Jaguar back in the hunt with F-Type
The twisting, undulating, hillside road that has been hampering real progress for the past couple of hours has just opened up. I can see for miles and miles, and the Spanish valley it descends towards is indescribably beautiful. No sign of any police cars, no cameras, no other traffic; just a very, very long and straight highway with mountains to either side, so I let the Jaguar F-Type V8 S off its leash, liberating its 495hp and pummeling 625Nm of torque.
The effect is stunning. Supercar surge, not dissimilar to a Porsche 911 Turbo, propels this achingly beautiful car forward. The rear tyres lose purchase from the road surface when I put down the power, just for a split second, but it's enough to remind me that this is a proper handful of a car, especially when the tarmac is a bit greasy after a recent downpour. Once grip has returned, the car is slingshot in a straight line and the deep, bellowing V8 thump of a noise transforms into a shrieking wail. As the revs rise with each of its eight ratios, the noise just keeps on getting better, until the road runs out and through a village. The F-Type, however, is just getting into its stride. It's capable of more. Much more.
I have been waiting a long time for this moment, but the world has been waiting even longer. For half a century, in fact, Jaguar's millions of fans have been waiting for the company to introduce a worthy successor to the epoch-making E-Type - the car that made Jaguar a household name everywhere, offering impossibly good looks, electrifying performance and a price that made it attainable for owners other than the super rich. Is the new F-Type worthy of the moniker? On the basis of my past couple of days, I believe it is.
Nothing in the car world shocks anymore - not like the E-Type's unveiling. It was 1961 and, when the public and press alike saw it for the first time, everyone was speechless. It was, quite simply, the most glamorous and exciting road car anyone had ever seen, and it changed forever the motoring world, becoming a zeitgeist-defining piece of design that, in the eyes of many, will never be bettered.
Its evolution over the years sullied the E-Type's reputation, and its taut, sinewy shape became ruined by the stifling demands of legislators in Jaguar's (still) most important market: America. By the time the third generation came along in 1971, the E-Type was no longer a thrilling sports car; instead it had become a bloated grand tourer and, as unthinkable as it might seem now, Jaguar had reached a stage where it practically couldn't give the last ones away. When the awkward XJS superseded the E-Type, Jaguar's fate was sealed and it went on to build refined, cosseting GT models and rapid, sometimes woefully bad saloon cars.
It might be unfathomable that Jaguar has taken so long to bring us another, properly exciting sports car. But I'm glad it has, because the company is on a roll, with the right people in place and enough money to do the job properly. If the F-Type had come along even 10 years ago, it would probably have been a disaster. This, though, is definitely the right time and the right car.
Sports car sales represent less than one per cent of the global market, so the investment Jaguar has made with this model is unlikely to ever be repaid, no matter how many it sells. So why bother in the first place? Simply put, this is a halo model that shows the buying public that Jaguar is a vibrant, forward-looking company that, while proud of its distinguished history, has stopped trying to force old design cues down our throats. It will get people all over the world blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming and even talking about something great and something resolutely British.
No matter what you think of the F-Type's physical appearance, it only truly makes sense when you see it on the road. In brochures, on websites, or on the stands of the world's international motor shows, its complex shape seems to be done a disservice. It's colour sensitive and black alloy wheels look stupid on it, shrinking its proportions and making it look dumpy and Porsche Boxster-sized, when it's actually a full-sized car that wouldn't look out of place next to an Aston Martin DB9 or a 911.
See it in the right hues, fitted with 20-inch alloys and with its folding canvas roof retracted, you become fully aware of every crease in its complicated aluminium structure. Every line, every curve, every dip, nip and tuck, harmoniously joins to form a truly beautiful sculpture. Nods to the past are there, but they're subtle (such as the rear lamp clusters that hark back to the E-Type, as well as the sloping rear deck) and not clichéd. Ian Callum, Jaguar's design director, tends to get all the plaudits, but his incredibly talented team has done this, evidently excited to be able to give the world what it almost gave up hope of ever seeing: a full-on Jaguar sports car.
