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Jaguar's plush, but lacks identity

It is a tough road that Jaguar is driving these days. The automaker's models are surrounded by bold, powerful sedans, many of which gracefully combine true sporting performance with modern luxury.

Even the 2006 Jaguar XK Vanden Plas -- with 300 horsepower worth of thrust, polished woods, and supple leathers -- is going to have difficulty competing.

To stand out in the luxury class, a car needs an identity that says ``Look at me -- $60,000, $70,000, and $80,000 of pure rolling fun." It also needs to say: Here is a car for the new millennium.

And that's where I parked the Vanden Plas in the breakdown lane.

If you are a fan of the stolid old Jaguar and want its traditional form to also incorporate reliable function -- something for which Jaguars were never noted -- then the XJ Series may seem promising. But if you've got the money to drop nearly $80,000 on a car, you've probably also got the smarts to shop around and notice some serious competition.

Look at the bold nose Audi has slapped on its line: a snout right out of the 1930s glory days of Auto Union racing. The new Audi line is immediately recognizable as Audi, and yet it is a far bolder car than what Audi was building just five years ago.

Consider the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It comes with as much as 469 horsepower (302 horsepower is more the standard) and a sleek, modern, redesigned exterior.

Then glance across the other ocean to the Lexus LS 430, one of the finest, most refined luxury cars on the market, with 278 horsepower and more standard comfort and safety features than you'd ever guess an Asian manufacturer would someday offer.

Also think about Cadillac's new edginess and power, and consider that Porsche will offer its first sedan in a few years.

I've been driving small cars of late (Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris), so the smooth, quiet cruise of the Vanden Plas was a soothing experience, to be sure.

With sprawl-out interior room, gracefully sculpted dash lines, burl walnut and boxwood trim, leather seats defined by bold piping, and even fold-down picnic trays in the rear, there was no doubt I was cruising in luxury.

And the 300-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 engine had plenty of off-the-line oomph. It got even stronger, with a guttural burble, whenever I pulled out to pass on the highway. The six-speed automatic transmission was smooth, with no delays or lurches in upshift or downshift, and it sensed when I wanted to push the car and let me do so without premature intervention.

Jaguar's use of aluminum in the monocoque body structure was evident in light handling and taut body control. There was no weighty sense of pull to the side in lane changes, or even in sharp corners in the countryside. Active, adaptive suspension was certainly at the heart of this confident stability. And standard ABS and electronic stability control were there to handle any dances that were too close to the edge.

I did manage to engage stability control a couple of times in the flooding rains we had recently. On a corner, or in a deep puddle where hydroplaning was a threat, it kicked in to protect -- with the additional help of power and braking -- the car and its occupants.

Also adding protection were the standard front and side air bags and side-curtain air bags.

Despite all these goodies, nothing about the outside of this car says anything except, yep, here's another Jaguar. That could be a problem.

Americans tend to feel pumped up about their cars, whether it's the superior sense of environmental awareness some owners of green hybrids project, the outta-my-way attitude of outlandish SUV owners, or the hot-rod mindset the owner of a retro American muscle car, such as the new Dodge Charger, might adopt.

Jaguar has a real problem if a car as fine and wonderfully engineered as the Vanden Plas fails to generate the same level of passion.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

2006 Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas

THE BASICS

Base price/as tested: $74,330/$77,095

Fuel economy: 16.7 miles per gallon in Globe testing

Annual fuel cost: $2,609 (at $3.351 per gallon, premium, 13,000 miles per year)

THE EARLY LINE

Can what lurks beneath an old reliable skin attract new buyers who are seeking something hot?

THE SPECIFICS

Drivetrain: rear-wheel drive

Seating: five occupants

Horsepower: 300

Torque: 310 lb.-ft.

Overall length: 205.3 inches

Wheelbase: 124.4 inches

Height: 57.3 inches

Width: 76.5 inches

Curb weight: 3,819 pounds

THE SKINNY

Nice touch: Dark piping around tan leather seats. Bold and luxurious. Lexus would never dare to do this.

Annoyance: Looks. What do you gain by putting great new engineering under a high-tech aluminum skin whose shape suggests I could have pushed it off the highway dead from the rain decades ago?

Watch for: Jaguar to offer bold designs or retreat to the jungle, where it will howl for the old days with other lost brands.

SEE MORE ABOUT ALL THINGS AUTOMOTIVE

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Shop it against:

AUDI A8 To be fair, we'll go with the 4.2-liter, 335 horsepower V-8. We could go 450 or even 550 horsepower, but then $80,000 becomes $120,000 or more. So we settle -- quite nicely.

BMW 7 SERIES Low 70s to $120,000-plus, with the potential to pay even more. But take the base 360-horsepower V-8, live with its still-complicated I-drive control system, while basking in its aura and counting on its reliability.

CADILLAC STS-V What? An American intruder? Way cool with its sharp edges, 469 ponies under the hood, and a price that still won't rocket up to where the Jag takes you.

LEXUS LS 430 Its 278 horsepower may not make it the top dog in this group, but it runs like a 300-plus machine, offers front-to-rear accoutrements in power, heating, and cooling that are hard to top, and costs $60,000 to $70,000.

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