During these past 12 months, Jaguar shifted from charismatic niche brand with a nice history and a spotty quality record to something quite different: serious alternative to the Big Three Germans, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

It happened without much fanfare; many didn’t even notice. But we saw the plan begin to unfold in real time with the arrival of the F-Type sports car for 2014.

What’s happening at Jag has been percolating for nearly a decade, however. It dates back to 2008 when India’s Tata swept up Jaguar Land Rover from a near-bankrupt Ford Motor for $2.3 billion (US). Since then, the steady, painstaking work of reinventing JLR has been a textbook case of under-promising and over-delivering.

Of course, an explosion in demand for sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) has been a fortuitous boost, driving up Land Rove profits to fund the Jag re-boot. Without that money, JLR surely would have gone the way of Hummer and Saab. Timing, as they say…

In any case, Jag’s long-range plan became crystal clear for me with the latest, facelifted, diesel version of the XF midsize sedan. Jag now has something legitimate and special to compete with the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

The XF 20d R-Sport, in particular, is delicious. It boasts great performance, a tidy balance of handling and cruising comfort, elegant design and combined fuel economy of 6.9 litres/100 km. This translates into a 114g/km CO2 rating. Good and another step on Jag’s ultimate path to electrification. But that’s a story for another time.

For now, well, not everyone has caught on to what’s happening at Jag. The “bad quality” meme is trotted out regularly at dinner parties and golf clubs; it peppers the internet, still. The fact is, Lucas electrics have been gone for decades. Indeed, Jag finished well above average in J.D. Power’s latest three-year Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS).

Old images fade reluctantly, however. Which explains why I could find $4,500-$7,500 in cash or lease incentives on offer in Canada.

The XF 20d R-Sport lists for $68,500, so that cash on the hood nicely assuages the sticker shock associated with this very sporty and comfortable premium ride. An Audi A6 3.0 TDI Technik, for example, lists for $75,350.

In Canada, BMW doesn’t offer a 5-Series diesel, nor does Merc have a diesel E-Class. The base XF diesel starts at $60,900. And all XF models come standard with AWD (all-wheel drive). And yes, Jag sells gasoline-powered XF cars, too, starting at less than $60,000.

The XF for 2017 is a bit more refined than before, the styling sharper, edgier. The exterior is in keeping with the new arrival last year, the smaller XE, which shares the XF’s lightweight aluminum architecture.

The XF is a tidy player in corners. Set a line and it will hold it, flat and composed. Yet straight, at high speeds, the car is…well, not plush, but certainly pleasant. This is something of an industry trend. Chassis engineers everywhere have learned how to balance the demands of carving apexes without sacrificing highway comfort. Applause all around.

The diesel’s horsepower number looks anemic (180), especially in a car that weighs a whopping 1,701 kg (diesel engines have weighty blocks, don’t you know). But with 318 lb-ft of torque on tap at a low 1,750 rpm, this Jag can do 0-100 km/hour in about 8.0 seconds. It feels even faster, or at least quicker off the line, than any of these numbers might suggest.

Feel free to play with steering wheel-mounted paddles to dial in the eight-speed automatic gearbox. Shifts are quick and sharp. Jaguar’s Adaptive Dynamics adjustable suspension, meanwhile, allows you to teak the damping characteristics: Dynamic means taut and lively; Comfort cleans up bumpy patches and helps you manage potholes.

The updated cabin is recognizable to anyone who’s been inside the XE. Which is good aesthetically for you – and a cost-saving for JLR. The Germans all have a slight edge in refinement, but it’s not a big gap.

The plush leather seats adjust all the right ways and are almost as good as the ones in a 5-Series. The 8.0-inch widescreen infotainment system sits high in the middle of the dash. It’s comparable to a lot of other multimedia setups, though Volvo’s S80 and Tesla’s Model S are better, cleaner, quicker and prettier. There are big buttons and a few knobs there to help you control things you use every day – volume, climate control.

Jag greatly improved access to the rear, by enlarging the doors. Space is adequate for two adults, three if absolutely necessary. And the trunk is quite large.

Streets in Canada and the rest of the developed world are littered with Audis, BMWs and Mercs – about 6.0 million combined sold last year alone. Jag sold just under 150,000 cars in 2016. The XF should interest anyone who’s grown tired of the German luxury brands, who wants something different and very good.

2017 Jaguar XF 20d AWD R-Sport

Base price: $68,500. Freight: $1,500.

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel (180 horsepower/318 lb.-ft. of torque).

Drive: all-wheel drive.

Transmission: eight-speed automatic.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8 city/5.8 hwy using diesel fuel.

Comparables:  BMW 5-Series, Audi A6/A7, Cadillac CTS, Infiniti Q70, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lincoln Continental, Lexus GS, Volvo S90.



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