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First Drive: 2013 Jaguar XJ AWD

The big cat finally grows claws on all four feet.

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It’s a little-known fact outside the automotive industry, but these days, a luxury brand can’t be successful unless they sell all-wheel-drive cars. Since modern technology enables AWD to be installed in most cars without much in the way of a weight or space penalty, the average consumer sees it as a way of doubling a car’s usability with zero fuel economy or packaging downside—and while economy car customers might wince at adding $1000 or more to the price of their car, to butcher a Kanye line, what’s one or two grand to a Bimmer buyer like me?

In fact, all-wheel-drive models make up a huge percentage of the luxury car market in the northern United States. (The exact figures escapes us at the moment, but we recall hearing around 80-90 percent of Mercedes-Benzes sold in the Northeast U.S.A. have AWD, and that dealerships in New England can’t give away RWD Benzes these days.) With demand like that, it’s no surprise to see that all three of the luxury kingpins—Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz—all offer all-wheel-drive on almost every model in the line.

Enter: Jaguar. For the last five years or so, the guys and gals at Jag have been mounting the sort of all-out attack on the Germans the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since Churchill was getting sloshed nightly at No. 10 Downing Street. They’ve rolled out one new car after another, each one more beautiful (and competitive) than the last; they’ve stuffed increasingly powerful and efficient powertrains under the hood of those cars; and they’ve pushed their cars back into the forefront of the American mindset with some aggressive new ads (and a coincidental subplot on Mad Men). They’re riding high, they’re gaining ground. But all their cars, great as they are, send the power to the rear wheels alone.

Until now. By the time you read this, Jaguar’s all-wheel-drive XJs should be marking their territory all across the wealthier neighborhoods of America—just in time for the crummier months of the year. The AWD system, developed in-house, was designed to equal or better the rest of the luxury car market’s all-wheel-drive systems—at least, that seemed to be the point Jaguar was drawing with their lengthy series of development videos, life-size system models and rally driver-taught winter driving exercises. Point made, Jaguar: You worked hard on this. Considering the number of cars this feature could move, we’d expect nothing less.

Jaguar zipped us up to the hell-it-might-as-well-be-Arctic expanses of Quebec to show off their system’s prowess, and while we’d be lying our still-thawing asses off to say we could make a bold statement like “Jaguar’s AWD is the best in the world,” it proved foolproof and sure-footed in every test we put it through. (By the way, nothing reminds you how much your winter driving game needs work like learning your reactions are the weakest link when performing an icy high-speed lane change exercise.)

The all-wheel grip doesn’t come by itself, though. Pick AWD, and you’re also picking the 3.0 liter supercharged V6 that Jaguar hauled out last year and distributed through the lineup to replace the naturally aspirated 5.0 liter V8. Joining the two in holy matrimony is an eight-speed ZF automatic, just like in the rest of Jaguar’s 2013 lineup. The AWD comes paired with the blown six no matter whether you choose the XF or the XJ, as the two were developed in concert to a degree; judging by a Jaguar spokesperson’s description of the difficulty that would be involved, we wouldn’t advise holding your breath for a supercharged V8/AWD combo anytime soon.

Jaguar had a couple all-wheel-drive XF development cars at the test track that we briefly played with, but all of our road time (and much of the track work) was in both standard-length and long-wheelbase XJs. 340 horsepower may not seem like much, considering the league the XJ plays in, but even toting around the extra weight of the AWD, the six-cylinder XJ proved a grand ol’ time from behind the wheel, hauling up to super-legal speeds without trouble and holding its own surprisingly well when the road turns curvy. Credit needs to go where credit’s due, so we’d like to thank the Academy for the following: the ZF auto’s nigh-flawless programming that always seemed to know the best gear; the supercharged engine’s mid-range get-up-and-go; and of course, the taut chassis and lightweight aluminum body of the XJ. Know that cliché car writers use about a car “shrinking around you?” Spend five minutes on an empty back road with an XJ, you’ll know just what they mean.

Truth be told, folks, most modern cars don’t need all-wheel-drive—not considering where most people who buy cars so equipped live. Modern snow tires work just as well 95 percent of the time, and while both knock 5-10 percent off your fuel economy, it’s a lot easier to swap off snows than rip out a front transaxle come warm weather. But most people don’t need SUVs, either, and that doesn’t stop people from buying them. Most people don’t need phones that can play video games; most people don’t need $5 cappucchinos, $350,000 houses, or $40 million airplanes. But we want them, and when we can get them, we do. Not because we need them, but because we like them. If you like all-wheel-drive, go for it. Jaguar makes a damn fine car with it.

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