UPDATE 10/1/21: This review has been updated with test results for the top R-Dynamic SE model.
The modern sports-sedan world has been dominated by German brands. Japanese and Korean automakers are getting closer to bottling the driving magic once enjoyed by the BMW 3- and 5-series, but Jaguar's commitment to luxury often overshadows its cars' sportiness. Jaguar did capture the magic when the first-gen Jag XF launched for the 2009 model year and garnered a 10Best trophy, but it's been a bumpy ride since then—quite literally in the case of track-focused Jaguar's XE SV Project 8.
Introduced in 2016, the current XF lineup had ballooned to 10 derivatives last year. To simplify matters, Jaguar is reducing the number of XF models from 10 to just three—the V-6 and the gorgeous wagon are gone. For 2021, the XF will come only as a sedan, and buyers will have a choice of a 246- or 296-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four. The contraction and otherwise standard mid-cycle refresh seem to have allowed Jag to hone the XF without getting bogged down in an overly complex portfolio.
The first thing you notice in the new XF is the reworked dash and instrument panel. Gone is the retractable dial-a-gear shifter, and in its place is an electronic shift lever for the ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission. As expected, you can shift yourself with steering-wheel paddles, although we don't really see the point. Once we were underway, there was never a need to grab a different gear. An 11.4-inch touchscreen controls the new Pivi Pro infotainment system, which can be confusing at first glance. Don't be intimidated; it's thoughtfully designed, and you quickly acclimate. And for those looking to use the back seat, six-footers comfortably fit back there.
Switching to an all four-cylinder lineup is a curious simplification because Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has a new inline-six that would work well in this sedan. The need for more from the engine room doesn't really arise in casual driving, but put loafer to accelerator and an uncouth snarl of a stressed 2.0-liter makes itself heard. The car we sampled was an all-wheel-drive variant, dubbed R-Dynamic SE and badged P300, the only model with the 296-hp four. Rear-drive models, of which there are two (S and SE), come with the 246-hp four-cylinder. Unleashed at the test track, our car ran to 60 mph in a decent 6.2 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds at 94 mph, efforts that put the new top XF only 0.2 second behind the last all-wheel-drive BMW 530i we tested, a 2017 model, albeit considerably in arrears of more-powerful six-cylinder alternatives such as the 540i and Audi A6 3.0T. Our average fuel-economy came to a so-so 23 mpg, although the R-Dynamic SE was able to match its 30-mpg EPA estimate on our 75-mph highway test, which endows it with a substantial, 580-mile highway range.
Of course, acceleration isn't the only way to judge a sports sedan. The XF competes in a segment that includes cars such as the Genesis G80, Lexus ES, and Volvo S90 in addition to the Audi A6, BMW 5-series, and Mercedes-Benz E-class. But only the XF, G80, and the ES have base prices that start with a four. Jaguar is looking to undercut the competition. Prices for the XF begin at $45,145, while the 5-series and A6 start at about $10,000 more. Well-equipped with options—including the $1350 Dynamic Handling package (selectable drive modes, adaptive dampers, red-painted brake calipers, and a rear spoiler) and a $1200 set of dark-finished 20-inch wheels shod with Pirelli Cinturato P7 All-Season PNSC tires—our example tallied $62,295. The extra cost for a comparable Audi or BMW does buy you a little more insulation from road and wind noise than we recorded in the XF; our sound readings measured 74 decibels at full throttle and 67 decibels at a 70-mph cruise. But this Jaguar does a wonderful impression of German isolation and over-the-road refinement.
A sports sedan must also handle, and the XF's chassis is a willing participant in the chase for g-forces. Although the all-season tires on our test car were largely to blame for the middling 0.87 g around the skidpad, the XF rotates beautifully when you lift off the throttle at the limit. The steering delivers on sporting intentions with accurate and crisp responses. While it breaks no new ground in terms of electrically assisted units, the feedback through the wheel and the responses are solid and reliable. It gives the impression that you're driving a car that's a class above mid-size. Only the brakes, which suffer from a dead spot at the top of the pedal stroke, let us down. That said, our test car's 176-foot stop from 70 mph is a competitive effort and a touch shorter than what the aforementioned 530i could manage.
Jaguar doesn't fit the XF with the overly complex settings and controls of its German rivals. It just quietly goes about its business and never annoys or flummoxes its driver. Jag is looking to electrify its lineup by 2025, but there's plenty of life in this XF. Dropping in the new inline-six would extend its life even more. Skewed more toward luxury than the German offerings, the XF is sporty in a mature way. So, it's right in line with what Jaguar should be about, now with a more attractive price.