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updated 7/18/2008 4:18:28 PM ET 2008-07-18T20:18:28

For 30 years, Jaguar design has been mired in what Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst for Global Insight of Troy, Mich., calls "English drawing-room style" — as in, conservative sedans and sports cars accented with traditional wood and leather. The average Jaguar buyer was almost 60, and they were mostly loyalists who'd owned the cars before.

The stodginess was somewhat understandable, since for many years the managers at Ford Motor had a host of other problems to tackle.

After paying $2.5 billion for the fabled British carmaker in 1989, their first task was to fix the horrific quality of the cars. There were also thousands of excess workers, ancient factories, and outdated, expensive production methods.

Ford added new models in order to expand sales, but the S-Type midsize sedan of 1998 was only a modest hit. The X-Type compact sedan, launched in 2002, was savaged by critics. Plans that called for more than doubling Jaguar sales — to 200,000 a year, across four models — were left in the dust.

Two years ago, the company decided Jaguar — by then hemorrhaging cash — would have to become a much lower-volume maker of more exclusive and expensive cars. Then in June, Ford completed its sale of Jaguar and Land Rover to India's Tata Motors for far less than Ford had paid.

Now, a brand-new model is charged with blowing that dusty old image into the weeds and reviving Jag's old reputation as a maker of fast, beautiful cars that cost less than the competition.

Launched in the U.S. early this year, the XF midsize sedan is the first Jaguar with avant-garde styling in, well, decades. Its mission is to yank the brand into a new century, make it relevant to buyers born in the '60s or later, and put it back onto lists starting with "Cool" and "Coveted."

It's the early days yet, but Ford's gift to the new owner is showing promise. The question is whether Tata can build on a few months of momentum and succeed where Ford failed.

Undeniably modern design
When the C-XF concept was revealed at the North American International Auto Show in January 2007, jaws dropped. It was sleek, aggressive and undeniably modern. Gone were the gentleman's-club wood and leather. There was wood, but charred with blowtorches to create a blackened finish. Jaguar's design chief Ian Callum called the process "liberating," underlining just how decisive a break with the past the C-XF was.

The production XF, unveiled at September's Frankfurt Motor Show, isn't quite as radical. The compromises come from having to meet regulations on everything from light height to pedestrian safety, but the fastback shape, high tail, and slit-like lights remain. The "leaper" — the chrome jaguar in mid-pounce — is still banished from atop the grille. In fact, there's hardly a grille at all, just a low, rectangular maw with a mesh screen to keep out debris.

Inside, the goal was to "surprise and delight" — and the XF has several unique features. Push-button ignitions are becoming a luxury-car cliché, but the XF's pulses red like a heartbeat when it senses the key nearby. Once you start the engine, a silver rotary knob rises from the console — it's a simple, elegant transmission selector — and blank plates on the dash rotate to reveal air vents. The interior light requires nothing as crude as a switch; moving a finger over them triggers the row of lights, one by one.

Reviews of the XF in both the enthusiast press and general media have been ecstatic. Auto journalists have lauded the styling, the roadholding, the level of standard equipment — all XFs sold in the U.S. include a V8, leather upholstery, 19-inch wheels, and iPod compatibility — and most of all, the car's distinctive look. Britain's Car magazine gushed, "Even Aston owners don't get to enjoy an interior as special as the XF's."

Sales are up
Thus far, sales have exceeded the company's projections — by a healthy margin. "People come in enthusiastic, but then they see it, and they just fall in love with the car," says Beau Boeckman, president of Galpin Jaguar in Van Nuys, Calif.

As of May 31, Jaguar had sold 3,500 XFs in the U.S., says Craig Samara, the company's vice president of retail operations, with 700 more ordered. At 1,200 a month, the XF now actually outsells Audi's A6 and Volvo's S80 — though not the segment-leading BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Crucially, almost four times as many XFs sold this May as S-Types sold last May.

More importantly, the XF is bringing new buyers to Jaguar. So-called "conquest buyers" represent 60 percent of the total, far higher than Jaguar had projected. The average age of XF buyers is 48, a full decade younger than Jaguar's average last year.

Dave Leggett, of British industry analyst Just-Auto, says it remains to be seen "whether the car is good enough to get BMW and Mercedes-Benz buyers out of their cars" over the long term. Past the first wave of enthusiasm, Jaguar will find out whether it has overcome its stodgy brand image among enough 35- to 50-year-old buyers.

"Jaguar has been making capable cars for several years; they've got their dealers and their servicing sorted out, but they're viewed as staid and archaic," said Global Insight's Bragman. He questions whether the XF is radical enough.

The next salvo in Jaguar's attack will be a restyled large XJ sedan, to be launched for 2010. It will be "even more of a departure," says Bragman.

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