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Get out the Louis Vuitton sand bag covers

Andy Stonehouse

There are all kinds of snarky, amusing or even informative things I could say about my recent experience with the wonderfully peerless 2008 Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas, but the most important observation is this: Traction and Dynamic Stability Control is not such a bad thing.

Typically, when you read car reviews, the typical California-based writer spends most of his or her time bitching about how all the safety controls render the wildly powerful vehicle largely numb and unexciting ” as I seem to have done in all of my Volvo reviews of the last four years.

However, when the time finally came ” a sudden sheet of ice over the curved Eagle River bridge deck in Dowd Junction, myself doing about 60 behind the wheel of the luxurious 300-horsepower Jag, which is as long as a Ford F-150 but weights only 20 pounds more than a Ford Escape ” Jaguar’s safety controls and some prayers to a still-undefined deity helped me live to tell the story, rather than making a call to the folks in New Jersey to explain that their $81,000 aluminum-bodied executive cruiser was now in a wrecker’s yard in Minturn.

Admittedly, the extended-wheelbase, rear-wheel drive Jag is not exactly what you’d call a winter car, in the same way that the State Patrol’s Crown Victorias and old Camaros looked totally out of place on a snow-covered Vail Pass.

And while the incredibly light (3,819 lbs.) nature of the relatively long (205.3 inches) Jag does make it a wonder for dry pavement cavorting, even with Blizzaks on all four corners, travel on snow-covered roads is tricky, at best.

On dry pavement, the third tier XJ (the XJ model line starts with a $64,000 base model, followed by an extended wheel-base model, the fancier Vanden Plas, then tops out with the 400-HP XJR and the ultra-premium $94K-plus Super V8) is indeed a force to be reckoned with.

Low weight, a powerful 4.2 liter V8, air suspension and speed-sensitive steering (plus meaty 19-inch wheels) conspire to allow you or, in all likelihood, your driver, to haul some serious ass. The Vanden Plas’ 300-HP, 310 pound-feet of torque setup will get you to 60 in 6.3 seconds and top out at 121 mph; shell out for the models with the Supercharged engine and you’ll be eating Mustangs for breakfast.

My suspicion is that those in the market for the longer XJs will not actually be spending the bulk of their time behind the wheel themselves: like a Maybach or a Mercedes S550, the back seat of the Vanden Plas is outfitted with so much creature comfort that you’d never want to leave.

Lambswool carpeting, a full audio and video system with monitors in the back of the front seat headrests and a gigantic, James Bond-worthy box of controls in the center armrest (no oil slicks or rear-mounted rocket pods, but it doesn’t seem impossible) make the back of the XJ a true delight. The Hawker 800-styled, fold-down tray tables and a litany of rapidly deployable privacy screens just complete the Grey Poupon-friendly package.

Should the help have the weekend off and you need to break down and head over to Beaver Liquors yourself for more Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, the front-seat experience is also not so bad.

Trimmed in nearly $3,000 worth of custom walnut burl veneer, a twin-stitched leather dash and acres of sumptuous leather, commandeering the Vanden Plas is easy-going indeed ” complete with its slippery but electrically heated wood-trimmed steering wheel.

Seating, both chilled and heated (perhaps both at the same time, should you wish), was oddly stiff up front, though the side bolstering borders on sporty, which is good during those passenger-free, high-speed chucking sessions during the summer.

Unfortunately, the air conditioning and heating system for the back-seat folks consumes almost all of the driver’s armrest space and renders it practically useless, save for two of the most miniscule pop-up beverage holders in the current automotive world. The staff will not be drinking lattes.

Everyone in the car can, however, simultaneously have their cell phones programmed for Bluetooth interactivity, and the touchscreen system offers a wonderfully interactive search system that remains completely functional while traveling.

The dash and center stack design is, admittedly, starting to show its age (the current model had its last complete overhaul in 2004), with a horse bridle-shaped curve of overly large plastic buttons, touchscreen monitor and the elegant but elderly J-gate shift control.

But: XJ drivers purchase these cars because of their direct lineage with Jaguars of yore, so the concessions to classical design are there for a reason ” otherwise, you’d be in line to buy the all-new XF.

Nonetheless, the XJ’s exterior has been given a more contemporary look for 2008, with a new grille and bumper, fancy razor blade-styled bling plates on the front quarter panels and brilliant LED lights in the rear brake lamps. The iconic, extruding Jaguar emblem no longer protrudes from the hood but is available as a very nice letter-opening knife through Jaguar, so that’s a slight concession.

A lack of a pass-through gate in the trunk means that anyone making ski trips (uh, anyone?) will either have to dump their sticks on their passengers’ legs or, perhaps, get one of those totally “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”-styled roof racks.

And … sand bags, plenty of sand bags. If I can emphasize anything about the XJ Vanden Plas and wintertime use, sand bags would be the biggest part. Perhaps Louis Vuitton makes a stylish line of custom sand bag covers; this would be the appropriate look for that ride.


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