About 20 minutes after heading south towards the Mediterranean, traffic on our four-lane roadway stops abruptly. The bus we have just passed pulls up on our right and an officer is standing in the middle of the roadway, waving the morass of motorists through – until we reach the head of the pack. He points at us, then motions towards an unpaved turnout where a handful of squad cars are accompanied by a dozen police officers.
We pull the white, droptop XK into the dirt lot, twist the rotary shifter into Park and within seconds we're being berated by a young officer with "CADET" embroidered across his upright baseball cap. Our French is about as good as our Klingon, so after realizing we don't speak the native tongue, he snatches our documents and leaves us to stew.
A few minutes pass, at which point an older officer approaches and asks in perfect English, "Do you know why you are here?" We tepidly shake our heads as he informs us we were doing 60 km/h in a 40 zone. Our wallet recoils in horror as we remember the advice given to us earlier in the week: "The police in France are very strict about speed limits. The fine can run upwards of 1,500 euros (a little over $2,000) and it is payable on the spot." Just as thoughts of frantic phone calls, maxed-out credit cards and the atrocities that await us in a Parisian jail cell begin to flood our minds, the officer cocks his head sideways, realizes we're a pair of dimwitted Americans and simply says, "Please be more careful."
So begins our time with the foursome of Jaguar's newest offerings, and we haven't even sampled the 510-horsepower XKR and XFR yet.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
Jaguar's managing director, Mike O'Driscoll, admits it's been, "a traumatic ten years" for the brand. Aging, lackluster products and a poorly implemented marketing strategy conspired against the automaker and it quickly fell off the radar of both German brand refugees and Jag's most ardent devotees. But last year's introduction of the XF proved Jaguar was poised for a renaissance (Tata takeover or not) and O'Driscoll's posture straightens and his chin tilts upwards when he says, "We're making Jaguar Jaguar again." And 2009 is Jag's coming out party.
The all-new XJ is due to be revealed next month and go on sale this December, and for the 2010 model year, Jaguar has added two new high-performance models to the mix – the XFR and XKR – along with upgrading the powerplants in its shapely sedan and arresting (pun intended) coupe/convertible.
Both the naturally aspirated and supercharged 4.2-liter V8s are gone in the U.S. market for 2010, and in their place is an all-new, Jaguar-developed 5.0-liter direct-injected eight-pot putting out 385 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. Jag's codename for the revised mill is the "AJ-V8 Gen III," but don't let that fool you – only two parts have been carried over from the outgoing engine – and one of them is a screw.
Fitted to both the 2010 Jaguar XF and XJ, the 5.0-liter V8 is a torquetastic wonder of modern machinery that utterly transforms both the sedan and coupe. With peak twist coming in below 2,500 rpm, a judicious mash of the throttle elicits a wave of torque that's as flat as the Salar de Uyuni and best measured with an EKG.
Channeling both the XF and XK's newfound grunt to the rear wheels is a revised six-speed automatic gearbox with uprated internals to make better use of the mill's inflated torque. Gear selection is controlled by either the reworked, shift-by-wire computer or through the steering wheel-mounted paddles, each of which delivers some of the most crisp, immediate shifts this side of a dual-clutch 'box and one of the most intoxicating throttle blips known to man. Our only complaint centers on the traction control system which, even when engaged in Competition mode by pressing the checkered flag button on the transmission tunnel, cuts in far too soon for our tastes. Completely disabling the electro-nanny requires the driver to depress the same button for 12 seconds, something we're not inclined to condone when blasting across the narrow, unfamiliar byways draped over Southern France's majestic mountains.
But we just can't help it when we get behind the wheel of the XFR.
In a nod to Jaguar's tradition of making its hottest models barely distinguishable from their staid, stock counterparts, the XFR exhibits the sort of passive-aggressive demeanor normally reserved for sadistic seven-year-olds and scorned felines. The front fascia's been augmented by a set of gaping, chrome-lined air intakes, the mirrors have been shaved in size, the side sills have been extended, a rear spoiler joins a quartet of polished tailpipes and hood vents emblazoned with "Supercharged" match the XFR-specific 20-inch rolling stock.
