Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



2009 Jaguar XF Supercharged

By Justin Berkowitz

Last week, the Americans sold Jaguar to the Indians. After losing billions on the English marque, Ford finally unloaded their perennial loss maker on Tata Motors. Amidst varying reports on the Indian conglomerate’s plans for the brand, the new XF sedan continues to roll down the assembly line. We’ve already driven the base model of the car that is (for now) Tata’s greatest hope for immediate profit. Now we turn to the Supercharged model. Stateside, acquiring the XF Supercharged requires an extra ten grand (and the rest) above than the base car’s base price. Is it worth it?

Externally, all that separates the “entry level” XF from the Supercharged variant are wheel styles and a boot badge. According to Jag’s Senior Design Manager, that’s because “a customer is buying an XF, rather than an XF in a particular trim level.” (Tell that to the F&I guy.) No question: Jag missed a trick here. Losing the front grill mesh differentiations that once identified the faster (whinier?) cats may please the beancounters and stealth wealth fighter jockeys, but there’s money in them ‘thar body kits.

Anyway, I [still] think the XF’s front end is boring, while the profile and rear are really rather smart indeed.

The XF Supercharged’s cabin is, like the base XF, the finest interior in any mass-produced car built today. The materials put the mmm in sumptuous, and the fit and finish are fitter than Jill Wagner and more finished than the Mona Lisa. Jag's boffins packed-in loads of the trendy gadgets as standard, from touch screen iPod integration to non-SYNC voice command. In contrast to their German and Japanese competition, Jag’s taken great pains to hide the gizmology until summoned (“Jenkins? Be a good man and bring me my Twisted Sister CD”).

As with the two other [non-particular] Jaguar XF trims, there are only two options: a heated steering wheel and active cruise control. I wouldn’t buy either, because A) the climate control works B) the XF is still a Jag (why tempt the ghosts of Lord Lucas?) and C) the Jaguar XF Supercharged already has what you (as in I) really need: a supercharger.

Supercharger? What supercharger? Click the XF’s gimmicky (and yet geekily enjoyable) rotating gear knob into drive, gently ease the gas pedal rugwards and the XF’s Supercharged oozes into gear and proceeds at a suitably magisterial pace. The suspension coddles its inhabitants from real life rigors with brand-faithful grace. The moment curiosity gets the better of you, it’s instantly clear the XF Supercharged should be called the “Jaguar F=ma”.

For those unfamiliar with Newtonian physics, that means “Ah Jenkins. It looks as if we’re all about to die.” It must be said: 420hp is a lot of power. It’s enough shove to take the 4200 lbs. XF Supercharged from naught to sixty in five seconds flat. Thanks to 413 ft.-lbs. of twist, there is no effort to speak of; no progressive power build-up or loud exhaust note. The XF Supercharged’s V8 and seamless six-speed simply get on with the business of producing and delivering epic thrust, making a mockery of making a mockery of “lesser” engined sedans.

In fact, the Jaguar F=ma is the automotive equivalent of a young Roger Moore, arched eyebrow and all. Here we have a well-tailored $63k luxury sedan with an apparent predilection for timeless luxury and sedate brandy sniffing (a la Rolls Royce) with an engine that’s always ready, willing and able to get into some sort of no-holds-barred, fight-to-the-death brawl.

There’s no disappointment in handling either. You don’t feel like you’re carrying 2.1 tons of computer-controlled weight into the corners. Like the base XF, the supercharged model is Ali-light on its toes, whisking you around bends with enough neutral attitude and tarmac-clawing grip to satisfy all but the most suicidal driver. Again, the XF Supercharged’s suspension is remarkably un-Germanic in the process, despite 20-inch wheels.

Too many manufacturers think their higher-performance sedans have to imitate track cars, down to rock hard seats, tooth-chipping suspensions, a Cray wedged into the dashboard, carbon fiber and a bad-ass nasty demeanor. The XF Supercharged is another kind of car entirely. It’s a first-tier luxury sedan that just happens to have afterburners in the trunk.

