The numbers on the billboard are more than two feet tall. Below the triple-digit eye-catcher, set in brackets and printed too small to be deciphered from a distance, the banner ad reads "Electronically Limited."
What kind of car is this new 2015 Jaguar F-Type R Coupe? Why does a high-performance coupe need a governor to stop it from going faster than 186 mph? To prevent it from taking off like an airplane? From disintegrating at meltdown speed? From driving us dizzy on its way into orbit?
"The R is the sharpest, hottest, and most focused variation of the F-type," states Mike Cross, chief vehicle integration engineer, a.k.a. senior test driver. "The R version does everything a little better than the 495-hp convertible -- accelerate, brake, steer, change lanes, curve through cones, redefine the limit."
After a brief pause, the seasoned driftmeister adds laconically: "Okay, perhaps it doesn't set new standards in the ride department. But on the track, it certainly sifts the men from the boys after only a handful of laps."
Which is exactly why our second encounter with the ultimate hot rod from Whitley took place in sunny Spain on the Circuito de Catalunya, which will host major F1 and Moto GP events later this year. The 2.4-mile-long circuit contains the complete Fear and Loathing in Barcelona compendium: at the end of the longest straight, the speedo reads a white-knuckle 165 mph, the awe-inspiring mid-section roller-coaster corners are dotted with blind turn-in and braking points, the famous double-apex right-hander is the stuff instantaneous depressions are made of, the slow chicane before the entrance to pit lane disciplines you with ankle-high curbs and ultra-short runoff areas.
The Jaguar F-Type coupe offers a smidgen more scalp clearance than the roadster with the top erect, but it, too, is a tight fit compared with its German, Italian, Japanese, and American competition. On the credit side, we note new body-hugging bucket seats with inflatable side bolsters, g-force-defying wraparound backrests, and extended thigh support. Although the R is generally quite well equipped, you still need to pay extra for the neat glass roof, a navigation system, and such street-cred enhancing goodies as the full carbon-fiber pack and dark gray 20-inch alloy wheels. Driver assistance systems? Not at this point, and probably not for some time, since the current electronic platform would struggle to digest the flood of data that most of these radar, infrared, laser, ultrasound, or camera-based devices seem to require.
Although we have already experienced this engine in the XKR-S, XFR-S, and XJR, the supercharged V-8 sounds particularly untamed and aggressive in the Jaguar F-type, where the switchable exhaust turns every lift-off maneuver into a loud acoustic statement, Hyde Park Corner–style. The performance figures reflect the slightly more favorable curb weight of the compact two-seater: 0 to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds flat, 50 to 75 mph in 2.4 seconds (even though that exercise requires an upshift from second to third gear). While the 5.0-liter powerhouse will happily spin to its redline at 7000 rpm again and again, what you really register with a broad smile and with growing excitement is the massive maximum torque of 502 lb-ft, which crests from 2500 to 5500 rpm. As a result, full-throttle mid-range upshifts can feel suspiciously close to whiplash.
All F-type models feature the same ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, but each version has its own final drive ratio. The rear axle of the R is so short that the car storms through the first three gears like a hurricane on wheels. Even though the transmission responds quickly to throttle inputs when in the regular Drive setting, it is invariably more involving to change gears with your fingertips. In Sport mode, the fast-acting torque converter feels every bit as efficient as a good dual-clutch transmission. One of these days, Jaguar will introduce all-wheel drive to the F-type, but right now we depend on the familiar blend of Pirelli licorice, traction control on alert, and a superfast limited-slip differential that can switch from open to locked in less than 200 milliseconds.
With warm tires and on dry blacktop, take-off often is a brief and shrill shouting match, but as soon as the first raindrops fall, the chip-controlled guardian angels work overtime by means of diligent torque distribution (between the rear wheels) and cautiously dosed torque vectoring (by momentarily decelerating those two wheels that are closest to the apex). Although it is possible to spice up the engine, transmission, steering, and dampers via the dynamic mode selector, those who prefer grand gestures will want to adjust the dynamic stability control (DSC) calibration. One stab at the button permits drift angles of up to 30 degrees, which doesn't sound like much but looks fab. Keep the button pushed for more than five seconds, and a gong will sound to announce that the car is now skating on very thin ice. With DSC off, the F-Type R is ready to go through the entire hooligan spectrum, from livid street painting to smelly, slide-n-smoke antics.
The R has the quickest steering ever fitted to a production-model Jaguar, blending spontaneous turn-in with delicate weighting and low effort. Having said that, the direction finder could still do with a bit more self-centering, a bit more concentration around the straight-ahead position, and a bit more feedback when held on (opposite) lock. Extra money buys extra-large carbon-ceramic disc brakes, which promise even faster response, stronger deceleration, and less wear. In addition, the pedal pressure allegedly never varies, and the system is claimed to be immune to extreme working temperatures. On the racetrack, the lightweight CCM rotors may indeed gain a tenth here and there, but for everyday use the steel brakes suffice. We compared the two applications and found that they both suffered from some at-the-limit judder and pronounced tramlining, and they both required the driver to really hammer the pedal for that final make-it-or-dive-straight-on effort.
Tipping the scales at 3671 pounds, the F-Type R is lighter and significantly stiffer than the open-top version. The cargo space has increased from nearly useless to 11.0 cubic feet. Despite the earlier remark by Mike Cross, the 550-hp coupe actually rides with a charming mix of casual compliance and occasional grumpiness. Despite the fat 20-inch ultra-high-performance tires, the adaptive dampers, and the marginally stiffer springs, directional stability does not always follow the line drawn by a ruler. What the F-type really hates with a vengeance are mid-corner bumps, surface variations, and ridges and potholes.
We are not sure whether the top-of-the-line F-type is really worth five figures more than the base 340-hp model with big brakes and 19-inch tires. But we know that putting the 550-hp Jag through its paces is a serious challenge, so be careful with that DSC button because, unlike some cats, no human being has seven lives.
On sale: Spring 2014
Engine: 5.0L supercharged V-8, 550 hp, 502 lb-ft
Drive: Rear wheel