And it is full on. It's full on in a way that might seem familiar to owners of TVRs, although they wouldn't recognise the build quality of a modern Jag. The F-Type, while not exactly schizophrenic, is definitely a car to keep you on your toes, wary that you could stuff it into the Armco with an injudicious stab of its rather digital throttle, as a number of us almost did this morning, when leaving our Pamplona base. That supercharged V8 engine, which has been pressed into service across almost the entire Jaguar Land Rover range for a while now, is plenty powerful enough to get anyone into trouble, but in the F-Type it's definitely found its voice.
There's only one body style right now (a coupe is on the cards, complete with side-hinged rear door, à la E-Type) but there are three different engine options. The standard car comes with a supercharged V6, the S is the same but more potent, and there's the V8 S. While the V8 is the storming nutter of the range, the V6 units aren't exactly short of poke. Identifiable by a delightfully rude, centrally mounted dual pipe exhaust, the 3.0L V6 models might lose out to the eight-pot in terms of outright pace, but they do have their own, quite irresistible characters.
Yesterday was spent driving the standard car on roads in the morning, followed by an exhilarating track session at the Circuito de Navarra in the V6 S. Both models are exciting, but the S has the edge over its "normal" compatriot, inasmuch as it's just that bit sharper, that bit more powerful (380hp, as opposed to 340) and that bit more chuckable through the corners. It's playful and enormous fun, while the V8 would have been too much of a handful on the technical and challenging circuit for all but the most experienced track drivers.
The V6 models sound different, too. Their exhausts are crackling, whizzing, popping and banging aural pleasure makers, always noisy but never annoying. Hear one at full chat, tearing past you on an open road or through a tunnel, and you'll be heading straight for your nearest dealership with a fat deposit in your hands, such is the nape-tingling effect of the sound of a proper sports car.
Sports cars should have driver-focused cabins and the F-Type delivers on that front, too. No walnut veneer or chromed trinkets, just simple and effective instrumentation, torso-hugging seats and an actual gear shifter instead of the rotary controller that emerges from the centre console of other Jaguars. There's a panic handle on the passenger side of the cabin, too, which is a really nice touch. My only criticism, and I'm nitpicking here, is that the materials surrounding the main instrument binnacle appear a bit low rent compared with the rest of the car. But then I have to remind myself that this is, pure and simple, a sports car. It's just not important.
What is important is the way the F-Type is built. An all-aluminium structure, 50 per cent of the material used in the construction of its body shell is recycled, and Jaguar has used aerospace technology to bond and rivet the thing together. It's extraordinary to see a bare shell, where the intelligence of its design is entirely apparent, and forming this structure to allow the vision of the designers of its body to be brought to life was far from easy. New pressing techniques have been developed and even new metal compounds, all to allow that beautiful shape to become a reality.
It's stiff, like a sports car should be, but it isn't uncomfortable or unsuitable for covering long, cross-country distances. The V8 S feels more refined, more finely damped, thanks to its active suspension, while the V6 models feel like a modern E-Type, where the road's surface makes itself felt but still doesn't become tiresome. It can be a bit bouncy on some of these rural, less-than-perfect roads, but on the track and on the open highways, a V6 probably makes for a more rewarding, more visceral and, dare I say it, more sporting partner. The V6 S, for me at least, would be the pick of the bunch.
As it was in the 1960s, Jaguar's sports car is something of a bargain. Pricing hasn't been announced for our region just yet, but elsewhere it's pitched halfway between Porsche Boxster and 911 money. The V8 S is still less expensive than the cheapest 911, and that has to make it a worthy consideration when it comes to choosing your next sports car. It will hit 100kph from rest in 4.2 seconds and is electronically limited to 300kph but could no doubt easily breach that ceiling. It will accelerate from 80 to 120kph in just 2.5 seconds and leave you wanting for nothing except the opportunity to catch your breath.
Yes, the F-Type is a resounding success, a worthy successor to a classic in every sense of the word. See one, hear one and drive one, and you'll agree with me. When the coupe does appear in a year or so, I'll be struggling to resist the urge to put my own cash into one; it will be that good.
Better late than never? No, it's far better than that. Welcome back, Jaguar, you've been sorely missed.
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Published: May 3, 2013 04:00 AM