With everything all-in, the Jaguar XF Supercharged undercuts its competitors’ prices. AND it’s better to look at, better to ride in and better to drive. Will it be a hit for Jaguar? Nope. Like the base XF, the Supercharged version lacks that final measure of visual flair and drama the brand’s American adherents demand. Strangely, the automaker’s designers didn’t roll-up their sleeves for this, the most sporting of Jags. Perhaps tastefully aggressive mods are on their way.

Meanwhile, with Jag’s Indian takeover adding fuel to the pyre, the XF Supercharged is destined for depreciation Hell– and used car Heaven.


2009 Jaguar XF

By Justin Berkowitz

Last month, U.S. Jag dealers sold just over a thousand new cars, despite cut-rate financing. While the entire U.S. car market is going South, Jaguar's stuffy image is sending the venerable marque Hades-wise in a supersonic hand basket. The new XF midrange sedan is supposed to reverse these declining fortunes by burying memories of the bulbous, fusty, pudenda-fronted S-Type (not to mention the execrable X-Type). I grabbed an XF fresh off the transporter to see if Jag’s lobbing snowballs in Hell.

Let’s get this out of the way: the new XF’s design is a pale shadow of the C-XF concept’s drop dead gorgeous sheetmetal. We’re talking supermodel versus neighborhood bartender. The XF’s front end is a particularly boring transmogrification; it's a little weird and the snout’s portal smacks of Volvo’s blandest. The central bonnet creases are a particularly classless affectation. In fact, you could say the XF is nothing more than a Volvo in a slutty dress.

The back end almost saves the day; it looks like an Aston Martin. It's fantastic. But Ian Callum gets no props for designing the same car over (DB9) and over (V8 Vantage) and over (Jag XK coupe) and over (XF sedan). If Jaguar was going to show a scintilla of individuality, well, they could have hidden the door handles in the B- and C-pillars.

As for the XF’s interior, we've all seen the boring press pictures included here. The company’s PR photographer should be fired for not doing justice to this four-wheeled shrine to automotive luxury.

The XF’s interior’s fit, finish and materials are the best I’ve ever seen in a production car, without exception. If you're the type of person that appreciates exquisite detailing of a fine watch, you can do nothing but marvel at the XF’s cabin. The wood trim in my optionless "Luxury" trim model could have been fashioned by a bespoke furniture maker. The matte finish is both unique and stunning.

The XF’s attention to detail dusts the usual standard bearer Audi. The vents rotate into view when you start the car up (royalty payment to Volkswagen’s ill-fated Phaeton?). They boast aluminum inserts to move their direction, with the word "Jaguar" elegantly stamped on their surface. We're talking about slivers of material the size of long grain rice. The same beautifully finished metal sits at the bottom of the cupholders. Every surface is sensuous to the touch. For once, a Jag/Ford product feels… finished.

Okay, so the exterior is lame, the interior is otherworldly. How does it drive? In a word: Yes. Yes as in the new XF drives as well as you'd hope any Jaguar would.

Jaguar wanted to build a luxury-sports car in keeping with its distinguished brand heritage– a tradition of which Larry the Law Firm Partner neither knows nor cares. What Larry does care about: beating the crap out of Bob’s Benz E350. And with this car, Larry’s good to go.

Jag’s 4.2 liter V8– a carry-over from the last generation S-Type– is the XF’s standard-fit powerplant. “But it only makes 300 horsepower! Lots of V6 engines do that!" Quit your bitching brand defilers, lest you taste the business end of my tassled loafers pushing you into an Acura RL. Even with "only" 300 horsepower underfoot, the entry-level XF accelerates from zero to sixty miles per hour in about six seconds. Besides, the Jaguar XF driving experience is fleet footed. The six speed auto is slicker than snot on a doorknob. The suspension feels buttoned down, with just enough feedback to keep it fun without being abusive.

There are downsides. While the XF is light on its toes, changing direction with confidence-inspiring predictability and hoon-compatible ease, it doesn’t have everlasting grip. Canst thou squeal like a porcine? The XF’s tires can. And the sport sedan’s steering is far too light for a car with genuine performance aspirations. But overall, driving the XF is like piloting a BMW without the e-Nanny hovering over your shoulder.

So much of this car is so right - the interior, the suspension, the engine and the transmission. Killer depreciation aside, the $50k asking price for a fully loaded V8 XF makes a mockery of the similarly-priced, stripped-out 535i. Unlike the Bimmer, Lexus or Audi equivalents, driving the XF makes you feel special.

