October 4th, 2010

Driven: Jaguar XKR Speed and Black pack

There is a television advert for Jaguar’s new XF that is doing the rounds at the minute, and I can’t help but have a little smirk every time I see it. You probably know the one, the voiceover basically announces that the XF saloon won “Whats-it Car of the Year 2010”, then “Something-or-other Car of the Year 2009” and “Yet-another Car of the Year 2008”. The smug voice then goes on to add “and if you are wondering why we didn’t win anything in 2007… it’s because we hadn’t made it yet” (or something to that effect). Except I always like to speak over the last few words and replace them with “it is because the previous S-Type was just a bit of a let-down.”

Although it hasn’t been getting awards thrown at it quite like its saloon cousin, the same can almost be said of the XK range. This ‘R model shares the same 503bhp 5.0-litre Supercharged V8 as the XFR and also generates a bolster-bashing 461lb-ft of Torque at 5500rpm, although this time it is propelling a 1762kg mass. However for all the recognition that the XFR has acquired, the hot coupe has been sort of left hanging out of the limelight recently; unfair given how accomplished are its attempts to be the perfect GT, not to mention a big step forwards over its predecessor.

Gear changes come courtesy of Jaguar’s 6-speed torque-converter autobox, with mode-select for the wheel mounted paddles coming from the ultra-trick rotary dial a la XF. Although these selectors feel a touch ‘plasticky’ for a 75-grand car, the clicking action is as smooth and tactile as anyone could ask for; imagine, let’s say, a video game controller designed by Apple. The standard automatic setting is as intuitive and smart as you could reasonably expect of such a system,  and although manually controlled shifts are obviously not DSG-quick, they are easily fast enough to please the pressing-on driver, yet not violent enough in normal modes to spill whatever it is that that an XKR owner would drink en-route to Cannes. I’d like to think it would be chocolate milk.

The car we tested was equipped with what Jaguar calls its ‘Speed and Black Pack’; a £4000 option that manages to transform the elegant coupe to something that, visually at least, looks every inch the track-refugee. Thankfully the slightly-brash optional graphics weren’t present on our test car, but with the de-chromed black detailing, chunky gloss wheels, huge red calipers and extra steroidal growths from what was already a muscular silhouette, this model certainly gets its message across. Is this ‘extra’ all talk and no substance though? Indeed not, as the Speed Pack also brings with it the benefit of a raised speed limiter that will allow 174mph to be reached (up from 155mph), and a re-profiled front splitter and rear spoiler, not to mention the addition of subtle skirts and a rear diffuser.

The handling and body control is perhaps the XKR’s real forte, enabling it to be threaded along narrow lanes in a way that defies its GT size; the suspension soaking up anything in its path. In fact the resultant ride is eerily smooth whilst quite eye-opening progress can be made, as little physical effort is required of the driver, the chassis never feeling out of its depth controlling 461lb-ft.

A refreshingly uncomplicated ‘Dynamic’ button firms up the damping nicely but without becoming crashy; it also sharpens up the throttle response and gearshift to give satisfyingly quick reactions. There was one occasion when we noticed a section of repeat stutter-bumps that seemed to upset the car slightly mid-bend, yet it was mostly noise intrusion from dampers working their little socks off through an exceptionally nasty strip of UK blacktop.

You certainly know about it when the full force of that blown V8 is unleashed though; there is a suppressed whine from upfront and, combined with the clever exhaust bypass valve, you get all the exhaust-based noises that any red-blooded driver could desire with an extra dose of vicious induction. In fact, much like when you see cars on the motorway with carrier bags stuck to the front, you get the feeling that this manically-sucking blower could do the same, except sat stationary in Tesco’s car park. Acceleration is hugely quick yet never violent, just comfortably allowing the Torque to gently pin you back against the leather; combined with the noise it is an intoxicating and addictive experience.

There are mild disappointments; the interior is undoubtedly a quality and luxurious place to reside, however I can’t help but feel ever so slightly underwhelmed. Some features such as the black ‘Suedecloth Premium Headlining’ and mood lighting are pleasingly opulent, yet the inside as a whole almost doesn’t quite seem as fitting as you’d expect for such a continent-crushing coupe. Apart from unexpectedly firm (but very comfortable) seats, the only initial hint as to the extra sporting pretence is in the form of the chosen ‘dark mesh aluminium’ trim that covers some interior surfaces; a finish and texture that seems a bit out of touch at this price level. Likewise some switchgear; although impeccably placed and efficient, they aren’t going to start wars between rival fingertips if they don’t get to fondle them.

Alas these are only minor quibbles, as there is plenty of equipment to keep you entertained; from the touch screen infotainment centre, to the ventilated cooled/heated front seats, 525W Bowers & Wilkins sound system, plus optional DAB radio and clever adaptive cruise control.

With a car like the XK, knowing confidently where it sits in the market is deceptive; both at a heart and head level. It is a perfect GT cruiser no doubt; but are the R’s performance additions ever going to allow it to nibble away at more track-bred rivals? The Speed/Black upgrade packs as fitted are intended to add an extra element to the car’s stats and visual clout, however when you see items like side graphics on the options sheet, you have to wonder if they are squaring up to road-racers like the 911 GT3.

With a product as accomplished as the XKR however, Jaguar don’t need to be chasing buyers of such cars. This is not a racecar for the road, so it should sit happily where it is as a shockingly fast, beautifully serene and hugely capable GT. Where these visual and Top Trump tweaks are likely to hit the spot though is by drawing in younger buyers, as age becomes inconsequential when looking for a car with such a broad spectrum of abilities; the previous generation XKR most likely having passed under the radar of such folks.

Besides, Jaguar have just released an XKR ‘75’ to deal with the GT3, leaving just Porsche’s recently released 911 GTS as a logical rival. No mention of the Aston Martin V8 Vantage then? No, because without driving the two cars back to back it is impossible to draw judgement, and even then it would most likely be down to personal taste. The XKR should tempt many a buyer from the elegant Aston though, regardless of the fact that it starts at around £12,000 less. That’s no mean feat, and should be award-worthy in itself.

James Winstanley

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