Peak Performers: 2012 Jaguar XKR-S and 2012 Maserati GranTurismo MC

Daniel Byrne

The Jaguar undeniably owns the bragging rights in the engine department. Its V-8 is not only larger in displacement but is also supercharged, besting the Maserati's power output by 106 hp. It's also a torque monster, with 502 lb-ft versus the free-spinning Italian's 376 lb-ft. Since the smaller Jaguar also weighs less, it's hardly surprising that it is quicker than the MC. The factory-measured 0-to-60-mph times reflect that difference, with the Jag getting there in 4.2 seconds, whereas the Maserati needs 4.8. Looking at top speeds, though, it's a virtual dead heat, with a claimed 186 mph for the XKR-S and the MC boasting at least 185 mph. (The Maserati's figure is important, if only for those who remember the Joe Walsh song, "Life's Been Good.")

Acceleration in the XKR-S is simply explosive. You actually have to choose your moments carefully to give the XKR-S a full boot. On a drag strip, on a racetrack, or on a lonely desert highway you could use all that power, but our bad luck had us out on damp, wet, and often muddy roads (mercifully, an early-season overnight snowfall burned off quickly under bright sun the following morning). In the real world of lumpy pavement and less-than-ideal traction, the XKR-S's traction control kicked in with nearly any significant throttle opening. This is a car that, in the wet, wants to spin its tires accelerating down an on-ramp at 60 mph.

The Maserati is less frenetic but still thrilling, and its engine's 7500-rpm redline is a joy. More important, its normally aspirated V-8 is more predictable in its responses. The long-travel accelerator is also a factor, making it easy to precisely meter out the power -- which is not something that shows up on 0-to-60-mph runs but is something you appreciate when powering out of low-speed corners.

Both cars have special exhaust systems with a choice of mild or wild exhaust notes. An active valve in the XKR-S is opened when the car is in dynamic mode, and in the Maserati, hitting the sport button on the dashboard opens an exhaust-bypass valve above 3000 rpm; if the transmission is in manual mode, hitting the sport button keeps the bypass valve open at all times. The searing exhaust note from either car is awesome, but it's also good to be able to quiet it down when you want to be a little less conspicuous.

The days when a manual transmission signaled a coupe's sporting character evidently are receding in the rearview mirror, as both of these machines are available exclusively with an automatic -- in any trim, not just these range-toppers. The six-speed ZF gearbox in the Maserati has been modified for MC duty with quicker shift times, throttle blipping on downshifts, and a manual mode that is truly manual -- it won't downshift when you floor it, and it won't upshift when the engine is bouncing off the rev limiter. Those capabilities mirror those of the Jaguar transmission, which is also a ZF six-speed. The biggest difference between the two is their shift paddles: the Maserati's (made of carbon fiber) are huge, but they're affixed to the steering column, not the wheel; the Jag's plastic paddles are much smaller but they're attached to the steering wheel, putting them within easier reach -- provided you've got your hands at 9 and 3. In truth, though, the paddles are almost inconsequential; slip the transmission of either car into sport mode and it can be left to choose the right gears on its own even during the most aggressive driving. You may occasionally want to shift for yourself, but you never feel that you actually need to.

That polished performance from the transmissions is mirrored in both cars by dynamic responses that demand no compromise. These coupes are extremely composed over lumpy back roads, cruise comfortably at highway speeds, and are confident when bending into curves or charging at dips and crests. Body control is impeccable, and yet ride quality is not at all bad. Jaguar's adaptive damping system has always impressed us, so the XKR-S's behavior was really no surprise -- although this XK variant does ride lower on firmer springs than other XKs. We thought we might find a more compromised ride in the Maserati with its fixed-rate dampers (the Skyhook adaptive suspension can be selected as an option), yet skillful tuning keeps the MC from being one-dimensional. We judged the MC to ride a bit more firmly than the XKR-S, but even when we pounded through areas of broken pavement on deep backwoods roads, the Maserati was able to effectively take the edge off the impacts.

The XKR-S has a revised rear suspension geometry that makes for a livelier back end, and it is lively indeed. The Maserati, though, felt more alert on turn-in and a bit more fluid overall. Peek under the hood of the MC, and you get a clue as to why. The Maserati V-8 sits fully behind the front axle, which allows the MC to achieve a 49/51 percent weight distribution. The Maserati's steering also offered more feel, despite the XKR-S having a new steering knuckle that is supposed to increase both precision and feedback.

Both cars are remarkably similar takes on the idea of a grand touring coupe tricked out in extremis. The Jaguar wins on bragging points -- not unimportant given the difficulty of actually using all of the performance either of these cars offers, even in an environment like the one we were in, with traffic-free two-lanes piercing dramatic mountain vistas. It also holds the upper hand in most of the objective categories, being more powerful, lighter, faster, and cheaper -- ceding only rear-seat usability to the Maserati.

However, the horsepower difference between the two cars, so great on paper, begins at these lofty levels to reach the point of diminishing returns. On a track, or even just driven in a straight line, the Jag undoubtedly would be the faster car, but out in the real world, the Maserati was easier to drive fast. Thus, the brutally fast Jag turned out to be not quite as satisfying to drive as the seductively sweet Maserati.

Although the Jag's sport seats can't be beat, the bucks-up XK interior is otherwise less convincing than the Maserati's. And the Jag's turretlike visibility and less special finishes mean that it's not as nice a place to be as the MC. Additionally, the Maserati's credible four-seat capability would for many drivers make it more usable more often than the strictly two-place Jag. Marching further into the field of subjectivity, the Jaguar's exterior modifications strike us as less successful than those of the Maserati, which are more subtle.

Each of these cars is its brand's pinnacle of performance. The XKR-S moves the Jaguar beyond the realm of grand touring coupe and edges it into the premium sports car arena, while the Maserati remains firmly a grand tourer even with the changes brought by the MC. For drivers seeking more of a sports car, the Jaguar's higher performance may nudge the XKR-S ahead. But we did not find its extra measure of performance to be easily accessible, making it not worth the trade-off in livability over the Maserati. Both of these cars provide speed, luxury, comfort, athleticism, and exclusivity in spades, but the Maserati is our choice.

hawkdawg
It is difficult for me to imagine myself picking a car weighing 200 pounds more, with over 125 less ft. lbs of torque, for the same money.  On the right road in the right conditions (which would be relatively common), that power/weight gap would be instantly recognizable, completely undeniable, and quite significant to the driving experience.
tonkatoytruck
Pretty expensive sports cars considering the Maserati can not even keep up with a 550i or E550 in a straight line at twice the price and half the space!
jagcarl
The Jag was to for the tester.In the future you should get a tester that not such a pussy when their is at least one fast car to test.

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