Ann Arbor – The Jaguar S-type was one of the most keenly anticipated new cars of the past decade. The baby Jag, as it was universally referred to (before the name was announced, anyway), would bring the leaping-cat cachet to a much wider audience, one that was eager for Jaguar’s almost mystical combination of Olde English snob appeal wrapped in sexy, feline sheetmetal.
Since it went on sale midway through 1999, the S-type has been a commercial success, nearly doubling the marque’s sales. But, while the public has rushed to embrace it, critics have scrutinized the S-type because it’s the first Jaguar to share its platform with a Ford Motor Company product (the Lincoln LS). Although all S-types are assembled at Castle Bromwich, England, the car was engineered with Ford. Ardent Jaguar fans were concerned that the S-type could be something less than a true Jaguar because of that.
Turns out that the under-the-skin commonality with Lincoln was handled adroitly. The two cars drive differently, and the S-type feels like a Jaguar. But after twelve months and 30,000 miles with a sapphire-blue S-type 4.0, count us among those who see elsewhere in the S-type a veneer of Britishness, of Jaguarness, that in places appears thin.
Take, for instance, that feline sheetmetal. Start at the front–no subtlety here with the oval grille and four round headlights. By and large, it works. “The Jag is an absolute hit with the general public,” reported associate editor Joe DeMatio after a trip to his mid-Michigan hometown. “They know it’s a Jaguar and are very excited about it.”
To our eyes, though, the side is entirely too busy, with too many character lines. More than one staffer likened the main crease along the door handles to that of a Chevy Lumina. That’s like suggesting the queen wears army boots.
But it was the interior that came in for the most criticism. Jaguar has always had a special knack for interiors, which invariably are likened to a men’s club. When one contributing writer described the S-type’s atmosphere as “more pub than club,” it was a cute way of saying it falls short of the traditional Jaguar standards. It’s hard not to think that the S-type interior shows what happens when the idea of British luxury gets refracted by the Dearborn “glass house” that is Ford Motor Company’s world headquarters and then blurred further by myopic MBAs who can’t see past the next quarter’s bottom line. “There’s none of the detailing and craftsmanship that made Jag interiors so nice,” said executive editor Mark Gillies, who’s been riding in Jaguars since he was a lad in short pants.
Whatever one thinks of the way the interior looks, there is no getting around its lack of storage space (which is somewhat alleviated for 2001 with the CD changer’s move from the glove box to the trunk) or its tight accommodations overall. On a happier note, seating comfort generally received good reviews, even on long drives.
Extended road trips demonstrated just how much the S-type coddled its captain and crew and how eagerly it gobbled up the miles. With 281 horsepower and 287 pound-feet of torque, the 4.0-liter V-8 never wants for power, either on the highway or in town. Despite a slow-shifting transmission, it provides the kind of smooth, effortless thrust that really does bring to mind those images from the Discovery Channel where the live jaguar sprints across the Yucatan to chomp down on some hapless wild pig. We’d say the V-8 is beyond reproach, but it was sometimes a little lazy starting on cold mornings, and its short cruising range was appreciated only by true devotees of service station architecture.
Part of the S-type’s seductive quality on road trips, long or short, was its accomplished blend of a responsive chassis and a creamy ride. Helping our car’s double-wishbone suspension achieve this feat was Jaguar‘s optional CATS (Computer Active Technology Suspension), which automatically switches the dampers between soft and firm settings. Unfortunately, as the miles accumulated, the ride became noticeably ragged, with the S-type transmitting an un-Jaguar-like amount of impact harshness to the cabin. In addition, the brakes always felt undersized, requiring more pedal pressure and travel than we would have liked. The steering, however, was spot-on in its quickness and effort. Curiously, for 2001, Jaguar has switched to a ZF power steering unit, which the company says improves steering feel and isolation. We drove a 2001 model, and, despite those contradictory claims, the steering felt pretty much the same, but that’s fine with us.
Also revised for 2001 was the S-type’s standard voice-recognition system, which allows the driver to control the stereo, the climate control, and the integrated cellular phone via spoken commands. We found the feature rather silly. You have to push a button on the steering wheel to activate it, and then the system repeats your command back to you before taking action–unless it didn’t understand you, in which case you have to say it again. Makes one just want to reach over and turn up the radio oneself.
Our S-type, ordered with the deluxe communication package, was veritably stuffed with electronics. In addition to the voice-recognition system, it had a navigation system, which was roundly criticized for the spotty coverage of its mapping software, as well as parking sensors in the rear bumper, which twice failed and necessitated two trips to the shop. We also had the seat heaters quit and the nav system black out. (That our only problems with the S-type were electrical in nature undoubtedly has owners of Lucas-era Jags nodding their heads.)
Besides filling our car with electronics of dubious value, our inability to exercise the slightest restraint with the option order form–we checked all the boxes–pushed our S-type’s sticker price from $48,000 to $57,095, a figure that gave nearly everyone pause.
Encouragingly, however, the value story is improving. For 2001, Jaguar has added new standard equipment to all S-types, particularly the 4.0. Additionally, the company now picks up the tab for the first four years or 50,000 miles of routine maintenance, which would have saved us $1052. Also, one body-side molding has been stripped off the exterior, so there’s one fewer line cluttering up the side, and the interior has been spiffed up a bit with the addition of scuff plates for the rear doors. It appears that Jaguar is aware of its baby’s weak spots and has begun to address them.
That’s good. We’d like to see the S-type fulfill its promise as a Jaguar. The hard part, the engineering, is largely done. What’s left is mostly cosmetic, getting the details right. Then we’d have an S-type that fully merits its enthusiastic public reception.