It’s too bad that the mid-size Jag’s exterior went from a quaint retro curiosity to an OMG concept car to a quintessentially boring sedan. If Jag had found a way to keep the CX-F’s drama, they would have had a huge hit on their hands. As it stands now, all they have is a bit of time to kill before Ford sells Jaguar or, let’s face it, pulls the plug. Even as a swan song, the XF lacks the looks it needs to fly.


By Justin Berkowitz

Jaguar is a dead brand walking. Analysts blame stagnant styling for its sales somnambulism. To rectify the aesthetic deficit, the man behind the universally beloved Aston Martin range penned the universally beliked Jaguar XK (that looks like an Aston Martin) and the upcoming XF (that looks like a Volvo). While Jag fans hope the recently released XF will revive the brand’s fortunes, the model it replaces soldiers on for another year. I got cozy with the doomed 2008 4.2 liter V8 S-Type to see what no one– or everyone– seems to be missing.

We know where XF designer Ian Callum stands on the S-Type’s shape: “Our history is precious. We must learn from it but not copy it.” Callum is right about Xeroxing Jag’s heritage, but wrong about the S-Type. While the S-Type’s sheetmetal certainly evokes the same-named sedan of 1963, it’s a true original– especially after it “had some work done” back in '05. That's when Jag eliminated unnecessary frippery (e.g. the prominent door sills), toned-down stylistic excess (e.g. the hideous taillight cluster) and tightened the panel gaps. The streamlined result displays all the feline athleticism Jag fans expect and admire.

The S-Type's details now entrance, rather than annoy. The swan song 3.0 and 4.2 models get the supercharged S-Type R’s mesh oval grill, a delightful olde worlde sporty touch reminiscent of a wooden tennis racket. Jag's also blessed the lame duck lower level models with the R’s deeper, more aggressive front bumper and air dam. Taken as a whole, the cab-rearward S-Type may not be your cup of tea, but neither is it your father's Jag.

The original S-Type’s cabin was a mess. Suffice it to say, it shared its radio head unit with the Ford Explorer. The current interior’s touch screen sat knavery and sumptuous materials make commoners feel like the Colonel of the Reds and Blues. Supple leather in muted tones covers the console, adorns the thrones and envelops the lower half of the steering wheel. There’s enough polished satin mahogany trim to build a fashionable end table. Chrome rings more chrome. There are private jets with less luxurious surrounds.

The S-Type 4.2’s engine has taken some stick for its stable yard. “A V8 that stumps-up 300 horses?” nay-sayers scoff. “You get more power from an Infiniti/Lexus/Cadillac V6.” Indeed you do, but that’s like saying a Powerbar is suitable nutritional replacement for dinner at a Michelin three-star restaurant. Yes, the S-Type 4.2 could be quicker. But few other V8s offer such linear power delivery, such creamy smoothness, such woofly sub-wooferage under WOT. And though the S-Type's mill is a few steeds short of Mercedes' E550, the Jag’s 6.2 second zero to 60 time is brisk enough to out-pace more plebeian transport.

The S-Type's six-speed ZF auto is the same transmission that sits in Maserati’s Quattroporte Automatica. Which means nothing really, but why complain? The shifts are brisk and timely. Handling? Sitting on standard 18’s, the S-Type is balanced, predictable and jolly good fun. Although the S-Type's tyres cry Uncle early in the proceedings, electronic-intervention is minimal. Cane the old girl and you’ll be surprised to discover she’s game for laugh. You’ll chortle “I’m going sideways in a bloody Jaguar!” And you’re not even English. More importantly…

Back in ’03, Jag’s chassis engineers realized they’d let the side down in the grace department, and set about reclaiming their brand’s dynamic heritage. At the front, unequal length wishbones now minimise track and camber changes, while the sedan's forged aluminium upper A-frame incorporates two fluid-block bushes and an integral ball joint for added refinement. The upper control arm axis is also inclined, providing improved anti-dive characteristics under heavy braking. Or so I'm told.

