XKR HAS THE GRUNT TO HUMBLE 911
AUTOCAR APRIL 2009
But that’s not the only reason why it’s a better car, says Autocar, April 2009.
Jaguar and Porsche are both world-famous sports car manufacturers, both multiple Le Mans winners, both creators of beautiful, landmark coupés of enduring appeal. But in the decades that have passed since the E-Type and the 911 first appeared, the Jaguar bloodline has gone soft.
The E’s descendants have become fast GT cars more concerned with refined mileeating than tackling a mountain pass or going hill-climbing at the weekend. The custodians of the 911 legend, on the other hand, have remained doggedly faithful to the car’s original purpose of providing intense driver excitement; a contemporary 997 911 as at home on a track (probably more so) than the original 901 911 of 1963.
But today’s revitalising Jaguar is refocusing on the high-performance strain of its DNA, as spectacularly demonstrated by the mighty new XFR, which can lay claim to being the best sports saloon in the world, and with barely any sacrifice in civility.
This performance-oriented development thrust is also evident in the recently facelifted XK. It is much faster, thanks to all-new direct-injection 5.0-litre normally aspirated and supercharged V8s, and much of the supporting hardware has been fettled with heightened dynamism and driver entertainment in mind.
The new supercharged V8 delivers a spectacular 503bhp (see panel), the responsiveness of the XK’s already excellent six-speed transmission has been sharpened further and the chassis benefits from a clever new active differential and adaptive damping that is now continuously variable rather than merely switching between soft and hard.
With this strengthened armoury comes more equipment, a lightly reworked interior featuring the levitating transmission selector of the XF, more equipment and some exterior tweaks. All of which has had us wondering whether this more athletic XKR has the verve to run with the 911.
The legend itself enjoyed an update last year. An all-new direct-injection engine was the focal point, and the changes to the rest of the car were slightly more limited than Jaguar’s alterations. But the supporting hardware includes, for the first time, a twinclutch PDK gearbox (this paddle-triggered £2288 transmission is fitted to our test car to match the Jag’s auto-only drivetrain) and uprated brakes.
There’s also a redesigned infotainment system and, like the Jag, the 911 gets some LED illuminations (the lit patterns of its rear lamps are curiously similar to the XKR’s, in fact). The 380bhp 3.8-litre Carrera S version of the 911 costs £71,166 when PDK-equipped, just undercutting the £72,400 XKR.
The Jaguar, however, is massively more powerful, and it feels it on the road. You soon learn to use a light throttle, because if you don’t you’ll simply bound towards the next obstacle, which will very likely be the bumper of the car in front. It’s not hard to modulate the Jaguar’s advance, but you do need to recalibrate your ideas about how far you sink your right foot to cover the next few yards when you’re sludging through town. This is a sizeable clue, of course, to how rapid this XKR is on an open road. But we won’t be doing that until we have headed west from Teddington and struck horse country around Lambourn.
It may be aluminium-shelled, but the bigger-bodied, bigger-engined XKR weighs more, though not so much that its supercharged V8 can’t storm up a power surge to overwhelm both its heft and the 911; its 287bhp per tonne outmuscles the Porsche’s 248bhp power-to-weight ratio.
Still, the PDK-kitted 911 (quicker than the manual version because it carries an extra gear ratio) just noses ahead of the Jaguar with a 0-62mph sprint time of 4.5sec to the XKR’s 4.6sec. But the XKR’s substantial torque advantage (461lb ft plays 310lb ft, and over a far wider rev range) allows it to feel effortlessly and significantly more powerful more of the time.
The subdued ease with which the Jag compresses distance is utterly compelling, all the more so when you discover that its fat tyres and upgraded chassis can sluice you through bends like the waters of a breaching dam. You’re well protected from tail slithers by the XKR’s dynamic stability control and the active differential, and there are games to be played by switching to the DSC track mode, which allows small-scale slippage. Alteratively, you can engage the car’s Dynamic mode, which firms up the dampers (almost but not quite to the point of excess), sharpens the throttle and alters the strategy of the active differential to suit a more ambitious driving style. The Jag’s size, grip and potency are such that you’ll need wide roads and bravery to get the near the edge, though early XKR experience on a race circuit uncovered a remarkably well behaved and highly enjoyable repertoire.
