31 Aug 2012

Driven - Jaguar XKR-S Coupe and Convertible

Matt Hubbard reviews the Jaguar XKR-S and finds it almost perfect, although the roof's a bit low.

The XK is Jaguar's sportscar.  It's heritage can be traced right back to the XK120 of 1948, via the E-type, the XJS and the XK8 of the nineties.  The new XK was released in 2006 and was smaller and lighter than it's immediate predecessor.  The weight loss is mainly due to it's aluminium monocoque body shell.

The statistics of the 2012 XKR-S coupe are worth quoting.  It weighs 1753kg and produces 550bhp from a supercharged 5 litre V8.  0-60 takes 4.2 seconds and combined fuel consumption is quoted as 23mpg.

Over the course of a day I drove the XKR, XKR-S coupe and XKR-S convertible.  Driving the standard (but still supercharged) XKR was a worthwhile exercise because, despite the fact it costs £78,550 (compared to the XKR-S's £97,000 and the convertible's £103,000) it is essentially a flawed car.

Don't get me wrong.  It is a beautiful machine.  The engine sounds glorious - like an American pushrod V8, it has plenty of power (520bhp), is very fast, the interior is exquisite and it handles well at lower speeds.  The fly in the XKR's ointment is that when the speed rises the handling just disappears and the gearbox goes to pot.  It is as if the car has been set up to drive around with the accelerator pedal only halfway to the floor.  When driven at speed the steering goes light and the body shimmies over the slightest crest.  It turns into a bit of a handful.  And the throttle control is fine either whilst cruising or with the foot firmly planted into the carpet - but transitioning between these two phases is a jerky, jumpy affair.

But when you step into the XKR-S all of that disappointment disappears.  The £18,450 extra needed to shell out for the XKR-S is absolutely worth it.

On first impressions everything is just so.  The colour of the car I tested divided opinion.  Some hate the  French Racing Blue, others - me included - love it.  The bodywork is achingly beautiful.  The carbon spoiler and the bodykit add an aura of purpose and power.  The door opens revealing an interior of hand stitched leather and chrome and aluminium inserts.  The various knobs and switches (of which there are too many) are perfectly weighted and feel solid to the touch.

It is easy to adjust the seat and steering (once you've worked out the controls) to fit any shape and as an added extra the lumbar supports can be adjusted to slowly squeeze you into your seat.  The dashboard is a delight with striking, easy to read dials and whatever information you care to see in between the dials.  I selected average fuel consumption which, when I saw the result, made me glad I wasn't paying for the fuel.

Press the Start button and the engine fires into life.  Jaguar have refined their engine notes to perfection. At low revs the V8 rumble is constantly evident but never intrusive.  Pull away and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a very easy car to drive.  In fact, as long as the accelerator was restricted to only the first quarter movement, I would say even a learner driver would find it a doddle to drive.

Low speed handling is excellent.  The steering is light but nicely weighted and the Jaguar just does what you ask without complaint.  Unlike the standard XKR the XKR-S's gearbox flicks up and down through the gears without complaint or intrusion.  Inside the cabin all is quiet, except for the rumble of the engine.

But then when you push the accelerator further it turns into a complete animal.  Before the inevitable push in the small of your back as it leaps away, the engine shrieks and crackles with a huge roar.  Imagine a bonfire, tinder dry and drenched with petrol.  Then throw a match onto it and record that whooomp sound just for the first second.  The XKR-S's engine sounds exactly like that first second of whoomph played on a constant loop.

The suspension, steering and gearbox all cope admirably well at speed.  The steering stays certain - I didn't manage to induce any understeer despite trying my hardest - and the gearbox snicks through all the gears, with or without the flappy paddles, with ease.

Only when accelerating hard out of a tight corner does it get out of shape.  And when it does it does so abruptly.  The rear end snaps out and then stops and thinks for a moment before reigning in any attempt at hoonery.  The car handles poorly-surfaced and undulating English roads well.  I tested all three versions over the same particular stretch of road.  At one point there was a slight corner on a crest.  At the apex, which was also the highest part of the crest, the XKR-S felt light but controlled.  It felt safe.  Jaguar have fitted an Active Differential to the XKR-S and it performs it's job well.

I also gave the brakes a good working out and didn't manage to induce the slightest hint of brake fade.  I found a long straight with a crest in the middle and braked hard just after the crest, when the car was at it's lightest.  The huge brakes performed admirably, stopping the car fast and in a straight line with no squirming to one side or the other.

The XKR-S driving experience can be enhanced even further with the selection of Sport mode and by pressing the Dynamic button.  The engine is instantly recalibrated to enhance performance and it doesn't change gear until the red line - although you can select gear manually with the flappy paddles.  This gives the car a little more performance but the main effect is the glorious blip of revs as it changes down.

Indeed I found myself changing down the gears whilst stuck behind a tractor just so I could hear the engine do it's thing.  Not a very environmentally friendly thing to do but great fun.

So, the XKR-S coupe is a marvel of modern automotive design and construction.  Sure, it can be outhandled by a Porsche or out-dragged by a Ferrari but the Jaguar XKR-S is superbly rounded and more grand tourer than outright sportscar.

The convertible handled, drove and sounded exactly the same as the coupe even though it is 47kg heavier.  I didn't detect any scuttle shake nor loss in performance.

The only two differences I found between the convertible and coupe was that I banged my forehead on the steeply raked leading edge of the convertible's front windscreen more than once.  I am 5'10" and had the seat at low as it could go but felt the perilously close to head banging the top of the windscreen on more than one occasion.

The other difference is that, with the roof down, the sound of the engine was all the more glorious.  Most of the noise comes from the exhaust, rather than the engine bay, so you are overwhelmed by an aural wave from behind as you press the throttle.  It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

In summary I would recommend the XKR-S to anyone with a spare £100,000 - and with the necessary funds to run it.  I achieved an average 9.4mpg in the coupe.

The XKR-S is an incredible machine that is a joy to drive.  It made me feel proud to be British.