Egmont Sippel drives Jaguar's critically important and brilliant new XF sport sedan in and around Monaco.
A perfect stretch of road looms up ahead.
It's perfect, because it's so imperfect. Over a distance of about 300 meters, the tarmac veers left, then right, then left again before funneling into the tightest of hairpins.
And by golly, we've had plenty of these dramatic 180 degree switchbacks already. For the last half an hour they've endlessly swapped Jaguar's grand new XF around as the spindly twisties above Monaco meander upwards into mountainous terrain bragging WRC rally rights.
For the moment, however, our path has crested out into a sinuous string of asphalt gathering itself for the downward journey. Gone is the luxury of braking into a gradient. The looming hairpin would be the first to test the Big Cat's retardation on negative slopes.
It's going to be fun.
But the real test starts here, half a kilometer away from the hairpin.
In terms of mere co-ordinates, it would be quite possible to straight-line the Jaguar from where it is now, up into the turn-in zone.
Reality is never as simple as that, though. The road is severely crowned, to begin with. Veering left, even though the directional change is slight, the road is also cambered. Veering right, the whole equation turns around into a mirror image of itself. And then again, one more time.
Now, crown and camber combined will present a problem to any fast moving vehicle not following the contours of the corner. Jumping a series of obliquely angled ridge-backs, riding them rough-shot in a straight line, plays havoc with a car's equilibrium.
The road awaiting us would be difficult then, to traverse with undiminished enthusiasm.
A truck, even with Chuck Norris as driver, would simply buck and roll over.
Agile and sure-footed handling
We're not in a truck. But I can think of a couple of executive German saloons that might threaten to be on the verge of chaos, or possibly slew out of control.
However, XF's behaviour up to this point has taught us that pedal-to-the-metal might be on. My co-driver and I have been mightily impressed by strong performance, smooth delivery and muscular thrust, harnessed by outstanding dynamic control.
Even the top-of-the-range supercharged 4.2 liter SV8 model that we're driving is an exceptionally agile animal. There is the merest lag on turn-in, all the better, perhaps, in such a heavy car, for smooth directional transitions.
Once effected, though, the steering is sharp and precise, with just enough feedback to inspire confidence, plus the best weighting as yet on any Jaguar, ever.
The 2.7 liter diesel's rudder, by contrast, is as light and airy as Coventry wheels had been over the years, which is hardly surprising as diesel models are not exactly staple diet to a breed called petrol heads.
The SV8 is for petrol heads. Turning in, the rate of body roll is so well controlled that the XF feels flatter through corners than its predecessor, the S-Type.
In fact, it rolls a bit more.
Body control and fun
Yet, so even and controlled is the tempo that the new Jag's sweet spot arrives quite late in the cornering phase, just as opposing vectors have regrouped into a balanced bouquet again, perfectly lining the car up for full steam ahead.
And it's a blast, feeling the thrust of 560 Nm being translated into traction by 285-wide rears on optional 20-inch alloys. Rarely in automotive history has a saloon of 1842 kg been able to slash speed, change direction, hit the apex and explode out of corners with such poised élan.
The XF is easy to drive fast. But more importantly, it is also fun.
Great fun. With a capital "F".
That's why any thought of feathering the throttle over this daunting stretch of asphalt is nipped in the bud. It would be lower case "f" to feather it now, to lift even slightly.
So, stuff it (with an upper case "F"). It's spirits up and ahoy!
The XF barely flinches. I'm waiting for the merest whiff of a misstep, but nothing registers.
Springs and dampers contract and compress. The right front lifts, followed by the left front and right rear, yet the chassis remains even-keeled.
The belly of the car climbs the camber, which acts as a ramp.
Physics dictate an airborne moment of sorts, followed by a crash landing. I brace myself, hyper-prepared for gathering up a misaligned rear. It's bad enough landing hard. But it's nothing compared to driven wheels being fed a healthy dose of 306 kW, whilst aiming at Mars.
Yet, it all remains under perfect control on this imperfect road. The XF soaks up bumps like water disappearing into an elephant's trunk.
No need to go surfing then, for smooching the swell or clinging to contours.
The XF rides the road like a laser beam cutting through waves.
Great suspension, engines and gearbox
For this, the suspension plus class leading torsional stiffness must take massive credit.
At low speeds on rough tarmac there is the thump of ultra-low profiles, all-right - but never with a jarring edge.
And at high speed the Jaguar is simply a treat, so much so that, dynamically, this car is king of the executive saloon hill.
Mechanically, it ain't bad either.
The extremely smooth and quick 6-speed ZF autobox has been carried over from the XKR. Being 10% quicker than the XK's box, it still incorporates the artificial kick from 3rd to 4th to exaggerate the impression of thrust.
Steering wheel-mounted paddles are standard, even in combination with the smallest and least driver-oriented engine, the exceptionally smooth and quiet 2.7 litre twin-turbo diesel.
And yes, the V8 might be long in the tooth now. But with relentless polishing over the years you'd never tell, except that the normally-aspirated version runs out of breath rather soon.
The hot V8, on the other hand, is a rare gem, in part also because of its healthy baritone exhaust throb overlaid by a high-pitched supercharged whine.
