2021 Jaguar XF First Drive: It's what's inside that counts

Sometimes the answer to a problem is right in front of you, and in the case of the 2021 Jaguar XF sports sedan I mean that literally. Sole remaining sedan in the automaker's US line-up, the XF has to ace both the luxury and the engagement benchmarks at a time when consumer appetite continues to swing to SUVs, and when its lavish competition has never been stronger.

Jaguar had a double-headache to contend with. First, the XF line-up was too unwieldy: 10 derivatives, with various options and packages, that left the range feeling unduly complex. Second, the cabin simply wasn't up to par.

Sure, the simplistic dashboard looked crisp and minimalistic in photos, like some niche British hi-fi equipment. Slide behind the wheel, though, and the acres of plastic and unconvincing switchgear lacked the prestige and quality to fit into the segment. Even if Jaguar's longstanding reputation around questionable reliability had been gradually upended, the underwhelming interior left the XF difficult to recommend.

The 2021 XF tackles both areas head-on. To start, Jaguar has made picking a car simpler: there are now three derivatives – the XF S, XF SE, and XF R-Dynamic SE – all with a high level of standard equipment. Pricing kicks off at $43,995 (plus $1,150 destination) and climbs to $49,995 for the R-Dynamic SE.

It was always a handsome sedan, but Jaguar tightened up the details. New LED headlamps and double-roundel taillamps add a crisper signature front and rear, while the chrome-work is tastefully restrained. A new side fender vent features a Jaguar "leaper" logo, and there are three new colors added to the list: Hakuba Silver, Bluefire, and the long-awaited return of British Racing Green.

With the larger front grille, new mesh design, and beefier air intakes in the lower fascia, it leaves the refreshed XF looking just a little more like the discontinued XJ, Jaguar's sublimely-sinuous old flagship sedan. That, if you hadn't guessed, counts as a very good thing.

It's inside where the big overhaul has happened. Jaguar says its focus was on introducing "contemporary British design" and that meant dumping everything from the old XF bar the glove compartment. Gone are the glossy black plastic panels and the TRON-esque lighting strips; in their place is a far more modern, cohesive aesthetic.

The dash topper is new, the center stack is new, and the door casings are new. Jaguar has thrown in new seats – now with standard heating across the board – and a new steering wheel; the old pop-up rotary transmission knob has been replaced with a much more tactile shifter.

The designer's focus on the detailing amplifies the charm. Jaguar logos embossed crisply into the headrests, and the same sort of stitching on the shift knob as you'd find on a cricket ball. There's a fully digital instrument panel now standard on all but the base trim – its graphics comprehensive yet restrained. With the old, frustratingly-identical HVAC controls retired, new touch-sensitive buttons and simple rotary dials take their place.

Star of the show is the Pivi infotainment system, which the SE and R-Dynamic SE upgrade to Pivi Pro; ether way you get a 11.4-inch touchscreen. It's a delicious, slightly curved display, standing just proud enough of the dash to emphasize its contour. Slimline bezels leave the impression of a slice of glass hovering in place.

The UI is a night-and-day improvement over the old XF's system. Three simple homescreen panes for media, phone, and navigation; standard wireless phone charging, SiriusXM, and Meridian audio; and a menu structure designed to put the key options at most one level away. It looks the part, too; while there's Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, you might even feel a pang of regret at covering Jaguar's crisp, grown-up aesthetic.

Of course, not everything is entirely clean sailing. Pivi Pro had a few hiccups still, like buttons that needed three or four taps before they'd register, or icons that were sluggish to catch up. Pre-production gremlins? Possibly, yes, but the new XF is on sale now and I don't think the 5 Series, A6, and E Class buyers that Jaguar hopes to lure across will be willing to put up with glitches.

Much the same way, though the majority of the cabin looks and feels the part, some areas aren't quite as pristine as others. Yes, Jaguar has thrown in real leather and metal, but there's plastic there as well and eventually your fingers will find it in day-to-day driving. Overall, though, it's a huge leap ahead and a mighty convincing one.

Somewhere that didn't need all that much help was the XF's driving dynamics. In this newly-refined range there are just two engines for the US: the XF S and SE get the 2.0-liter P250 i4, a turbocharged inline-4 gas engine with 246 horsepower, 269 lb-ft of torque, and an 8-speed automatic paired with rear-wheel drive. 0-60 mph arrives in 6.5 seconds, Jaguar says, with a top speed of 149 mph.

The 2021 XF R-Dynamic SE upgrades to the P300 engine, coaxing 296 hp and 295 lb-ft from its turbocharged 2.0-liters. It trims the 0-60 time to 5.8 seconds, nudges the top speed up to 155 mph, and throws in all-wheel drive too.

It's that which I spent my drive time in, and honestly it's probably the drivetrain you want. Jaguar's power delivery is silky and refined, the XF surging and sweeping like a big cat should. The comfort drive mode lives up to the name, only the average rear legroom putting a pin in the idea of true limo duty.

Notch over to sport mode, meanwhile, and things get more aggressive but not by sacrificing poise. I thought I'd miss the old supercharged six-cylinder engine, but the P300 has enough eagerness to keep things interesting; sports suspension exclusive to the R-Dynamic SE is firm but without shaking teeth loose. The main drawback is economy: rate for 22 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg combined, the XF falls slightly behind some of its segment rivals.

You pick up the value elsewhere, mind. Jaguar's starting price is competitive, and it includes plenty as standard that the competition still charge more for. Parking sensors, blind spot assistance, lane keeping assistance, a 360-degree camera, and rear traffic monitor are all standard, as is a power trunk and 12-way heated power front seats. The SE adds 16-way seats, Pivi Pro, the fully-digital gauges, and adaptive cruise.

2021 Jaguar XF Verdict

Like with British dentistry, the old XF's main problem became clear when you looked inside. Happily this new XF addresses those cabin shortcomings comprehensively, and manages to do so in a way that still feels different and distinct from its luxe-sedan rivals. In the process it keeps what worked from the old car, like its smooth driving dynamics, and wraps that up in freshly aggressive pricing.

There's no denying this is a competitive segment, and quite frankly I couldn't fault you for looking first to the usual German trio. What surprises with the Jaguar, though, is how newly compelling I think it'll be for those willing to think outside that knee-jerk cross shopping. Much like the new Genesis G80, the XF's charms are in its distinct personality.

Also much like the G80 – and, indeed, most of the current alternatives – there's no electrification. Jaguar's EV plans are fast-approaching, with all upcoming new models being pure-electric, and that knowledge leaves the 2021 XF feeling a little like the last of an old era for the company. Nonetheless, with these updates far improving the cabin experience, this refreshed XF is a much nicer place to wait for that future to arrive.