Nice Niche

OK maybe I was a little premature in stating that I will be moving away from car biased posts for the time being, but I thought I would further explore the options I mentioned in my previous post. I read an interesting article the other day about the tactics that ‘outsider’ luxury car manufacturers such as Jaguar are using to try and compete with the likes of BMW and Mercedes Benz – not by mimicing their current strategy of filling every niche imaginable to man (and some which weren’t EG BMW X4), but by going back to basics and attempting to offer a line up of core vehicles which mirror the saloon/sedan heavy German car industry of the mid 1990’s. Whilst the author of that article suggests that in order to succeed Jag needs to chase less traditional luxury sales such as crossovers, I differ slightly in my belief that they are already doing the best they can (on their limited R&D constraints) in already offering vehicles which compete across a couple of niches.

The three cars I will be detailing here are a case in point; both the Audi A7 and Mercedes CLS are cars which are very clearly ‘niche’, yet Jaguar’s XF has little problem competing with them as well as their more mainstream A6/E Class bretherin thanks to sleek styling and a brand identity which strives to be more emotive. Admittedly this has not led to the sales figures which represent a combination of both – in fact in the US even the CLS manages to outsell the XF, but for a company who not long ago was at risk of being abandoned they are reasonably impressive. Still chasing sales means that the Jaguar presents an interesting quandry amongst these other 2 vehicles, and it’s a very close call as to which to pick.

Audi A7:

The A7 would look like a ballistic missile in anyone’s rear view mirror

Although I included a disproportionately large number of Audi’s in my original list it feels I have said least about the four-ringed wonder that is the A7. Audi is a brand which has gone from strength to strength over the last 10 years and has gone from being seen as a pedaller of gussied-up Volkwagens to the #1 luxury car brand in the UK and a fierce contender for the crown in the USA too. Undoubtedly a more varied and higher quality product mix is the route cause of this shift, but one cannot underestimate the difference that the aggressive family face and LED running lights have made amongst the masses…once a brand becomes popular and recognisable many will flock to it, as BMW will testify. I am personally not a massive fan of Audi’s although I do appreciate the outstanding interiors and availability of Quattro, and of course SUV’s like the Q7 and Q5 get a free pass in terms of my affections too. That said the A7 is one Audi which I genuinely like, probably because it harks back to the days of the brand offering cars which were a little different to the norm; Audi could have chased Mercedes with a 4-door coupe but instead a 5 door hatchback, which while similar does draw on the Audi 100 coupe of the 1970’s with it’s fastback.

Admittedly this is an RS7, but the standard A7’s interior is just as exquisite

Anyway enough of the history lesson and lets examine the A7 in a bit more detail as compared to the other cars here. It’s a sleek beast for sure and arguably the rarest/most distinctive vehicle here; even without S Line trim it manages to look menacing and sporty, something which appeals to it’s target market over the tamer CLS and relatively common XF. That lowered roof line does impact on headspace slightly though – and although some cars come with a 5 seat configuration it remains a 4 seater vehicle…albeit one with a relatively practical boot thanks to that hatchback. But the crowning glory of the A7 is it’s dashboard; beautiful dials and driver info system, intuitive MMI system (with optional Google Maps) and a crowd-drawing nav screen which rises up from above the front air vents. Under the bonnet is where things start to become a little hairier for the A7 though as it is pretty dependent on what engine/gearbox was specified; the base engine is a 3.0 TDI with 201bhp and a CVT ‘Multitronic’ gearbox. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this configuration (0-60 in 7.4 seconds, 53.3mpg, £130 road tax), it does lack the excitement of the next engine up, which is a 3.0TDI with 242bhp and DSG ‘S-Tronic’ gearbox. Enthusiastic drivers will appreciate both the extra power from the engine and the seamless shifts of the dual-clutch gearbox, plus these cars come with Quattro 4WD. Obviously the power and Quattro bring a couple of penalties but a faster 0-60 time (0-60 in 6.5 seconds, 47.1mpg, £180 road tax).

Elegant and practical…the A7 in a nutshell

Overall it’s this choice which would need to be looked at if an A7 is the chosen car…the CVT cars are likely to be cheaper but also probably will have less options on, but the DSG examples may be out of budget or with a higher mileage.

Jaguar XF:

Quite possibly the most attractive estate in it’s class

 

Jaguar is a British institution and one that has undergone deep changes over the last 7 years since the XF was first launched. Although some cite the second generation XK as the first of the updated Jags, it was the brand new XF which really captured the public’s imagination and catapulted the brand and the car back into the public’s eye. Sleek styling and a gorgeous interior really let it be known that the Brits were back, and although subsequent models may have stolen the limelight from the XF somewhat, styling tweaks and importantly a range of updated engines have sales increase year-on-year with those keen on the idea of Jag ownership, without the historical reliability problems of old. Jaguar have realised that the key to improved sales is accessible finance and attractive monthly payments, and while by no means is the XF a cheap car it remains the cheapest Jaguar on sale (for the time being) and the door for newcomers to the brand. As such the current promotion is a brand new XF with the tax-friendly 2.2d engine and reasonable Luxury trim level for just £329/month…the same applies to the Sportbrake model which sees the deposit needed increase from £7k to £8.4k. All this includes 3 years free servicing too!

