I like diesels. I’m not saying they’re better than petrols, but neither do I think diesel and the thrill of driving are mutually exclusive terms. The car that convinced me of this? The BMW 535d naturally enough.
Two main reasons for this. I once lapped Nardo at 175mph in a 340bhp DMS-tuned version in a quest to gain entry to the Guinness Book of Records (thrown out on a technicality – I’d neglected to get the correct authorisation from the FIA far enough in advance) and I also ran a Touring version for a year. The finest long term car I’ve ever had the privilege to run, bar none. You just can’t argue with a 600-mile range, a kid-proof cabin and a torque-heavy, tail-happy rear end.
Subscribe to evo magazine
That car earned my undying respect and admiration and I’ve pined for it ever since, so although I came to this test with as much of an open mind as I could muster, I seriously doubted the Jag’s ability to lay a claw on the 535d in the crucial areas.
That’s not to say I’m not aware of the BMW’s drawbacks in the not-so-crucial departments – I never got 100 per cent comfortable with iDrive, the solid ride and the sheer austerity of its cabin. In those areas the XF kicks it in the wheel nuts.
But for the purposes of this test, I’m going to concentrate on the driving and explain why the Jag mauls the 535d, despite the fact its brand new twin turbo V6 is less potent, torquey and economical than the BMW unit.
Let’s begin with the start-up procedure. In something exotic and Italian turning the key is an event in itself, a summoning to life; you are Dr Frankenstein and this is your monster. Diesels are a bit more prosaic – you want them to be calm and unruffled, ideally not even hint that they’re diesels at all. The Jag does that, coughing softly into life. The BMW’s straight six is harsher, but more importantly there’s a detectable body movement as the engine catches and a hint of vibration thereafter. First blood to the Jag.
Second to the BMW. Diesel’s give up their power a bit more lazily than petrols, so neither feels outstandingly rapid – or rather both mask their speed very well due to long gearing. Nevertheless, the 535d is gutsier low down, spinning from 2-3000rpm very quickly yet pulling firmly, insistently all the way to the 5000rpm cutout with no discernible loss of aural composure. That’s mainly because road noise starts to intrude, making it harder to hear the engine.
You’ll need to pop an ear trumpet in your shell-like if you want to listen to the Jag. Drive this after something noisy and you could believe it had Tesla-power under the hood. There’s something electric about the power delivery, too: it doesn’t staple your shoulders to the seat like the BMW, but instead delivers a sustained shove that builds oh-so smoothly. It doesn’t have a red-line as such (nor any lag to speak of), instead there’s a pink line that starts at 4200rpm and gets darker towards 5000rpm, the needle slowly running into treacle.
So the BMW is the more explosive, the more urgent of this pair (although I think the XF has the finer engine response and throttle control) - and it’s the more masculine on the road, too. It’s the sort of car that would tell you how much it earns, how successful it is, its golf handicap, that sort of thing. The 535d is a competitive sort.
In truth the German is probably faster than the Brit across country – it certainly feels like that, although I have a sneaking suspicion the Jag disguises its speed and capabilities that bit better. It’s very planted the 535d, knuckling into the road and turning in determinedly. The steering is a fraction more remote than I remember, and the combination of M Sport suspension and runflat tyres does comfort no favours, but the old chassis magic hasn’t deserted the 5-Series just yet – crisp around corners and always informative, it’s a fine sports saloon.
The Jaguar is less overt, less showy on the road, soaking up the punishment and lulling you into a false sense of security. Initially it gives the impression it can’t be arsed, so you tip it into a corner and wow, suddenly it’s with you, really with you. It’s just so neat and precise, so fluid, maybe not as immediate as the Beemer and certainly not one to force its style or personality on you, but when you go looking for fun the XF really wakes up, displaying a level of keenness, agility and detail at odds with the exec-barge image.
More fun than the BMW? I believe so. But both are genuinely enjoyable, have easily enough power to poke the tail wide should the mood take you, and even if it does, still return over 30mpg. The thrill of diesel. Who’d have thought it?