We might have picked somewhere warmer than northern Wales for the Jaguar F-Type's first meeting with its sports car rivals, but despite the chill of a winter that had overstayed its welcome, this frigid clime did offer some benefits: barren rolling hills; traffic consisting of little more than the postman in the morning and a farmer or two in the afternoon; and mother nature's own special driving stages laid out long before man invented the automobile. Here, three high-performance driving machines gathered for the young season's first roadster shoot-out. In one corner, we have the Audi R8 with the 430-hp V-8 engine and an S tronic automatic transmission. In the other corner is the 400-hp Porsche 911 Carrera S with a seven-speed manual. At center stage is the top-of-the-line, 495-hp Jaguar F-Type V8 S with an eight-speed automatic.
At just over $92,000, the 495-hp F-Type is $11,500 less expensive than the bigger 510-hp XKR convertible. Why is the cheaper, less powerful F-Type just as enchanting as its big brother? Being about 400 pounds lighter, the F-Type is 0.4 second quicker to 60 mph than the older, full-size model, which uses the same engine but is handicapped by a less energetic six-speed automatic transmission. When the next XK arrives, Jaguar will have the opportunity to move the two farther apart, likely by making the larger car more of a proper GT. At Porsche, however, it seems that the gap between the 911 and the Boxster/Cayman has narrowed, particularly with the latest iteration of the mid-engine cars. In a way, Audi suffers from a similar genetic syndrome. After all, the R8 is in essence a reskinned Lamborghini Gallardo. In V-8 form, however, the mid-engine two-seater sits quite comfortably in its own niche, with its price being the only serious downside. Although the $140K Audi is far less expensive than the Gallardo, it costs a massive $47,000 or so more than the Jag, and it even makes the $112,750 Porsche cabrio look like a good value.
The F-Type V8 S is a roadster on steroids. Think of it as a softtop Nissan GT-R without four-wheel drive or as a transformed Ford Shelby GT500 with British papers. The Jag is, in other words, all muscle, and its presence on the road is accordingly aggressive and unrestrained. (Jaguar also makes two less expensive, less intense V-6 F-types, which we've yet to drive.) As we traveled through Wales, our white wedge cut an acoustic swath that made the sheep flock and the birds take flight. Under trailing throttle, the 5.0-liter supercharged V-8 would blat-blat and misfire and burp and implode. When let off the leash, the V-8 weaved the roaring and the thunder into an acoustic train you could almost watch fade away in the rearview mirror. You probably wouldn't want to be identified as the driver of this chariot from hell, but being the devil at the wheel is a whole lot of fun.
The R8 ranks second on the hooligan list. For a start, our test car's testosterone-orange-brown metallic paint triggered dozens of wagging fingers from local residents. The mid-engine mauler is also a victim of its own proportions: 2.5 inches lower than the Jaguar and 3.8 inches wider than the Porsche. Furthermore, it sports the longest wheelbase, the shortest overhangs, and the most extreme two-plus-nothing packaging. Mean-looking even when parked, the R8 proudly displays its exotic proportions and its ground-hugging, wide-body stance, which is even more firmly planted than the front-engine Jaguar and the rear-engine Porsche.
After seven generations, the 911 feels more like a longtime friend than a recent acquaintance. Similar to a charismatic speaker or a talented musician, the Porsche takes only a couple of minutes to cast its spell. Although the 911 looks and feels reassuringly familiar, quite a few aspects are actually fresh and exciting. The seven-speed manual gearbox, for instance, is complex on paper yet 100 percent fail-safe on the road -- pity the ratios were chosen more for fuel mileage than for quickness. The electrically assisted power steering feels light and brisk. The liquid-cooled, direct-injected 3.8-liter flat-six talks with the same snarly chain-saw twang we remember from its air-cooled, 2.2-liter great-grandfather. The rear-engine layout can be wayward and unpredictable, but even more so than its predecessors, the current 911 is a master of grip and traction. In wintry Wales on polished, windswept blacktop, the Porsche was neither a hold-your-breath balancing act like the sometimes fidgety and restless Jaguar nor a who-cares-about-the-weather champ like the R8. Instead, it comfortably covered the middle ground, never too benign to be boring and never too hairy to frighten the wits out of you.
It was always nice to return to the cozy cocoon of the F-Type's cabin, which fits even those who grew taller than most. You sit on well shaped, fully adjustable seats. The pedals are conveniently spaced, visibility is OK despite the tall beltline and the steeply raked A-pillars, and the ergonomics don't require the mind-set of a mechanical engineer. Stability control is either on duty 24-7, in track mode, or off completely. The transmission works well in D, but you can pull the lever to S for more ambitious performance. You can also calibrate engine, transmission, steering, dampers, exhaust, lights, and stability control to your liking, and the car will retain your chosen setup.
Which of the three engines makes our hearts beat fastest? The flat six from Zuffenhausen is the most charismatic, and its soundtrack triggers the most emotional deja vu. It also boasts the best fuel efficiency. But the Porsche doesn't excel against the stopwatch with the seven-speed manual, which simply is not as slick and quick as its rivals' paddle-shifted transmissions -- or its own optional PDK dual-clutch automatic, for that matter. The R8's normally aspirated 4.2-liter V-8 is rev-hungry and acoustically memorable. At 430 hp, which equals a hoarse 7900 rpm, it sits happily between Porsche's 3.8-liter boxer, which dishes up 400 hp at 7400 rpm, and Jaguar's 5.0-liter V-8, which is good for 495 hp at 6500 rpm. Unfortunately, torque is not the R8's strength: it musters only 317 lb-ft from 4500 to 6000 rpm, trailing both the 911 (325 lb-ft at 5600 rpm) and the F-Type (460 lb-ft between 2500 and 5500 rpm). Although its driven wheels are lightly laden, Sir Jag wins the sprint-to-60-mph sweepstakes, coming in at 4.2 seconds against the Audi's 4.4 seconds and the Porsche's 4.5 seconds. Maximum speed is 186 mph across the board.