Jaguar's Super Sedan
Growing up in rural Kentucky, I was fortunate to have a father who fed me a diet of vintage European sports cars and antique American muscle. I experienced the thrill of a lightweight and nimble, albeit underpowered, sports car in his Porsche 914. At 16, getting the keys to a '69 El Camino made me laugh maniacally at what torque did to your stomach when standing on the gas. Reflecting on my time with the 2011 Jaguar XJ Supersport, I recalled an old article about the then-recently released Lotus Esprit SE. The British sports car went from 0-60 in 5.4 seconds and, as a certain 'Pretty Woman' put it, "it handles like it's on rails." Those stats told of very respectable, if not outright impressive, numbers for a late 80's sports car propelled by what today would be considered an anemic 215 hp turbocharged four cylinder engine. How could a car with so little power produce such phenomenal performance numbers? Lotus' founder, Colin Chapman, coined the philosophy of "adding lightness," which is to say that a car with adequate power and a properly sorted suspension could lay waste to heavier machines stuffed with larger motors - the automotive equivalent to Muhammad Ali's "Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." Reading that article and learning of Colin Chapman's mantra was the moment my first physics lesson took root: Power to weight ratio was the foundation on which all great thrill-seeking cars is based.
There are numerous high performance uber-sedans on today's roads, from Audi's S8 to the more popular Mercedes' AMG S63 and BMW's M5, which can trace their roots back decades to a wild-eyed uncle stuffed with a monster motor and all the other go-fast bits that made it the black sheep of the family (think 1977 Mercedes 450SEL 6.9). These older sedans were also significant because they hadn't experienced the bloat affecting today’s cars with the umpteen airbags, heated floor mats, and 40 acre sunroofs. Jaguar, known as a traditional marque with a history of performance coupes didn't really enter the super sedan-arms race until the late 90’s with their 'R' type variants, which often brought up the rear against ze' Germans in comparison tests. While the Jaguar XJ-R did a respectable job of playing sporty when not being compared to its European rivals, it was probably the car’s pre-historic styling that kept most prospective buyers in competitor's showrooms. Consider it ‘traditional’ in the British sense... but the car has looked almost the same since Frampton Came Alive. Even though it was an ‘R’ Series with increased performance, there was something about this proper British sedan that didn't quite seem at home bombing along backroads like its coupe siblings.
That has changed with the just released SuperSport, a top of the line model in the XJ series sporting 510 supercharged V8 horsepower wrapped in a thoroughly modern $113,000 package. Upon approach, it doesn't resemble anything from previous generations. It's more fluid. Softer. Sexier. Even menacing - words that probably weren't mentioned when discussing the flagship sedan from years' past. An associate initially wrote the car off stating that it looks ‘too much like an Audi' - not necessarily a bad thing considering the numerous design awards Audi has received lately (he eventually warmed to the car after spending a few minutes with it). Once your eyes move from the rather pronounced front end (blame European pedestrian standards for the tall vertical shnoz) to the side profile, the bright chrome surrounding the greenhouse resembles the cross section of an airplane's wing. From the front 3/4 view, this car looks like speed sitting still. Overall, I was impressed with the new design minus one small quirk - the blacked out C-Pillar which separates the rear window from the side glass. This oddity clashes with the chrome surround and produces distracting lines near the rear of the roof. Our Caviar Metallic cat did a great job of hiding this wart - just know that lighter colors certainly don't do the car any favors.
The interior is a shocking departure compared to ye olde Jag. Gone is the upright dash comprised of boring flat wood panels, impossibly small print on dimly-lit gauges and the infernal 'J-Gate' shifter that was anything but intuitive. Rather, you're greeted by a seriously fun cockpit textured with no less than three kinds of artisinal crafted leather. A mirror finished laser ebony veneer anchored in the doors gently arcs in front of the occupants like the bow of a vintage wooden racing boat. Attention to detail is the beat to which these designers march in order to create such harmony. Like all cars in this class, the key fob acts as a wireless transmitter allowing the car to function while still safely in your pocket. That is, if you don't mind having what feels like a D-Cell battery straining against your thigh - the thing is huge. Pressing the start button halfway down wakes the 11" wide virtual screen to display 'floating' 3D gauges - making you wonder if a PS3 was accidentally installed instead of a traditional instrument panel. Down to the right, a round knurled aluminum 'JaguarShift' lever rises to shake your hand as if saying, in it's finest British accent, "Welcome. Please prepare for something totally new." Hold on. I have 510 supercharged horsepower in a lightweight, aluminum bodied sports sedan? A car that is already garnering tons of praise from auto-journalists? If that gaming dashboard flashed 'Insert Coins' before indulging my need for speed, I'd have a canvas sack full of quarters sitting in the purple velvet lined glove box.
After spending a day around the streets of San Francisco testing the cars stoplight-to-stoplight prowess and reveling in the V8 baritone echoing off downtown office buildings, it was time to see if this cat had the agility to match it's muscle. As our crew headed to the twisty two-lane roads of Mount Tamalpais for photos, I couldn't help but think that maybe testing the handling prowess of two-plus ton car with sheer vertical drops on either side wasn't such a hot idea. But that thought flew out the window as I selected "Dynamic" mode once I exited the 101. The instrument panel turned a menacing shade of red as the seat belts cinched tight to signal that the car was getting serious about dancing with some curves. As I pressed further, the light steering made the car seemingly shrink around me; losing mass in the process and gaining surprising agility. My pace quickened a bit, flattening the corners due to some engineering magic in the suspension and without a single complaint from the tires. I hustled this beast through corners at speeds that would leave lesser cars wheels up in the weeds. This cat could hustle.
Colin Chapman came rushing to mind. How did they do it? How did Jaguar make a two plus ton car bend the laws of physics? It's not natural. Nimble little sports cars were supposed to handle like this, not 17 foot long land-yachts. I chose to eliminate more electronic nannies to see if it was the car or the electronics keeping the chassis composed through the corners. With the stability control turned off, Dynamic mode engaged and the 'JaguarShift' rotated to Sport, I snapped the left paddle down into first gear. With my left foot holding the brakes, I applied just enough throttle to wake the supercharger with a couple thousand revs. Releasing the brake and flooring the gas launched the car toward the horizon as if being shot from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Sixty mph arrived in a scant 4.6 seconds with the century mark passing less than six ticks later... Wow! I was not expecting to fall in love with this car the way I had with other British beauties - namely Lotus, Morgan and Bentley. Even though two of Lotus' bantamweight Elise's weigh as much as one Jaguar XJ Supersport, the big saloon feels just as light on its feet as the diminutive two seater and never gives the impression that it is fighting above its weight class. Take the fact that it costs a bit less than its contemporaries and one can see that there’s quite a bit to be enamored with from the fabled marque.
Compared to the sporting super sedans from the German manufacturers, this Jaguar has soul. Not that the others lack it, but the Jag possesses a warm and witty personality not to be found in the stiff-lipped Germans. They are all fast and exceptionally capable with each having their own drawbacks (rear seat leg/head room in the Jag. Infuriating secondary electronic controls in all cars of this segment). But the way the Jaguar's exhaust pops and backfires like an old WWII British Spitfire while coddling its occupants in an interior that would make a Bentley blush... I have to say that Jaguar has a prize fighter on their hands. An automotive Lennox Lewis - ready to enter the ring in a Savile Row suit to fight for the title against his European counterparts.