A little simplistic but undoubtedly English

So what about the XF itself as a car? Well the success of the XF is obvious from the reasonable amount you see on the road, but it’s the Sportbrake which serves up most appeal both in terms of exclusivity and look. The facelift of 2012 improved the XF’s front end immensely and with LED running lights and some tasty wheels it looks the biz; the added bulk of the estate is well disguised and actually suits the design of the car, and although I am still not entirely sold on the XJ-style blackened D-pillar of the estate it can easily be disguised if the car is ordered in black or a dark shade. Sit inside the XF and you are greeted with one of the most dramatic car interiors of the last 5 years; lots of aluminum trim (alongside wood in some cars) disguises the gear selector and air vents. Press the ignition button and a metal cylinder rises out of the passenger console and some of those aluminum panels rotate to reveal the air vents, very dramatic. The rear of the car is the only choice here to comfortably seat 3 and the boot of the estate is the largest by quite some margin, although by no means the largest on the market. But taking a closer look at the interior is where the shine starts to rub off of the Jaguar; the infotainment system of the Jaguar is about 2 generations behind competitors according to most commentators, as although it looks very swish and can do it basics there is a lot of lag and unnecessary menus on the 7-inch touchscreen. At least the HVAC controls work well but they are also starting to look a little simplistic and dated when compared to the Mercedes let alone the Audi. On the road the Jag also starts to fall apart a little too, as being based on the same 15-year old platform it’s S-Type predecessor was means the car is heavy and not as sporting as it would like to be. The ZF-built 8 speed automatic is at least a strong point and very thoroughly modern, but when combined with the base 163bhp 2.2d engine it makes for slow progress despite good economy (0-60 in 9.8 seconds, 55.4mpg, £130 road tax).

Even with that stupid black D pillar it still looks great

Really the main appeal in the XF Sportbrake is that it is a brand new car for a very reasonable price (depending on annual mileage admittedly), but it might be worth taking advantage of one of their 24h test drives to see if the advantages of owning a brand new car outweigh the negatives of the car itself.

Mercedes-Benz CLS:

Classic Mercedes styling

Mercedes like to be referred to as the King of Niche and indeed for a while they were quite adept at exploring (and dominating) sectors which few rivals dared to tread. Whilst it’s rivals in Munich may have snatched away that title in most categories it cannot be denied that the original CLS was a surprising return to form for the three pointed star; coming out of a period of questionable build quality and relatively ‘meh’ styling the CLS was a shot in the arm amongst the brand’s key demographic and offered a genuine alternative to those who found an A6/5/E too boring but still needed the practicality of 4 doors and a large boot. This combined with sleek styling, a comfortable ride and a powerful range of engines meant that the CLS was s surprise hit and spawned rivals from companies from BMW to VW, not to mention the copycat styling of more traditional saloons like the XF. The original CLS actually still seemed fresh when it was replaced by this second generation car in 2011 and Mercedes decided to diversify slightly and offer an entry level engine plus a Shooting Brake estate model.

Familiar Merc fare in the CLS

From a styling point of view I feel that the second generation CLS is a little less eye catching that the original; yes it looks a little less ‘banana-ry’ in it’s side profile but the front seems a little more generic even with LED running lights. The rear is a bit more successful and arguably more attractive than the original car, but still manages to look a little too similar to the brand’s other cars for my liking. That said it’s still an attractive car, and in shooting brake guise in particular it is rare enough to gather looks and ooze a premium image. Inside the impression is a lot improved over it’s predacessor even if it’s just the fact there is an analogue clock to make things infinitely classier. Admittedly the previous generation’s interior was a little more elegant but the improved tech and materials more than compensates; Mercedes’ COMAND system is still running third behind it’s German rivals but it is in a lot better place than previous generations of the software were. Lots of metal trim and wood make this car a lush place to be, and while the column-mounted gear shift is a bit old-school it is still familiar to Mercedes owners and can be supplemented with paddle shifters. Practicality is not the CLS’ strong point though, as the saloon is a 4 seat only affair with restricted headroom despite a reasonable boot, the Shooting Brake is alot better in this respect as it has an even larger boot and 5 seats, but is still not a paragon of space. That brings us to how the CLS performs on the road and for once it seems like a win-win; the standard Merc 7-speed auto is a solid gearbox and channels one of two engine choices through the rear wheels only. The base CLS250 is a 204bhp 4 cylinder 2.1L diesel (0-60 in 7.5 seconds, 54.3mpg, £130 road tax), but as that was only introduced in 2012 the CLS350 is often available for less, a 3L V6 diesel (0-60 in 6.2 seconds, 46.3mpg, £180 road tax). Both help the CLS be the effortless cruiser it was made to be, and although handling isn’t as sharp as it’s coupe tag may suggest it still is very tidy.

Probably the only view most people will get of a CLS350 as it shoots past them…this thing is damn quick!

The CLS is a fantastic option held back only by it’s slight lack of practicality and relatively high used prices, but if the right example is found I would think it will be a very strong contender, especially in 350 guise.

 

The new vs used debate is an argument which will continue to go on for as long as the car market exists but here it presents itself in a rather interesting way. Both the A7 and CLS can be found at 3 years old for around £27-£28k, and when considering that brand new those cars cost around double that those are not awful prices. Now the base XF being touted around by Jaguar is clearly going to cost more in terms of purchase price, the overall price paid over 3 years will only be around £35k (including the £13k final payment). So for only £7k more you’d be getting a car which was not only 3 years newer but one that also comes with a 3 year warranty (as opposed to 1) and potentially 3 years of servicing included too. I wouldn’t rule out any of these vehicles based on that information, and I’d even have to look at original generation CLS as a budget alternative too for well under £20k for a 2009/10 model.

Curve ball on the cheap? The original CLS…

PS HOLD THE PRESSES!

Casual googling for the pictures on this post led me to investigate the prices of the bigger Jaguar, the XJ. Admittedly it shares the same poor infotainment system as it’s XF sibling but at barely more than the price of the A7/CLS you would get full-size luxury car material! Numbers wise: 0-60 in 6 seconds, 40.1mpg, £225 road tax from the 275bhp 3.0d, actually pretty damn good – but reliability, depreciation and size would need to be explored first.

Curve ball #2 (!)

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