While Jaguar readies a slate of new vehicles to broaden its product portfolio, it's doing a Bentley-esque job of making the most of the vehicles it currently has. If there's any surprise in the XK getting more new outfits than a Ken doll, it's that we didn't realize there was so much that could be done with it.
Donning its latest new costume, the XK is transformed – via the XKR – into the XKR-S. The fastest and most powerful U.S. legal road car Jaguar has ever made, the brief was to create a coupe that could be hellacious around a track yet remain gracious around town. Our question was whether the XK's six-year-old underpinnings could carry that kind of load, or whether the platform is approaching a point at which cracks would begin to show? It was to the bright white daylight of Portugal for the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve and the roads around Portimao and Faro that we went for our answer...
A word of clarification: This is actually the second go-round for the XKR-S; in 2008 a Europe-only XKR-S was introduced with 410 horsepower, limited to a run of 200. At the time it was touted as "the fastest production XK to date, [delivering] a combination of high speed performance, dynamic excellence and crafted luxury that is unique to Jaguar." It went from naught-to-sixty in 4.9 seconds, had a top speed of 174 miles per hour, had an active exhaust, quiet styling tweaks, and its go-fast manners tamed by Jaguar's CATS – Computer Active Technology Suspension.
Sharing that template, this XKR-S heads down that same road but goes quite a bit further. And faster, and louder, and... umm... aggressive-r.
You needed to know what to look for to pick out that first XKR-S from its stablemates, just like you need to have an eye for knowing the current XKR from the XK. Not so at all with the 2011 XKR-S – there will be no confusion about it, which is down to more than just its paint (this is the only car that The Leaping Cat offers in French Racing Blue).
While we admit that the exterior design can come off as a tad over-the-top from a few angles in photos, in person, it's of-a-piece. The larger grille opening sits above a lower nacelle that's supported by a carbon fiber splitter, and outboard, two intakes channel air down the sides of the car past wider sills than on the XKR. At the rear is a new apron, topped by a separate wing with a carbon fiber center section. If you're keeping tabs, this marks the first time the XK's decklid has been fitted with a separate aerodynamic device. The entire car is lowered by 10 millimeters compared to the XK, and while its coefficient of drag is .35 – a point higher than the XKR Coupe – aero lift is reduced by 33 percent in front and 14 percent in the rear for a total reduction of 26 percent overall.
No matter which of the five available body colors you select, exterior trim will be finished in gloss black, a tone rather close to that of the 20-inch Vulcan wheels at each corner. Forged, lightweight alloys, the Vulcans and the Pirelli P Zeroes shed a combined ten pounds of unsprung mass versus their XKR counterparts, even though they're an inch larger, a half-inch wider in front (nine inches), and an inch wider in back (10.5 inches). Behind them, the Jaguar High Performance Braking System wears Jaguar-branded monobloc calipers that clamp down on huge, vented discs.
Inside, the XKR-S doesn't shock, bearing the updated 2012 XK interior with its new steering wheel, gloss-black center console and ebony soft-feel paint on the switches. The dash of whipped cream and the cherry are the winged sport seats that are are all-day comfy, with memory, heating and 16 adjustments that include trimmable bolsters to grip backsides of all sizes. The XKR-S will also be the sole trim in the range to offer a Dark Linear Aluminum finish instead of wood veneers.
Under the skin, the revisions are thorough and numerous enough to qualify as profound, but come primarily in the third evolution of the all-aluminum, 5.0-liter AJ-V8. Aided by a twin-vortex Roots-type supercharger buried in the vee and two intercoolers, revised fuel mapping and spark plugs and an increased compression ratio, it churns out 550 horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque. That's eight more horsepower and 36 more pound-feet than put out by the Tom-Walkinshaw developed 3.6-liter, twin-turbo V6 the XJ220 from 1992. It also gives the XKR-S a top speed of 300 kilometers per hour – 186 mph – which is a nice club to be in if your bar braggadocio is conducted in European units. Better yet, even though peak hp doesn't clock in until 6,500 rpm, nearly all of the torque and more than 50 percent of the horsepower is served up from 2,500 rpm, and all of the torque is online by 3,500 rpm.
The Jag's active exhaust also contributes to the horsepower bump, the crossflow pipes bisected by an 'X' in their center section reducing back pressure and, when the pneumatic valves open, providing a roar that wouldn't be out of place on a Swaziland savanna.
The transmission continues as a six-speed unit with a torque converter, but it has also been upgraded with items like new damper springs and soldered turbine plates.
