One of the real privileges of writing about cars for a living is getting to take important new models out onto the public road, often long before the first customer cars are delivered, and letting fellow car-nuts see them up close or on the move for the first time.
I don’t know how many hours I’ve lost in service-station car parks letting people crawl all over something they’d only seen on a motor show stand or in the pages of CAR before. But it’s a real pleasure. If you see me or a colleague at Watford Gap in the all-new Fandango XYZ, don’t be shy. We’re not exactly averse to talking about cars, and the enjoyment people get from seeing new kit in the steel is infectious. I’ll never forget the thrill I got from being shown a 288GTO in the street at the age of ten, and it’s good to be able to pay that back.
The reaction the car provokes is often unpredictable and instructive. You can guess what it’s like to drive a new Ferrari in Italy; on the move through city streets you pass long rows of outstretched arms, each ending in a cameraphone, and when you stop you’re mobbed. I drove the new Mini from Lands’ End to John O’Groats on election day 2001, and public interest in the car seemed to far outstrip that in Tony Blair’s inevitable return to power.
But driving a bold new car in its home market always gets a bigger, better reaction. The most significant cars in sales terms sometimes fail to raise a single eyebrow: the latest Golf and Focus both provoked worrying indifference.
The reason for this blog is the long weekend I just spent driving the new Jaguar XJ around Manchester; my first extended drive in the new car in the UK. Yes, like a Ferrari or the Mini it’s a striking new car in its home market, but I still wasn’t prepared for the reaction it got. People snapped it, walked around it three times and asked to sit in it. They knew exactly what it was and often why it is so significant to its maker. A taxi-load of lads overtook us and leaned out of the windows on both sides to indicate their approval; I think their evening may have involved the consumption of alcohol, but their enthusiasm was genuine.
Like I said, these reactions are instructive. Having been cynical about the very bullish predictions Jaguar’s top brass was making for the success of this car long before we’d even seen it, I’m now far more inclined to believe them. While I’d never disagreed with design director Ian Callum’s insistence that Jaguars should be edgy and modern, as William Lyons’ original XJ was, I didn’t really understand its importance until I saw the way his new XJ drew every eye on the street, or made me feel smarter by association with his intelligent, original, disruptive design.
And I changed my mind about that styling. Having been unconvinced about the looks - especially the rear end – I’d now find it hard to contemplate having to settle for something as staid as a 7-series, and I think the rear end is the XJ’s best angle. So when my four days with the XJ were up, I had to confront the worst aspect of writing about cars for a living; having to give the good ones back.