I’ll say this about that: the outgoing S-Type offers the finest ride in its class. Potholes, broken pavement and other egregious surface imperfections are dismissed with brand-faithful imperious ease. The S-Type’s magic carpet ride renders the car a perfect long distance executive commuter (save for its 121mph top end) and a suitable Town Car [sic] for ladies who lunch. The well judged variable ratio rack and pinion system handles either chore with equal aplomb.

The S-Type had a good innings; the model lasted two years longer than its eponymous forebearer. It’s easy to see why it failed, and then failed again. The S-Type wasn’t quite right out of the gate, and the subsequent sheetmetal and dynamic upgrades received no marketing support. The model also punched above its weight; priced at $56k, the S-Type lacked the horsepower, cachet and residual values needed to take on its highly evolved German competition. Priced lower…

The new XF will carry over much of the S-Type’s brilliant mechanicals underneath its insipid sheetmetal. Soon, you'll only be able to acquire one of these fine S-Type as a pre-owned model– which is the only sensible way to buy one anyway. In fact, it's a sterling chance to score a blood good bargain. Goodnight dear S-Type. I, for one, shall miss you.


By Robert Farago

As far as I’m concerned, Jaguar died the day the suits killed the F-Type. Jag’s prototype Boxster beater had it all: sexy looks, the promise of phenomenal performance and a decent chance of hitting the right price point. But oh no, the American owned company decided to spend its time and money building… diesels. And a badge engineered Ford Mondeo called the X-Type. And estates— sorry, “sportwagons.” So, seven years later, I found myself behind the wheel of Jaguar’s perfect storm: a diesel X-Type Sportwagon. Or, as the Brits say, the dog’s breakfast.

To its credit (however inadvertent), the Sportwagon loses most of the inherent silliness of the X-Type sedan’s XJ mini-me design. While the Sportwagon offers precisely nothing in the way of aesthetic originality, the larger pallet makes it a more convincing faux XJ, a model whose sheetmetal offered virtually nothing in the way of originality over the previous XJ, whose design was a giant leap backwards from its squared-off predecessor. In other words, grandfather clock carrying Jaguar badge snobs need apply.

Despite an elegant tail design (stolen from the previous gen BMW 5-Series wagon) and enormous rear taillights (pilfered from a school bus), the Sportwagon wants the world to think it’s a, um, sport wagon. Our UK-spec tester made a bit more of an effort to project performance than its American counterpart. And I do mean a bit: blacked-out window chrome and [optional] mucho macho Proteus 18” wheels flaunting gold brake calipers. Compared to the gold standard in this niche, Audi’s S and RS Avants, the XTSW looks like a small station wagon wearing oversized running shoes.

At least it’s a small station wagon. With the rear seats folded down, antique dealers and their empty nest clients will be well pleased with the Jag’s class-leading cargo hole, complete with large, properly positioned tie-down rings. With the rear seats in place, schleppers must pack their gear to the rafters. Unfortunately, without a cargo net, passengers risk death by Tumi. In compensation, Jaguar provides a Styrofoam-lined underfloor hole with a 12-volt power point– perfect for hiding your recharging laptop from nosey Narcs.

Forget utility. Our tester’s Sport Premium interior just wasn’t going to let the performance theme die a dignified death. The dash was afflicted with a carbon fiber veneer, a material that belongs in a Jaguar station wagon like Spandex shorts belong on an English footman. The Sportwagon’s thick, leather wrapped steering wheel, highly bolstered seats and six-speed gearbox underlined the model’s accelerative intent. The silver-rimmed white-on-black gauges are elegant in a Darth Vader kinda way, but they lack the large print legibility Jaguar’s target demographic requires.

Before we evaluate the Sportwagon’s sportiness, it’s important to note that Jaguar fits the US version with ye olde 3.0-liter Duratec V6, four wheel-drive and a price tag knocking on 40 large. Our English sacrilege special came with a 2.2-liter diesel, front wheel-drive and a $50k sticker.

OK, fire-up the oil burning Sportwagon. The ensuing clatter sounds like a Manhattan deli dishwasher heard through airplane earplugs. Never mind the noise, feel the G’s! Actually, the first G is “Gee, when is this thing going to get going?” The second is “Gee, why would anyone put this much torque into a front wheel-drive car?” But the third G stands for genuine grunt. Don’t be fooled by the Sportwagon’s distinctly unsportsmanlike 9.3 second zero to sixty sprint. At 2000rpm, the Sportwagon surges with genuine conviction. You’re all done at 4000rpm, but it’s a hoot while it lasts.

