Wheels: Second Effort

<< Back to Robb Report, July 2002
  • Paul Dean

Jaguar’s S-Type hasn’t exactly crumbled the competition, nor has it become lodged among our longings. To be fair, since its 1999 introduction this more-or-less midsize sedan, with a ready-made heritage borrowed from the ovoid-grilled S-Types of the 1960s, has doubled Jaguar’s sales in the United States. But that’s only an addition of 70,000 cars over three years, considerably fewer than the domestic purchases of similarly sized, modestly priced, and equally performing luxury sedans from Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Lexus. Globally, S-Type sales are so far below original projections that senior executives at Jaguar insist that they have given up making projections.

Mike O’Driscoll, president of Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover North America, all now controlled by Ford, senses that a styling subtlety works against the car. It has to do, he says, with gentle lines and soft aesthetics that show well in bright light but somehow fade to dull in gloomier climes. Phil Hodgkinson, chief engineer of the S-Type program, is more prosaic. As global gas prices rose in the 1990s, he states, car buyers were drawn toward smaller cars of undernourished horsepower and away from the 3.0-liter V-6 engines and 4.0-liter V-8s that were in the S-Types.

The public, however, seemed concerned more with comfort, performance, and image than looks and pump prices. They found rear-seat room in the S-Type to be a serious squeeze. The transmission was inclined to snap and grab. Because of the international embracing of commonality—cost reductions through components shared among brands—a noticeable portion of Jaguarness (a term conceived several years ago by former Jaguar chief Mike Dale) was left on the assembly line floor through excessive parts-swapping with the unremarkable Lincoln LS. The consensus: The S-Type is a pleasant enough car, mate, but not an outstanding British sports saloon and barely a sanguine Jaguar.

Now comes the birth of the second-generation S-Type. Although little can be done to improve the chameleon styling of the car, and the uncomfortable question of rear-seat space will have to wait for the inevitable model overhaul a few years hence, Ford-Jaguar, bless ’em, have created a powerful, smooth, innovative series of high-performance luxury sedans that just might be the S-Types they in-tended to build in the first place.

The first cub in the 2003 S-Type lineup, the 3.0-liter, 240-hp V-6 version, is the $43,000 entry-level membership in the Jaguar club. Though it could use some light mechanical tinkering and internal tweaking, that model does come with a new transmission worth adoring: a ZF 6-speed automatic (also used in BMW’s new 7 Series) with manual mode built into Jaguar’s somewhat geriatric J-shift gate. The 6-speed automatic is optional to the standard 5-speed manual but should be mandatory for drivers who like their shifting-by-wire to be split-second, seamless, and gloriously responsive in either normal or sport settings. The ZF 6-speed comes as a $1,400 option on the $50,000 V-8 S-Type, now enhanced to 4.2 liters and delivering 300 hp, and it is the only transmission offered with the new and highly impressive $63,000 S-Type R, which is guaranteed to besot all who hear its whining thunder and taste its supercharged pace.

The S-Type R is a 400-hp explosion, the most powerful sedan in the vaunted 67-year history of Jaguar. It is to the company what the M5 is to BMW, the S6 is to Audi, and the E55 is to Mercedes. That is to say, within each of these auto companies lurks a division capable of taking a perfectly good but definitely suburban four-door and stuffing it with the wizardry of lightening, resetting, oversizing, supercharging, turbocharging, and industrial-strength safety and engine management systems until the vehicle is morphed into a racecar that looks like a street car—except, of course, for such subtle visuals as fiercer alloy wheels, blacked-out chrome trim, a rear spoiler, and a lower suspension set that whispers of mighty speed and supernatural handling.

Such are the personality and properties of the S-Type R that it completely overshadowed its stablemates at Jaguar’s recent reintroduction of the three-car series at S’Agaro, in the Catalan corner of Spain where Miró, Dali, and Picasso used to hang out. If the launch site wasn’t a deliberate attempt to relate the car to immortal artistry, it was most certainly a happy coincidence. For although Jaguar has not gutted nor reshaped the S-Type, it has worked countless small touches that add much quiet refinement to the machine—especially to the R.

Enough space exists between the five spokes of the R’s 18-inch alloy wheels to see the huge potential of the Brembo brake discs and calipers. The grille is mesh, and the absence of chrome accents adds to the appearance of serious purpose. A scarlet R logo on the rear is all the more visible because it is so discreet.

As with its siblings, the R has been given a new dashboard and center console, all leather covered, with green lighting for the instruments. The obligatory bird’s-eye maple stretches across the dash and flows onto the doors. It is understated and quite elegant, and within such quiet luxury it is easy to ignore whatever noise and unhappiness lurk beyond the windows.

A button has replaced the parking brake, once set on the driver’s right between the console and his leg. Press, and the brake is engaged. Shift out of park, and it disengages.

The R’s list of standard equipment is long and compelling: satellite navigation, an Alpine sound system, a plump steering wheel for that F/1 feel, electrically adjustable foot pedals linked to the car’s memory system, Dynamic Stability Control to prevent the car from going sideways, automatic suspension damping to soften places where road crews haven’t caught up with potholes, and 16-way adjustable seats for the driver and front-seat passenger.

All of these, however, are rendered insignificant by the car’s strongest appeal: the staggering performance from the powerplant of a 5,000-pound car that—finally—has enough mettle to pull away from the Es, 5s, 6s, and GSs from Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Lexus. Now the pack has to chase the Jaguar’s zero-to-60 time of a whisker above 5 seconds. The R is electronically limited to 155 mph, but because it drives so flat and so stable at that speed it is tempting to rip the damned governor out.

Yes, there’s a little wind and road noise. The seats are shy of lateral support in a vehicle that actually builds g forces. In manual mode, shifting is precise and holds well, but we would still like to see a dashboard reminder of what gear we’re in. Despite these flaws, the R is without doubt the best-handling Jaguar ever, precise to point and unflappable even if the steering is abused side to side on alpine roads. With the electronic safeguards switched off while diving deep into a tight turn, it is still difficult to coax any noise from its broad tires (8 inches up front, 9.5 inches in back). And that Eaton supercharger produces a whine reminiscent of the pitch of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines in Spitfires and P51 Mustangs.

“There is something about vehicles—whether they be motorcycles, cars, or trucks—which introduces a sense of excitement that does not exist in any other product,” said the late William Lyons, the devoted and knighted former head of Jaguar. “I believe that is because we are producing something which, if not alive, is the closest thing to it.”

That certainly applies to Jaguar’s 2003 S-Type R.

That obviously is Jaguarness.

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