition from the established German brands. And now's perhaps not a great time to be going to market - for anyone. I tried to get some volume numbers, but the Jaguar executives were tight-lipped. Even if the car gets a great reception, volumes may be disappointing due to the recession which is impacting everyone. And, as anyone in the car business knows, volume numbers can constitute a horrible hostage to fortune. Jaguar will feel its way with the new XJ and see how the market for it shapes up over the next few years (deliveries start at the beginning of 2010). If the car gets nearer to 20,000 units than 15,000 in 2010, I'd guess Jaguar will be very happy.

Ratan Tata could certainly be forgiven for ruing the timing of his group's purchase of JLR. That's tough luck, perhaps. But you can't legislate for recessions and they don't last forever.

Looking beyond the current recession and talk of further cost-cutting at Jaguar, the new flagship XJ could be just what the Jaguar brand needs to cement its position in the market and consign the mistakes of the recent past to history. Trying to make as many cars as BMW was - we now know - not the way to go. Jaguar should be about something more exclusive, especially now that the platform-sharing industrial strategy employed by Ford's PAG has gone.

At least the new design direction makes a bold statement and that's got to be better than playing safe with designs that reinforce an image as 'yesterday's brand'.

Dave Leggett

See also:

UK: Jaguar launches XJ in London art gallery

INDIA: Tata Motors swings to annual loss on LR slump

INDIA: Tata hints at more Jaguar Land Rover job losses, closures

COMMENT: What's wrong with the Jaguar X-type?