Mike O’Driscoll, Jaguar‘s longtime managing director, is a happy man these days. Sure, Jaguar is just as susceptible to the worldwide economic slowdown as any other purveyor of luxury goods, but O’Driscoll’s eyes light up when he explains that the company’s lineup is undergoing a wholesale metamorphosis in the twenty-four-month period that began in January 2008 and ends this December. The misbegotten X-type is gone; the all-new XJ, reportedly a stunner, will be in dealerships by December; and the sedan gets new V-8 engines for the 2010 model year (as do the XK coupe and convertible), including a supercharged version that powers the new, high-performance XFR.
The XFR marks Jaguar’s second modern-day foray into a realm long dominated by the Germans: mainstream luxury sedans pumped up with sports car hardware.
The 2003-2008 Jaguar S-type R had its charms, but in the race for power, prestige, and performance, it barely got out of the starting gate. The XFR, though, promises to successfully go head-to-head with the Teutonic trio, , Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, and , as well as the new -V.
But the XFR is its own kind of cat. It doesn’t feel or behave like an English car that’s trying to ape a German car; it feels and behaves like an XF, a car that we greatly admire and named one of our 2009 All-Stars<that will deliver a lot more performance when you ask it to, without punishing you with a stiff ride or inscrutable technology when you just want to drive it like a luxury sedan.
The XFR doesn’t completely disguise its capabilities, of course. It’s distinguished from the regular XF by the usual raft of exterior design tweaks, including Nevis twenty-inch wheels, quad tailpipes, and body-color sill extensions. The large, black-mesh lower grille is flanked by chrome-lined air scoops, and hood vents feed air to the supercharged AJ-V8, which is mated to a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters.
Inside, the XFR gets sport seats with electrically adjustable bolsters; a few discreet R badges; red pointers on the instrument dials; dark oak trim; a suedelike headliner; and some unique trim colors, including charcoal with red accents. It’s all quite lovely, as the Brits like to say.
The XFR is also quite lovely on the road. Heading north from Seville into the foothills of the Sierra Morena, we selected Dynamic Mode, a choice confirmed by a digitally rendered checkered flag in the driver-information display and one that results in more aggressive torque delivery, among other sporting responses. We also depressed Jaguar‘s now-signature rotating gear selector so that it could be dialed past its normal D-for-drive detent to the S-for-sport setting. Driven benignly, the XFR’s differences from the stock car are subtle, but once the roads opened up, we noted the slightly quicker steering and the sharper chassis responses, the result of 30 percent stiffer front and rear springs and the Adaptive Dynamics active-damping system. And we certainly noted the instantaneous throttle response and the visceral way in which the 461 lb-ft of torque churns to the rear axle, where it’s expertly distributed by the rear diff. The supercharger whine that marred previous Jaguar R cars has been replaced by enticing snaps and snarls from the exhaust at high rpm and a nice growl at start-up. In fact, the power delivery from this engine is so linear and progressive, and the soundtrack is so good, it’s easy to forget it has a supercharger.
But then you come over a crest, and a long, empty stretch of one of the Sierra Norte Natural Park’s expertly maintained roads opens up before you.
You hit the left paddle to downshift to third, and the crackle of the exhaust reverberates through the scrub oaks and pastures. The tach needle races toward 7000 rpm, and both the checkered flag and the number 3 in the driver display turn bright yellow, begging you to upshift. You oblige, the XFR leaps forward, and you realize that it’s not just wishful thinking and the spirit of Sir William Lyons that are hurtling you toward the horizon, it is indeed a world-class supercharged powertrain and a perfectly tuned chassis. Jaguar’s claim of a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds seems believable. Quickly, very quickly, a decreasing-radius, downhill corner that cuts through a terraced wall of red-tinted rock comes into view, and the big front brakes – with fifteen-inch rotors – decelerate the 4169-pound sedan without fading. Who knew a Jaguar sedan could provide such thrills?
Those brakes also come in handy at the end of the long straight at the new Circuito de Monteblanco in nearby Huelva, where the XFR reached 140 mph before a hairpin right-hander. What the track also revealed was the need for a stability control setting that allows far more latitude for oversteering without it being turned completely off. Jaguar says it is working on it.
Speaking of latitude, Jaguar’s new Indian owner, Tata, is wisely giving Jaguar plenty. The freedom from meddlesome oversight and the lessons Jaguar has learned from its missteps and its successes over the past decade are allowing its people to, in O’Driscoll’s words, “make Jaguar Jaguar again.” That they’re doing so quickly, with limited resources, and producing cars as fine as the XFR, goes a long way toward making past mistakes like the X-type recede in the rearview mirror.
On Sale: August
Base price: $80,000
ENGINE: 5.0L Supercharged V-8, 510 hp, 461 lb-ft