FROM STRAYS TO SUPERCATS
THE NEW YORK TIMES REVIEWS JAGUAR XFR AND XKR
Behind the Wheel | 2010 Jaguar XFR and XKR
Strays to Supercats
By Lawrence Ulrich
Published: September 9, 2009
IT’S small consolation to Ford, which parted ways with Jaguar after 18 largely tear-filled, money-losing years of ownership. But Tata Motors of India, which bought the British automaker in a historic reverse-colonization, is surely thanking Ford for handing over a Jaguar that is finally purring.
Aside from one spectacular debacle — the widely panned X-Type entry luxury sedan, based on the Ford Mondeo — history may credit Ford with transforming Jaguar’s frozen-in-amber styling and notoriously shoddy reliability. No longer living in and off its glorious past, Jaguar suddenly has a lineup on its hands. These are still the pretty, pedigreed cats you expect, but they are also modern, competitive and — according to owner surveys — more mechanically sound than before.
The XK sports car and XF midsize sedan, already among the sexiest cars in their segments, get new muscle for 2010. Both upgrade their 4.2-liter V-8s to a seductive 5-liter with 385 horsepower; for the high-performance R editions, superchargers pump up the horsepower to 510. Both engines ensure that these newest Jaguars will stay on the heels of mega-powered competitors from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. (The XF continues to offer the 300-horse 4.2-liter engine on its $52,000 base model, making it the least expensive Jag.)
In October, a fourth XF model, the XF Supercharged, goes on sale starting at $68,000. In addition to its 470 horsepower, that edition has extra luxury and performance features — including an adaptive suspension and a 440-watt Bowers & Wilkins audio system — for less money than the $80,000, 510-horse XFR.
The all-new V-8s will also power Jaguar’s flagship sedan, the XJ, when that final fusty holdover from the ancien régime gets a modern redesign — it looks like a stretched XF — early next year.
All three models emerged from the drawing board of Ian Callum, a designer who challenged purists with his determination to jettison the past while also recapturing it. His goal was to remind people that in the ’50s and ’60s Jaguar had been on the leading edge of design before stagnation made its cars into hidebound symbols of the lost empire.
My first encounter with the range-topping XFR and XKR coupe and convertible came at the Monticello Motor Club, a rolling private racecourse two hours northwest of Manhattan. Roberto Guerrero, the former IndyCar racer, was my wildly overqualified co-pilot. Away from the track, I logged two weeks and several hundred miles in a 5-liter XF sedan, an XFR and an XKR convertible, whose $102,000 base price tops the Jaguar line.
That’s big money, to be sure, but consider this: I pulled into Miller Motorcars in Greenwich, Conn., in an XKR convertible and parked alongside a row of Aston Martin DB9s — a styling inspiration for the XK and Mr. Callum’s signature design before he left Aston for Jaguar. From 20 paces, even enthusiasts might struggle to tell the cars apart. Yet at $211,000, the DB9 convertible’s sticker price was double the Jag’s. The Aston is slightly plusher inside and has a V-12 under its bonnet, but even that engine makes 40 fewer horsepower than the XKR’s.
What I’m saying is that, by the cockeyed standards of six-figure cars, the XKR is a relative deal for so much performance and panache. The comparable Mercedes, the SL63 AMG, costs over $130,000. The BMW M6 coupe and convertible are priced close to the Jaguar, but to my eyes the voluptuous Jag makes the BMW look like a banana slug. I also found the XKR more rewarding to drive.
Both the XFR and XKR offer the wall-of-power acceleration you’d expect from the steel-toed macho men at Mercedes’s AMG division, not the loafer-clad gents of Jaguar. Credit not just the 510 horsepower, but the wrenching 461 pound-feet of torque.
Jaguar says it takes just 4.6 seconds for the XKR to reach 60 miles an hour from a standstill and 4.7 for the XFR. Those numbers are conservative; Car and Driver magazine tested the XFR at 4.3 seconds.
For an idea of the physical forces involved, consider that the XFR — a 4,000-pound sedan — is electronically limited to 155 miles an hour, but will reach 195 with its computer leash removed. It can execute a pass from 50 to 70 m.p.h. in less than two seconds.
Last year at the Bonneville Salt Flats, a race driver, Paul Gentilozzi, drove a lightly modified XFR to a top speed of 225.6 m.p.h., breaking his own Jaguar production-car record set in 1992 in the $580,000 XJ220 supercar.
Both R models have upgrades to the already rich Jaguar exteriors and interiors, and they get additional features like larger wheels; bigger and better brakes; sportier seats; and Jaguar’s new adaptive suspension, which adjusts the shocks based on road and cornering conditions; and adaptive rear differential, which sends extra torque to the wheel with the most grip.
Virtually every feature in the Jaguar catalog is standard on the R versions, a refreshing change from the German automakers that blithely hit up buyers for $10,000 or more in options even on their highest-priced models.
The glaring flaw of every XF and XK is the touch screen, whose cumbersome menus are aggravated by a slow-to-respond screen that sometimes ignores your fingertips entirely.
And while replacing the glovebox latch with a flush-mounted electronic dot smooths the appearance of the dashboard, that switch can also take more than one open-sesame attempt.
The real magic button is for the starter. Press it, and a stainless-steel puck rises from the center console like the Armageddon button in a Bond movie. This rotary dial is the electronic shifter, and while some reviewers have criticized it for balky operation, I find it elegant and ergonomically sound, requiring less range of motion to toggle gears than some newfangled shift levers.
While the 6-speed automatic and its steering-mounted paddle shifters work flawlessly, it’s not too much to expect genuine metal paddles (or perhaps carbon fiber) in cars of this price, rather than a set of plastic ears.
For people who demand the biggest possible back seat, the XF’s relatively tight rear headroom may send them elsewhere.
Despite the addictive thrust and a level of handling that sets a new standard for Jaguars, neither R model is as hard-edged as some competing sport sedans and sports cars. That became clear at Monticello, where the Jaguars circled the hilly track with speed and aplomb but still felt mildly out of their element.
That element, fortunately, is the real world, where the Jaguars feel four-star plush and relaxing even when you’re stomping the gas pedal. Now, I love a Porsche 911 or BMW M3 as much as the next guy. But it’s the Jaguars’ dual nature — purring cat and snarling beast, to milk the irresistible feline metaphor — that makes them so distinctive. The XK is not a 911, nor is it trying to be: it’s a gorgeous, serious grand touring car.
On a purely skin-deep level, both Jaguars prompted an almost embarrassing level of compliments and admiration during my test drives. And if we’re honest, aren’t knockout looks — more than racetrack prowess — the main reason people pay premium prices for a luxury car?
It’s here that the Lexus fan might raise the issue of Jaguar quality, or lack thereof. Yet in the most recent J. D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study, measuring defects in three-year-old 2006 models, the Jaguar brand jumped to a first-place tie with Buick, ahead of Lexus, Acura and other brands esteemed for reliability. And in four of the last five years, in J. D. Power’s Sales Satisfaction Index, Jaguar has topped all luxury brands in owner ratings of their dealership experience.
For decades, Jaguar owners put up with mystery glitches and mechanical downtime as the price they had to pay to drive such elegant machines. In the meantime, Jaguar performance was left for dead not only by European brands, but by the hard-charging Japanese.
That today’s Jaguars are not just lovely, but are relevant and reliable, makes one feel a bit sorry for Ford, which gets to watch Tata enjoy the spoils. But while the company’s overseers are now in Mumbai instead of the Motor City, Jaguar buyers need not care: they still get the British royal treatment.
Copyright © September 13, 2009, The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission.