Cats worth herding

Kevin Hackett spends two days driving on Spain’s switchbacks with Jaguar’s game-changing F-Type

The 2014 Jaguar F-Type Coupé, a worthy successor to the E-Type and a sports car that trounces Porsche’s evergreen 911 with hardcore performance and devastating beauty, with curves in all the right places and cohesive design. Courtesy Jaguar
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Jaguar Land Rover’s group marketing director is a man called Phil Popham and, as you’d expect from the Don Draper of the British car industry, he’s always saying nice things about the cars his employer builds and sells. And here’s what he recently said about the new F-Type Coupé: “The F-Type Coupé provides its driver with a unique sports car experience. It combines seductive design with cutting-edge technology and performance which is truly breathtaking. Engaging, precise, intuitive and alive – it is the definitive sports coupé.”

Normally I can pick holes in this kind of stuff, sort the fact from the fiction and deliver a verdict that’s honest and, quite often, at odds with the spin from the marketing professionals who have a different agenda to that of a motoring hack. But Popham isn’t talking nonsense, he’s actually bang on. This car is utterly sensational in every way except one, but we’ll get to that later. Allow me, though, to say at the outset that Jaguar has thrown everything it has at this car, turned itself inside out in order to present to the world the very best of what it’s capable of. This car is the distillation of all of that company’s talents – right now it can’t do better than this.

It doesn’t need to.

Forget the facts and figures (impressive though they are) for a while. What the world has been waiting for is a sports car that trounces Porsche’s evergreen 911 and finally it’s here. Don’t take my word for it, though; take it from my co-driver for two full days of hard charging on road and track, one Phil McGovern. He’s a Porsche man, to a fault. He owns three – all of them air-cooled, because he’s old school like that – and he’s drives them hard. For him to utter the words: “The only thing that comes close to this is a GT3” when describing the cross-country thrash we’ve just enjoyed in the V8 R version is praise enough. It doesn’t get better than that in my book because the 911 GT3 has ranked higher than almost any car in living memory when it comes to driveability and sheer entertainment value from behind the wheel.

Nobody saw this coming. The convertible F-Type in its three differing guises impressed hugely this time last year, but the coupé moves the game on in a way I could never have imagined. The models were developed in tandem, but the decision was made by Jaguar to launch the convertible first, to appease its biggest market, theUnited States. And in the 12 months since the ragtop was launched, Jaguar has evidently been busy widening the gulf between it and the latest one. This is hardcore, proper performance wrapped in an aluminium shell that’s not only extremely light and stiff, but devastatingly beautiful to look at, too.

Sports cars are emotive purchases. You don’t buy one with your head, rather you see and hear something that grabs you inside and won’t let go even after it’s sat on your drive. But if you were to want a halfway house – something that makes logical sense and still provides heart-stopping excitement – you’d probably head for the Germans in the shapes of either the aforementioned 911 or Audi’s still fabulous R8. Even if the F-Type Coupé was a dog to drive, though, it would still sell because its form is utterly sublime, inside and out.

It’s one of those cars that looks way better in real life than in a photograph, where it can appear a bit short and stumpy, but the reality is that this Jaguar is an entirely worthy successor to the E-Type. All the right curves are in all the right places, there are short overhangs and muscular haunches. There’s a cohesion to the design that merits closer inspection, when you can drink in the entire thing, letting your eyes dance around its lithe form, seeing all the lines harmoniously join together and take in its perfect proportions. There’s no flab, no unneccesary addenda getting in the way of the visuals – it’s exactly how a sports car should look and proves that safety legislation need not result in ugliness (it’s usually a last-ditch excuse wheeled out by designers of unattractive cars).

Jaguar’s expertise with aluminium construction is world class, having been forming cars from the stuff for decades, initially just with the external bodies, but more recently extending that to the entire structure. This has allowed it to improve performance and economy while using ageing powerplants because the “for speed, add lightness” mantra of Lotus founder Colin Chapman actually works. The lighter the cars get, the faster they go and the less fuel they consume. And the F-Type, forgetting its sheer physical beauty for a moment, is nothing if not extremely fast.

On the launch event in Spain, two of the three models are available: the V6 S and the storming R, complete with a 550hp, 680Nm supercharged V8 that takes it to an electronically limited 300kph. I have no idea what the actual top end would be if a teenager was let loose on it with a laptop, but I don’t doubt it could bloody the nose of a 911 given enough space.

As with the convertible last year, I get to drive the V6 S first, and I’m reminded of what a sweet compromise this set-up is. It’s not ballistic, but it is fast enough for almost all situations and its lower kerb weight makes it a deft handler. When you stamp on the throttle, it emits one of the most enigmatic and raucous sounds this side of a Supermarine Spitfire, like firecrackers are being set off every time you come off the throttle. There’s a party going on in that central exhaust system and yes, you’re invited. Stamp on the gas and an angry wail takes over, all hard-edged and addictive – the result of some seriously hard work to liberate just the right kind of soundtrack. After half an hour behind its wheel, as was the case last year, I’m convinced this is THE ONE.

I mention this to Richard Agnew, Jaguar’s global communications manager, and he laughs. “Just wait till tomorrow, you’ll be eating those words. The gap between the R Coupé and the V8 S [convertible] is quite considerable – they feel like totally different cars.” I’ve heard these sorts of promises before, and the rain we’re experiencing on this first day is threatening to preclude testing out his statement unless there’s some respite and dry road surfaces by the time the sun comes up.

By the way, did you know that the XK has shuffled off this mortal coil? It’s as dead as a Monty Python parrot and, oddly, nobody at Jaguar is mourning its passing. But the company owes that model a huge deal because it was the first step in the right direction – the first modern Jaguar that brought beauty and proper desirability into a company that was on its knees creatively and financially. But it’s gone, not to be replaced by anything, and the F-Type Coupé was the hammer that drove the nails into its coffin. Even Jaguar’s people admit the rear seats of the XK were utterly useless apart from providing extra storage space for your shopping, so the lack of rear chairs in the F-Type is causing nobody any sleepless nights.

The XK, no matter what engine was put into it, was never a true sports car. It was an extremely fast, cossetting GT car but it was long in the tooth and there was something of a whiff of the golf club about it. It wasn’t dynamic or exciting enough to draw in the youngsters but the F-Type R is an entirely different beast.

What we have in this car is performance that’s truly electrifying. Immediately it feels more meaty than the V6, with heavier steering, and as I edge it out of town and point it in the direction of Spain’s N420 main road, my mind remains made up – the V6 S is the one to have. But then, when this spectacular road opens and I’m able to really get on the gas, all of that goes out the window.

It’s supercar fast, in another league altogether from the V6. Its soundtrack is different, deeper, more menacing and just as addictive, and it’s stiffer than either the six-cylinder models or its convertible brother. It feels and sounds utterly mental. Which, of course, means it’s utterly brilliant.

For five whole hours we fire this rocket ship up and down roads that previously only existed in my imagination. Every so often we stop, to swap seats and exchange thoughts, or simply to calm things down while the car’s brakes and quad exhausts tick and hiss away. We’re in agreement – while the V6 S is a wonderful machine, this R model is on another level entirely. Agnew was right.

What impresses, apart from the heavy rock soundtrack and the sheer pace of the thing, is the way it grips the road surfaces, inspiring huge levels of confidence. Turn-in is sharp and loading the car up pre-corner with a quick dab on the wonderful brakes reaps dividends with smooth and progressive oversteer, even with the electronic nannies keeping watch. Jaguar has dialed in just enough playfulness for you to feel like a driving genius when in reality there’s a bit of help going on. But you can tailor the car’s handling and engine responsiveness using extensive personalisation menus on the infotainment screen.

For hugely fast progress on these Spanish switchbacks, you don’t actually need it on hardcore track settings, either. On the contrary, it feels perfectly poised in its default normal mode and it’s never uncomfortable or jarring, no matter how you set it up.

The only thing that lets the car down is its hopelessly outdated and counter-intuitive satellite navigation system. Jaguar knows this, too, and it’ll soon be binned in favour of something far more in keeping with the rest of the F-Type.

Which, if you haven’t gathered by now, is an unmitigated triumph – a truly wondrous, beautiful and exciting British sports car that has declared war on Germany. Jaguar might be funded by Indian money but it’s the UK’s homegrown talent that has put this car together. This is what those boys and girls are capable of; this is the exam project; this is the result of soul searching, extreme hard work and the pursuit of perfection.

Jaguar, you have nailed it, well done.

khackett@thenational.ae