Besides that, the motor is solid, refined, powerful, punchy and yep, a bit thirsty - plus not entirely as heat-compliant as big German mills, if driven hellishly hard. During the XKR's world launch in September 2006, our car automatically switched to limp mode for a while to protect the engine from overheating during a particularly vicious blast through steep and hilly terrain.
This time it was the turn of the brakes, which eventually faded a bit on the downhill run.
The XF, then, is not perfect.
Even a beautifully designed and executed cabin has shortcomings, in spite of richly toned hide-covered seats and a top panel expensively draped in double-stitched leather.
The overall mood of the interior is modern and racy, in any case, in a clean and elegant way. To also emphasize the car's sporty character, classy wooden inlays are dominated by lots of dash and door-mounted aluminium.
It perfectly compliments other touches of modernity, of course, like phosphor blue night lighting inspired by cell phones and vodka bars.
Said lighting is activated by the mere wave of a hand, to eliminate extra facia-mounted buttons. For the same reason the cubby is opened by finger-tip touch on a dot-like sensor.
The main novelty, however, is the start-up sequence and new gear selector knob.
The XF greets drivers with a start/stop button pulsating in red, like a heart beat.
Turn the engine, and rotating air vents swing open before shutting down again when power is cut.
At the same time, a cast alloy gear selector knob rises up into the palm of a driver's hand, whereafter reverse, neutral, drive and sport modes could be accessed via simple rotation of said knob; it works amazingly well.
Another easy system to master is touch screen infotainment with much better graphics than before, presented in tandem with the instrument binnacle's purposeful watch-like make-over.
On top of this, Bowers & Wilkins have devised vivid in-car audio.
And yes, the XF offers the obligatory bevy of high-tech gadgets and plug-in facilities.
Plastic bits and space
The XF also offers size. It is nearly 1.9 metre wide and only 39 millimetre short of 5 m, yielding a wheelbase of more than 2.9 m.
Unfortunately, not all of this translates into groundbreaking rear leg or toe room, nor into exceptional boot or tank volumes.
And for all the cabin's expensive materials and svelte elegance, the premium feel is nevertheless chafed ever so slightly by steering column adjustments still only governed by a single motor, which is slow and relatively noisy.
The reason, Jag says, is a crash protection system that is so well developed around this single-motor column (the latter with a ride-down of 50-100 mm during frontal impacts) that it wasn't worth the money to re-engineer.
The cabin's biggest let-down, however, is plasticky controls for sound and climate control. Jaguar tried aluminium, but couldn't find a tight enough fit.
Apart from the out-of-sight slush-moulded surround of the windscreen base, these are the only plastics in the XF cockpit. They're not exactly cheap looking, but they nevertheless stand in stark contrast to the luxurious over-all feel of the cabin, let alone jewelry-like body details.
Styling and detail
Exquisite exterior detailing starts at the front, with beautifully sculpted chrome splitters that twist and spin like propeller blades in the outer air dams.
That's topped by a chunky, chromed re-interpretation of the Series 1 XJ's mesh-patterned grille with sharp power bulges and bonnet creases streaming backwards, across an otherwise smoothly surfaced metal expanse.
The side-on view boasts strong vertical vents, window surrounds cut from a single unbroken billet of chrome beautifully sweeping through the C-pillar kink and front and rear screen rake angles virtually identical to the XK sports coupé's.
At the back, chief designer Ian Callum and his talented understudy Wayne Burgess have crafted jewel-like rear lamps (strongly reminiscent of the pair's DB9 Aston) joined by a signature chrome blade, the width of which is artificially - but cleverly and very effectively - extended by reverse lights, all of it topped off by an Art Deco sculptured leaper...
Man, and is it all so beautiful, such lovely detail so tastefully integrated into such a flawlessly surfaced skin, which in turn stretches cleanly over a wonderfully flowing and soft-edged frame yielding a super-confident stance; the XF carries itself proudly, magnificently.
What's up then, with the rounded element of the head lights?
Well, the fluted bit harks back to the XJ, Jaguar would like to tell you.
But here's the rub: by the time the C-XF concept version of the XF was developed, Jaguar had new LED light technology at hand.
That's why the concept car stares with a flatter brow and much more meaningful glare, and the production XF not.
Yet, it matters not a jot.
After a minute behind the wheel of the new car, one even forgets that it is a steel-bodied and steel-framed vehicle, instead of the aluminium effort widely expected once it became clear what a marvellous job Jaguar had done with the XK and XKR.
It just would have taken too long - another 12 months, Jaguar says - to have developed an aluminium XF; the tooling, jigs, etc. etc.
Given the final result, I will take the XF as it is, any day of the week.
In fact, I will take this car over any other in the executive saloon segment.
Is it that good, then?
It is not perfect, remember.
But it is brilliant.
SA will get the full XF range in April.
Power plants will be the 2.7 V6 twin-turbo diesel (152 kW, 435 Nm, 0-100 in 8.2 secs, 229 km/h top speed); a 3.0 V6 (175 kW, 293 Nm, 8.3 s, 237 km/h); a 4.2 V8 (219 kW, 411 Nm, 6.5 s, 250 km/h); and a 4.2 supercharged V8 (306 kW, 560 Nm, 5.4 s, 250 km/h).
Prices will range from R499 000 - R784 000.
Egmont Sippel is Rapport's Motoring Editor