The Porsche also provides a character change at the prod of a switch. In fact, the 911 feels instantly more lively when you fire it up. It also feel smaller – which it is – and more biddable as a result.
In its normal setting the PDK ’box almost makes the 911 feel lazy, because it upshifts relatively early and well shy of the torque peak. This is easily rectified by pressing the Sport button on the centre console, which electrifies the throttle and whips you down a gear or two, into the six’s high-energy zone. You can also access gears via the Porsche’s paddle shifts, of course, but their unconventional action takes familiarization the excellent Sport Chrono pack, which further hastens shifts, so much so that the driveline thumps lightly as you rip through the gears. In less aggressive settings this transmission swaps cogs with the elegant precision of an Olympic relay team, except when clunking into Drive or Reverse.
You’ll rarely get a thump out of the Jaguar driveline, but you’ll get frenetic behaviour of another kind when you depress the rotary transmission selector for a clockwise swivel into Sport. Suddenly your Jaguar will drive as if you were being chased by a lava flow.
Low gears are hung onto and wrung out in the quest to chase the engine’s (bountiful) torque sweet spots, and unless you’re chasing down victims at a track day or enjoying the drive of your life across some empty-road mountain range, it can soon get a bit wearing. Better, then, to use the excellent paddle shifts if you crave transmission interaction.
And wearing is not what this Jaguar is about, despite a ride, even in standard mode, that edges towards the knobbly and away from the genteel GT world that Jaguar coupés have occupied this past 35 years. Those used to more pliant Jags may be a little surprised by this XKR’s deportment, but the compromise is so finely judged that you rapidly realise that this remains a car in which you’d be more than happy to knock off a 600-mile drive in a day. Though this particular driver would be lightly discomforted by a front seat cushion that eventually generates leg ache. Some will notice the wind rustle past 80mph, too.
The Porsche is noisier, to the point that you will think twice about that 600-mile stint. Road noise is the 911’s undoing, for the hum of rubber on coarse asphalt is more debilitating than its sometimes turbulent ride (though ceramic brakes, and the resulting reduction in unsprung mass, make this is less troubling than it was on the 911 PDK we road tested last year).
Not only does this 911 ride better than that stablemate, but it also provides considerably more steering feel; the rim performs the familiar 911 dance over undulating blacktop, and it’s all the more engaging for it. Slip it into Sport and it turns hair-trigger sports car as the agility conferred by its shorter wheelbase, slender width and eager engine gives you the invigorating workout for which 911s are famous. It’s a joy to press from bend to bend, all the more so because its responses are sharp, instant and controllable, from steering to throttle to brakes.
Yet the XKR thrills deeply too. It feels more alive than any Jag coupé since the sixcylinder E-type, and surprises with amazing front-end bite and a resistance to understeer that has you wondering how mad you’d have to be before you’d feel some. And while the wheel rim carries less life than the 911’s, there’s precision there, along with fine weighting and the impression that when the Jag does start to slide, it will tell you about it. And in a good way.
Yet the XKR doesn’t feel quite as at home as the 911 across the tight, rolling roads of Berkshire. That it’s a little less of a sports car is betrayed by a brake pedal less immediate than the (ceramic disc-optioned) 911, instruments whose readings are less easily assimilated at speed (despite there being as few of them as you’ll find in a basic-tariff rental car) and the feeling that this car is less wieldy, an illusion mostly fostered by its additional bulk. Bulk, incidentally, that rams home the hopeless packaging of this car, whose so-called rear seats would have a desperate hitch-hiker grumbling.
Yet the Jaguar wins this test, if by the most marginal of margins. Truth is, this pair are still cars of quite different character, even if the XKR is a faster, fitter, more agile and more capable Jaguar coupé than there’s even been before. But the Porsche is more raw, more toned and still feels more of a sports car. Yet this advantage apart, the Jaguar is the more complete because it is more comfortable, more refined and more usable, and because it combines this with a beguiling potency and a slow-burn dynamism that’s a pleasure to uncover.