Jaguar is trying like crazy to avoid comparing the new range-topping S-type R with the BMW M5, which is kind of hard to do. Both cost more than $60,000, both are mid-size sport sedans, and both have the benefit of very powerful V-8 engines. (At $62,400, the 2003 S-type R is considerably less expensive than this year's $70,545 M5, and, with 388 horsepower versus the BMW's 394, it's close in the power war.)
Yet, as the Jaguar folks point out, the BMW is a harder, more aggressive, more extreme vehicle, a sports car for the person who needs four seats. The Jaguar is still mighty capable and very entertaining, but it's a bit softer, which makes it a better Interstate cruiser. Without a doubt, it's the best car Jaguar makes, an endearing blend of pace and refinement that might finally put the S-type on the map with enthusiasts.
When the S-type came out in 1999, we didn't care for its pastiche of an exterior and its cheap-looking interior, which seemed more Ford parts bin than Jag high style. Since then, design director Ian Callum (and Ford design chief J Mays) must have kicked some butt, because the interior for the '03 S-type is vastly improved, with softer leather and better plastics, improved stowage, more stylish gauges, a new center console with an optional touch-screen navigation system, and new seats. The R, in particular, gets comfortable sixteen-way power seats, a sporty steering wheel and shifter knob, and gray wood trim. The cabin isn't quite up to Audi or BMW standards and lacks the pizazz of old Jags, but it's getting there.
As is the exterior. With a wire-mesh grille, smoked xenon lights, sexy eighteen-inch wheels, color-keyed bumpers, and a rear deck-lid spoiler, the S-type R looks more like it. Despite some changes last year that helped to clean up the shape, we still think the S-type's look has aged quickly. Then again, customers rate the styling as their primary reason for buying the car, so our criticism probably doesn't hold much sway at Jaguar's Browns Lane factory or at Ford's Premier Automotive Group headquarters in Irvine, California.
In an attempt to keep weight down, the dashboard crossbeam and seat frames are cast magnesium, and aluminum is used for the front upper and lower control arms and steering knuckles. The front and rear suspension subframes have been reworked, and all V-8 S-types get the ZF 6HP26 six-speed automatic transmission that debuted in the new BMW 7-series. An electronic parking brake is also fitted.
The main R news, of course, is the engine, a supercharged and intercooled 4.2-liter version of Jag's fine DOHC AJ-V8. As well as the capacity increase, courtesy of a longer stroke, the engine gets new heads, pistons, and manifolds. With the aid of an Eaton supercharger, the R's engine makes 388 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 397 pound-feet of torque at 3500 rpm. More than 80 percent of this torque is delivered from as low as 1500 rpm. For those who like manual control of the gears, Jaguar stays with its J-gate shifter, which you either loathe or love.
The R has a Brembo brake package featuring 14.3-inch-diameter vented front discs, 12.9-inch solid rear rotors, and four-pot aluminum calipers. The power steering has been revised, while the suspension features stiffer bushings and retuned springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars. The R uses Jaguar's Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS), which incorporates electronic control of two-stage adaptive dampers. Surprisingly, the R uses an open differential, because Jaguar engineers feel that most owners will be saved from wheelspin by the stability system. Finally, the natty wheels are shod with meaty 245/40 front and 275/35 rear tires.
On the roads of sunny southern Spain, the S-type R was a fine ride. The powertrain and suspension refinement are so good that you generally need to look at the speedometer to gauge your (often extreme) speed. It also rides really well: firm but not harsh, with surprising suppleness over broken pavement. Mid-corner bump absorption is excellent, too. Drive it as if it's a regular car, and you will hardly hear the engine and barely notice upshifts from the brilliant new automatic. Indeed, the only engine note is a strident supercharger whine, which becomes a bit annoying after the novelty wears off.
The R is speed-limited to 155 mph, and Jaguar claims it will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, but its midrange performance is the most impressive feature. Bury your right foot, hear the supercharger kick in, feel the transmission downshift a couple of gears, and you can overtake with aplomb. Along Catalunya rally stages that would have been better suited to a Subaru Impreza WRX, I used the J-gate to stir the transmission between third and fourth gears, relying on torrents of torque to go very swiftly from one corner to another.
One of the S-type R's best features--something that definitely hasn't been stellar on Jaguars through the years, except on the original E-type--is the steering. There's more weight and feel than we're used to with a Jag, which allows you to take advantage of the nicely balanced chassis. Grip, as you might imagine from the width of the tires, is strong. The S-type R doesn't have the ultimate body control or connectedness of an M5 (and it will spin its inside rear wheel at will through second-gear corners), but the trade-off is a more refined highway ride than the BMW provides. The brakes are impressive, too, scrubbing off speed mightily with rewarding feedback.
Without a doubt, the R is a potent cross-country weapon, whether you're contemplating freeways or byways. An M5 is the more complete car for the enthusiast, but the Jaguar is extremely close. It also has a more inviting, less clinical cabin than the German car and is different enough to appeal to someone who wants lots of performance with a great deal of refinement and drivability. And to someone who wants an automatic transmission as well.