In terms of handling, the Sportwagon suffers from a bad case of luxosport bi-polar disorder. The power-assisted steering works wonderfully around town, but makes at speed positioning and mid-course corrections a distinctly dodgy business. The brakes feel pliable in the ‘burbs, seriously squidgy anywhere else. If you somehow master the art of speeding and nothingness, you face yet another dynamic challenge: the Sportwagon’s six speed box is as rubbery as Jim Carrey’s malleable mug.

But abyssmal ride quality is this car’s greatest sin. If the Sportwagon displayed sufficient grace over rough surfaces, you could simply dismiss its sporting pretensions as a bit of harmless, largely theoretical fun, kick back, savor the mileage and cruise. But the Sportwagon’s engineers were determined to make this beast stay flat and level in the corners—which it bloody well does— no matter how poor the resulting ride. Wrong answer.

Yes, well, God knows there’ve been a lot of those over at Jaguar since Ford assumed control of the storied English automaker. The diesel Jaguar Sportwagon embodies all the brand’s failed attempts at snatching some of BMW’s success (even the name sounds like a German translation). Hello? Jaguar didn't make its bones building ultimate driving machines. They [poorly] crafted saloons and sports cars with pace and grace. Unless Jaguar returns to their founding formula, laughable distractions like the Sportwagon will be their undoing.


By Jay Shoemaker

Let’s get this out of the way: the Jaguar XK8 is a grill-challenged automobile. It's as if Ford sent all their leftover Taurus grills to the UK and then leaned on Jaguar engineers to find them a home. Or maybe the XK8’s grill was intended as a comeuppance; a punishment to the brand’s designers for daring to create a “new” car that borrows so heavily from their up-market British cousin’s two-door. Or maybe the wide mouth bass grill is all about brand differentiation; a stylistic non-flourish designed to ensure that no potential buyer confuses the Jaguar XK8 and the Aston Martin DB9. Now if someone had grafted the front end of a BMW 650i to the XK, we might have had something…

Once you get past the pedestrian (and pedestrian friendly) snout, the XK8’s design is pretty damn likeable, in a group consensus sort of way. Despite the failure of the aluminum XJ to ignite the sales chart, Jag was right to stick with the basic shape and proportions of their “gorgeous” XK. The front wing “power vents” add a welcome touch of aggression. My only real gripe is the Jag’s small windows-tall haunches motif. Do people really enjoy driving around in a bathtub? The resulting visibility is on a par for the sporty coupe genre: limited and occasionally dangerous.

Strangely, Jaguar’s $75k coupe doesn’t come with a sunroof. The omission reflects either its native country’s inclement weather or the brand’s lack of marketing savvy. The hatchback is a nice touch– that could put off buyers who find the feature either downscale or eccentric (BMW’s last Z coupe being the best/worst example of this odd breed). In any case, the vast majority of American XK buyers go topless. Too right, mate. The convertible is both sexier and more practical than the coupe. The rag top is one of those modern, multiple layer canvasses that keep out most of the road and wind noise, giving vitamin D seekers the best of both worlds.

The XK8’s interior also offers a choice. Traditionalists can opt for the demure burnished walnut or poplar wood inserts. Aluminum accents are available for modernists– or is that masochists? (Have you ever touched aluminum trim left out in a bright summer sun?) The XK8 has all of the must-have luxury car gizmos– keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, touch screen navigation, satellite radio, MP3, radar-guided cruise control. Tooling-up your roadster ain’t cheap; the appropriate options packages are a premium on top of a premium-priced car. At least you get some genuine gee whizzery: a dual-zone climate control system that can be programmed to send de-humidified air to the front windscreen.

The big story about this next gen XK8: aluminum. Jaguar clearly understands that weight is the enemy of fun, or maybe they just don’t have the antigravity technology used by the Germans in their 4,455 pound sport-licht cars. Sitting on an aluminum monocoque (as opposed to Audi’s aluminum space frame and body panels), the big British two-door weighs-in a relatively sprightly 3,671 pounds. Fuel economy is the most significant benefit, rather than the outright performance. While six seconds to 60 is plenty damn quick for Jag’s core clientele, it’s not enough to lure adrenalin-loving pistonheads. That said, the 27 mpg highway rating (for either coupe or convertible) is top of the class, and the forthcoming XKR variant will no doubt ratchet-up the performance ante.

The XK8’s all-important handling presents a peculiar combination of traits: soft turn in and appropriately plush responses to uneven surfaces, combined with an extremely stiff chassis. It is very likeable at first, particularly coming from an ultimate punishing machine. But after few hard corners, the ride motions begin to feel distinctly nautical. Initial application of the brakes is also soft, but their capabilities are beyond reproach. I have the strong sense that this car was designed with the older driver in mind, but the engineers wanted to make sure the performance was still there if the codgers wanted to dig for it. The result is neither fish nor foul.

The XK8 is a giant leap forward for Jaguar and undoubtedly the best all-round vehicle in the current Ford family. It boasts an excellent design, more-than-merely-adequate performance, terrific comfort, excellent practicality and a high gizmo count. It handles well, goes well, stops magnificently and flounces along with ease. So why does the XK8 feel like a watered-down coddling GT? Because it is a watered-down coddling GT. For some reason, Jaguar has decided to become the Lexus of English automobiles. Granted, if you liked your last XK8, you will love this one. But if your driving tastes lean more towards the Porsche end of the spectrum, or if you think a Jaguar “sports car” should have a bit of E-Type aggression in its DNA, don’t bother.


By Robert Farago

The Jaguar XJR is an iconic car. No wait. I mean, it's an ironic car: an automobile with a huge gap between expectation and reality. For example, you expect a leather-lined British luxury sedan to literally reek of class. The XJR smells of… nothing. You expect the torch bearer for Jaguar's performance heritage to handle corners with cat-like reflexes. It doesn't. And yet, the XJR perfectly embodies the Jaguar creed of "pace and grace". Truth be told, the XJR is both more and less than it seems.

On the more side, the XJR will pleasantly disappoint anyone expecting dodgy electrics, rusting panels and faulty mechanicals. While JD Power's Initial Quality Survey is more about customer satisfaction than build quality, the brand's ascension to the second place slot is a reasonable reflection of the XJR's reliability. No part of the sports sedan seemed predisposed to rot, break, fall off or fail. It's a thoroughly modern machine.

Also on the more side, the XJR is one Hell of a quick car. Give those 390 supercharged horses a prod and the XJR charges down a straight with monumental rapidity– and keeps on going. While there are a few cars of this bulk that can muster a sub-five second sprint to 60, not many offer the XJR's tremendous in-gear shove. With 399ft.-lbs. of torque at 3500rpm, you can morph from double to triple digits with neck-snapping ease. The supercharger whines like a detuned strimmer, but the sound soon forms a neurological pathway to your adrenal glands.

The British luxofighter rides on the company's thoughtfully-named CATS (Computer Active Technology Suspension). The system continuously adjusts the XJR's shock absorbers to match the vehicle's speed and the prevailing road conditions. The car still floats like a butterfly and stings like a butterfly. If only Jaguar's chassis gurus had attached the suspension computer to the gear-holding Sport button, to firm things up by 20% or so. Sadly, surprisingly, Jag's top cat is a comfort-biased machine that's easily flustered by a combination of broken surfaces and lateral G's.

If comfort it is, then comfort it is. Considering the amount of leg and head room in the outgoing XJR (somewhere between slim and none) the new [for-'03] model's generous accommodations are a real bonus. The XJR still feels a bit snug compared to, say, all of the competition, but the extra interior volume adds mightily to the fast Jag's sense of occasion. There's something marvelously decadent about going like stink in an elegantly-tailored, loose-fitting car.

Yes, well, the XJR is also loose-fitting in areas where it should be tight. In fact, a close examination of the XJR reveals a startling lack of attention to detail– especially for a car that costs $83k. You can fit an entire magazine into the panel gaps on either side of the hood. The plastic covering the radiator is both poor and poorly attached. Ditto the carpet lining the trunk lid. The carpets underfoot are a sad (if hard-wearing) departure from the plush Wilton fabric of days gone by. The felt-like material lining the roof and surrounding the cupholders, and the plastic topping the dash, also err on the side of the industrial.

I could go on. So I will. The texture and design of the key (a part nicked from the Euro-spec Ford Mondeo) is so down market that handing it to a parking valet feels like an act of betrayal. Though intuitive, the touch-screen display is more dated than Colin Farrell. The gauges are po-faced. The driver's door won't open without a fight. Etc.

To be fair, for every sybaritic distraction, there's an equal and opposite delight. The stereo is magnificent. The seats are supportive during press-on driving, yet mileage friendly for the long haul. The headlights are brighter than an Oxford scholar. And so on. But we are talking about a car that costs some $10k more than a fully-loaded, anally retentive Lexus LS, or the same as the equally rapid, immaculately constructed Mercedes E55 AMG Station Wagon. Not to put too fine a point on it, you'd be perfectly within your rights to expect more from Jag's finest.

I guess buyers put up with the XJR's English "eccentricities" because of the car's cachet. There's no denying that she's a stunner, blessed with a curvaceous design that easily lives up to Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons' unassailable artistic legacy. Although I am so not an anglophile, I know there are plenty of pistonheads prepared to pay a premium for English snob value. So the question for potential XJR-lovers comes down to this: are you willing to forgo perfection for supersonic speed and aristocratic bearing? If so, think of the XJR's irony as nothing more than an arched eyebrow on the face of a beautiful woman. Hold on, isn't that a metaphor?


By Robert Farago

The Jaguar XK8 is a classic. Six years after its debut, the design is still fresh, bold and dramatic. It's one of those cars that somehow looks fast standing still. Okay, viewed from the side, the boot is about two feet too long- thanks to US regulations requiring all expensive cars to accommodate two golf bags. Even so, the Jag rules. Freshened Porsches, Mercs, Beemers and Lexi still can't compete with the XK's svelte aggression. Slinking into the club's parking lot, the Jag proclaims, 'Look out boys, this cat has claws!'

Except it doesn't. Yes, the XK is fast. The standard 4.0 litre car zooms from zero to sixty in 6.6 seconds. The supercharged XKR makes the same dash in 5.1. But anyone who loves life (or hates insurance forms) shouldn't try to carry that speed into a corner. The heavyweight XK8 is a cleverly disguised boulevard cruiser. Ask it to change directions quickly and, well, hippo-type wallowing ensues. It doesn't matter if you try to counter the XK's 'hard-a-starboard' body roll with brakes, acceleration, opposite lock or prayer. Bad things happen. Owners quickly learn to restrict their fun to straight-line blasts or slow motion posing.

In some ways, the XKR is worse. Although it has more power, wider tires, stiffer suspension and slightly better brakes, it lacks the XK's early warning system. A standard car lets you know you're dicing with the limits of adhesion and chassis control before you crap out. The XKR gives you little advance notice of impending chaos, and no quarter when it arrives. It's Blitzkrieg motoring: one second all's right with the world, the next you're upside down in a ditch with the Germans laughing at you.

Luckily for enthusiasts everywhere, a small tuning company called Paramount can give the XK the sporting performance it deserves. And I do mean small; Paramount is to small what Ford is to big. We're talking one mechanic stashed away in the back of the owner's commercial plant nursery, working on one car at a time. Simon Dyer, Paramount's Sales Manager, claims his company breathes its magic on some 150 XKs a year. Maybe. One thing is for sure: a 'normal' XK would take one look at a Paramount XKR 450 Grand Prix and say, 'That's what I want to be when I grow up!'

Hunkering down on lowered suspension, sporting 19' shoes, breathing through a grey mesh grille set in an all-business carbon fibre fairing, Paramount's silver demonstrator bristles with serious intent. The engine provides a suitable soundtrack for the visual assault. A 'normal' XK or XKR sounds like an ant farting in the next room. The Grand Prix is equipped with Paramount's patented 'Tiger Cat' exhaust system. When Simon fired it up, the damn thing growled at me. Given my previous experience, barely catching a tail-happy XKR on a long sweeping bend, I couldn't decide if the newly vocal V8 was issuing a warning or a promise.

Simon took the wheel first. Ignoring hand-drawn signs warning visitors to amble by the greenhouses, Simon left base camp in a Sweeney style spray of gravel. When gravel turned into tarmac, he floored it. The exhaust howled. The supercharger whined. The tyres gripped. We surfed on an endless wave of torque, heading straight for triple digits - and a speed bump. Full anchors yanked us back to a crawl in a bit less than four seconds. It's hard to imagine a salesman from an authorised Jaguar dealer performing that particular party trick. Of course, he wouldn't have the wheels for the job…

We joined the M40 and loped along just under the ton. As I settled into the reworked cabin, I was more than a little put-off by my surroundings. Paramount had replaced all the car's wooden panels with carbon fibre, killing the XK's 'gentlemen's club' serenity. Combined with black leather, the effect was both tasteless and claustrophobic. Paramount's craftsmen would have been far better employed finding a sporting alternative to the standard car's ugly and unsupportive seats.

Simon sang the praises of the basic XK: build quality, reliability and ergonomics. He rattled off the modified car's technical specifications: AP racing brakes and callipers (£3,300), upgraded springs and shocks (£2,800), switchable steering weight (£500), improved air induction system (£370), revised engine management control (£455), etc. Meanwhile, I wondered why Paramount's chief test pilot was demonstrating a sports car on a four-lane motorway.

Ignoring my hints that there's no substitute for personal experience ('My turn! My turn!'), Simon explained that Paramount sends most of its performance parts to the US for dealer fitting. The hairy-chested stuff, like the 450bhp engine upgrade (£6,300), must be installed by Paramount. Guiding him back onto my track I agreed: 'Okay, that's the 'what', Now show me the 'why'.'

We finally made the switch at a lay-by. When I pushed the drilled aluminium accelerator into the black carpet, the car's automatic gearbox was as confused as a sherry-addled pensioner. The box changed down, then down some more, then up a bit, then gave up and stuck us back in top gear. Simon switched on the Grand Prix' sequential gearbox. Unlike the Alfa or Porsche systems, Paramount's wheel-mounted buttons delivered swift, crisp changes, both up and down the ratios. As long as you forget about first gear (the car will pull from standstill in second without a grumble), it's the path to predictable power.

As we crossed the Thames, I recognized one of my favourite hill climbs. Finally, the big cat could stretch her legs. My XKR phobia receded with each corner. Paramount's mods had transformed a squidgy luxury car into a true sports car. Its road manners were impeccable: no body roll, astounding grip and a thoroughly composed and communicative chassis. The Grand Prix just went where she was pointed. Switch off the traction and stability controls, and she still went where she was pointed. Late braking, hard cornering and savage stabs at the go pedal had little effect on the car's poise.

Personally, I told Simon, I think I'd prefer a modified XK, rather than an XKR. I just can't get on with the supercharger's incessant whine. I'd gladly sacrifice 140 horsepower to hear the full glory of an unadulterated V8. Simon says: 'go faster!'

Armed with an assurance that the Jag's portly backside would eventually slide in a predictable and controllable way, I pressed on. Nothing. At speeds that would have thrown a normal XKR at a tree, the Paramount car just got on with the business of cornering. Maybe I could put up with that whine after all. With a more skilled hand at the helm, the 450 Grand Prix would give many an Italian supercar a decent run for its money.

Fans of the legendary Jaguar marque will sit up and take notice at that statement. A Jag that can take on Italian exotics, and still cosset the driver in traditional British luxury? After driving Paramount's XKR, one wonders why Jaguar hasn't heard the news. Surely, Ford's Premium Automotive Group must realise that a 'sporting' XK would find a whole new, non-golfing audience. Besides, why should they leave it to an obscure specialist outfit to show the world that Jaguar's sporting heritage hasn't been lost in Luxury Land?

Simon Dyer suggests Ford may not want Jaguars to outperform their toweringly expensive cousins over at Aston Martin. Or perhaps the marketing boys are holding fire until they can unveil their Boxster-bashing F-type. I suppose it's a question of priorities. Jaguar covets the golf-club set, and thinks the best XK for them is a laid-back cruiser. A small percentage of XK owners disagree. They've decided that classic looks and a smooth ride are crucial, but high performance is Paramount.