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.