The interior revisions are equally subtle, with 18-way adjustable sports seats, dark oak and mesh aluminum inserts, R badging on the seats and a choice of either London Tan or Redzone leather, the latter of which looks absolutely striking with the R-only Kyanite Blue exterior.
The muted determination of the exterior and interior matches the XFR's driving experience beautifully. With the rotary (and gimmicky) JaguarDrive Control set to "D," the hotted-up XFR exhibits none of the trashiness you'd expect from a 500+ hp sports sedan. But that can work both ways. While the BMW M5 may be an awkward handful when meddling around town, there's a sense of occasion every time you slip behind the wheel. The XFR simply feels like its naturally aspirated counterpart... until the Renault in the left lane moves out of the way and – as the Brits would say – you give it the beans.
The Roots-type, four-rotor Eaton supercharger sucks sacrificial oxygen molecules through the duo of water-cooled intercoolers and delivers a kidney-punishing 510 hp and 461 lb-ft of torque. The blown 5.0-liter blends the perfect balance of low- to mid-range torque and upper-end horsepower, landing squarely between the aforementioned high-revving M5 and the executioner-style twist provided by one of Mercedes-Benz' AMG-fettled offerings.
Equally endearing is the XFR's ability to walk the steering and suspension line between BMW's directness uber alles and Mercedes' and Audi's penchant for numbness. The connection between the helm and the front wheels is in a class the boys from Bavaria obviously skipped, allowing minor course corrections to be made at speed without threatening a shunt into the weeds, while still delivering enough information to engage, but avoid overwhelming, the driver.
The majority of that connected sensation is thanks to the adaptive dynamic technologies Jaguar employed on the XFR – equipment that is now standard on the XK. The system tweaks the damper rates 100 times a second to maintain a constant and level attitude based on steering, throttle and brake inputs, and combined with the Active Differential Control, which integrates with the DSC system and features true active locking – not a brake-based setup – the XFR is a dynamic coup for Jaguar. It may not be as rewarding or taut as some M- or RS-badged products – and its muted exhaust won't set your auditory senses ablaze – but give the XFR an open road and a blank check (made payable to the local constabulary), and you'll be amazed at its ability to consume countless kilometers with the kind of ease Jaguar was once known for. And with the XKR, that formula creates a perfect party for two.
Like its four-door stablemate, the XKR is another stylistic balancing act that errs on the side of aggression. The new front bumper compliments the chrome mesh nestled within, and the hood louvers and quad exhaust assure that only Jag aficionados can identify what breed of coupe just blew past. The interior features the same shift selector, heated and cooled front sports seats (with ample bolstering) and a black alcantara headliner that begs to be stroked while stopped at traffic lights.
However, unlike the XFR, which feels like a fullback who's been forced to take yoga, the XKR is more refined and supple; a half-back who enjoys ballet as much as giving the stiff arm to a defensive lineman.
With the supercharged V8 mounted closer to the firewall and a wheelbase that's some six inches shorter than the XF, the XKR jukes and jives with the confidence of a GT peppered with a few tricks pulled from the sports car segment. The dynamic systems carried over from the sedan -- along with the brakes, which proved fade-free after miles of flogging – feel even more at home on the coupe, providing an experience that's both fluid and firm, and is sure to put the hurt on more expensive grand-tourers-turned-sports coupes, including the Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Whoops.
But where the XKR falls flat is price. Starting at just over $100,000, Jaguar's hottest coupe doesn't make a compelling case for itself when the good bits – specifically the dynamic suspension – are standard on the entry XK, and the new 5.0-liter V8 is just... well... damn near perfect for a daily driver and back-road enthusiast. Throw the XFR into the mix, however, with a starting price just south of $80k and a pair of usable back seats, and the choice becomes even more clear. We'll take ours in blue, with the red leather interior and a better awareness of French traffic laws.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.