Skipping to the bottom line reveals a coupe that has more a lot more going on than the 510-hp XKR but weighs the same 3,865 pounds, enabling it to make the run to 60 in 4.2 seconds, shaving 0.4 seconds off its sibling's time. For comparison, that's just 0.1 second slower than the slightly lighter, slightly less powerful Aston Martin V12 Vantage (a car we looooooooove, by the way), about 0.3 faster than the slightly less powerful, slightly more convertible Mercedes SL63 AMG (another car we have serious, long-term feelings for).
A more startling figure might be this: the XKR-S reaches 60 mph only 0.5 seconds more quickly than the 4,306-pound, 510-hp 2012 XFR sedan. We would not have complained about more daylight between the two, but we soon forgot what the word "complaint" meant when we hit the roads and the track in the XKR-S. It was then that the phrase "4.2 seconds" fell into the shadows of the mountain of capability Jaguar has extracted from the chassis. Getting to 60 mph is fine and all... but getting to use all of 186 mph – confidently – now you're singing a sweet, sweet tune.
We were based at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, and while others exercised the coupes on the track, we headed for the roads. As far as we could tell, the track has little in the way of neighbors other than roundabouts and high rolling hills topped by brown grass. The only living creature we saw was a dog that may or may not have belonged to the a hillside shack that may or may not have been abandoned.
There were no speed limit signs, but the XKR-S practically begged us to run at speeds that are illegal almost everywhere on Earth. We could hold temptation in check knowing that a wide-open racing circuit awaited, but we had to hold fast to the Cat's leash. If you put the XKR-S in Sport, it will hold gears until redline and tighten up the throttle response, but we were chuffed to discover that even in Drive, if the XKR-S realizes you want to rest your cheeks against the limit, it will behave almost as if it's in Sport, holding gears up to damn near 7,000 rpm. It's almost like a real cat but in reverse: it knows what you want and so it gives it to you.
Portugal has surprisingly enjoyable roads for a country that hasn't seen economic glory for some generations now. Even where they've been repaired or aren't at their best, they're still better than a lot of the tarmac we claim in Los Angeles, but at those spots, the surface includes high-speed, varying undulations that will unsettle a sports car whose suspension and damping hasn't been properly sorted.
Such a car is not the Jaguar. Its high-speed performance is what the English might call "cracking" – which, contrary to how that might sound, is very well put together indeed.
The mechanical bits themselves have been beefed up, with a bit of cribbing taken from the Nissan GT-R's playbook to help out the front suspension knuckle specifically. The aluminum unit is thicker yet 39 percent lighter than that on the XKR; in total, the full corner assembly is 4 percent lighter but 18 percent stiffer than on the XKR. Along with new rear geometry and a slightly wider track in back, spring rates that are 28 percent stiffer in front and 32 percent stiffer in the back, and there's an in-house-developed adaptive damping system to monitor and adjusts the stiffer dampers 100 times per second.
It is not enough to say that the XKR-S suspension is firm yet keeps you isolated from the vicissitudes of the road surface. It is far better than that. When you watch a National Geographic documentary on cheetahs and they show you the big cat's run in slow motion, you can see the line from the cheetah's nose to the end of its tail remaining practically flat, always on target, no matter how it turns or how its feet have to adjust for the ground rolling and breaking beneath it.
The XKR-S is like that. A cheetah. That you can ride into battle. With performance seats. And navigation. It's excellent.
Back at the track, we discovered the Dynamic Mode and "Trac DSC," at the same time we discovered that Jaguar had put a complete coupe together, not just a sportster with individually capable systems. Press and hold the stability control button for three seconds and then the checkered flag button beneath it, to get into Trac DSC and open up a suite of system programming allied to an electronic active differential that lets you kick the tail out but keep from chucking yourself into the tire barrier. Suspension adjustments improve turn-in, the fast-acting eDiff aids mid-turn cornering when you're really hard on it, and the torque map is changed to give provide more exit thrust so you can smoke the tires and gracefully hold four-wheel drifts out of corners as you arc your way to the far kerbing.
The Algarve track is challenging – this driver would need more than twelve laps to be able to fully unlock it – but in that time, it was crystal clear that the XKR-S hasn't blunted the Jaguar's civic manners in return for nerves of steel on the track. Around town, in fact, from home to Whole Foods to Neiman (or their Portuguese equivalents, at least), the XKR-S is an XK: relaxing, gracious, plenty of space in the boot and almost none in the back seats, a wince-worthy navigation system and a glorious stereo. And lots and lots of people staring at you.
Which is the point. Jaguar touts this XKR-S as "The ultimate expression of Jaguar's sports car strategy; offering intelligent performance with everyday driveability." As far as we're concerned, it's even more than that: for the enthusiast, it might just be the best thing in the modern era – perhaps even including the 217-mph XJ220 – to wear a Jaguar badge.