MONT TREMBLANT, Quebec — I now know the meaning of luxury. It is the 2013 Jaguar Portfolio XJL all-wheel-drive sedan. It is wonderfully, totally unnecessary, which is the first requirement of all luxurious things.
Who needs an all-wheel-drive sedan with soft-grain leather cabin coverings, deep-pile carpeting, a brushed-suede headliner (roof covering) and polished burled-walnut inlays? And who among us, having paid the estimated $96,000 to obtain such a motorized bauble, would risk its beauty on ice-and-snow-covered roads in the Laurentian Mountains, some 80 miles northwest of Montreal?
“Rich people” is too easy an answer. Rich people are not that crazy.
Try journalists, those of the automotive variety, more than 200 of whom from all over the world were brought to this picturesque hamlet to play with Jaguar’s latest toys — all-wheel-drive versions of the motor company’s XF and XJ sedans. (The “L” in the XJ’s name refers to “long wheelbase.” Its drivers are often not its owners. Often they are chauffeurs.)
For Jaguar, now the property of India’s Tata Group, it was one heck of an affair, despite Jaguar’s embarrassingly late arrival to the luxury all-wheel-drive party.
Luxury automobile manufacturers already in attendance in the all-wheel-drive segment — in which power is transferred from slipping to gripping wheels to help maintain traction and stability on roads compromised by inclement weather — include Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.
Jaguar, at various points in its history, flirted with the idea of all-wheel drive but jettisoned the notion in favor of its perceptions of beauty, sensuality, propriety (think class) and speed. The company, under previous owners, including Ford Motor Co., considered all-wheel drive in a premium luxury car too utilitarian — too, ahem, of the people, one might say.
But people, even those with money, grew tired of slipping, sliding and crashing in the winter storms that sometimes pay nasty visits to the Mid-Atlantic and the northernmost regions of North America. Putting on the Ritz in a fancy car in mild weather is one thing. Leaving it parked on the side of the highway in a snowstorm, an often humbling choice for many owners of luxury automobiles in the Washington area, for example, is quite another.
Thus enters Jaguar, but not just with any all-wheel-drive technology. In what the company’s marketers call “Instinctive All-Wheel Drive,” the Jaguar system, using an electronically controlled wet multi-plate clutch, rapidly shifts power from one wheel to another when the need arises. When there is no need, practically all drive power is sent to the Jaguar’s rear wheels, giving it the familiar, sporty strut of Jaguar cars of old. But on roads such as those as we used here, covered with freshly fallen snow and newly formed ice, 30 percent of the drive power went to the front wheels while 70 percent was sent to the rear.
I don’t know this through any great knowledge of automotive technology or physics. That is what Jaguar’s engineers told me. I believe them because I unintentionally drove through several icy corners with enough speed to carry me into eternity. The Jaguar Portfolio XJL, the model I chose because it was so pretty, auto-corrected, remained perfectly poised and turned me into one of the faithful. I was saved.
I suspect that I could’ve done the same thing in a substantially less expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle, perhaps a Subaru. But a Subaru is not a Jaguar. Besides, there is truth in what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1926 short story “The Rich Boy”:
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them. . . . Unless you are born rich, it is difficult to understand.”
Jaguar understands. And in keeping with that understanding, it is pursuing an all-wheel-drive market it should have gone after long ago. Judging from its products on display here, it has a better-than-even chance of catching up and . . . possibly . . . moving ahead.