In tune, in time, on song

Jaguar has mated a great engine with a solid chassis to produce one of the quickest sporting saloons around
By Andrew Frankel

Driving a new Jaguar XFR is like being in the studio at the exact moment the members of a talented but raw new band figure out how to play together. You were at the first rehearsals – painful, clunking affairs that made you wonder how such talent could amount to so much less than the sum of its parts. As time went on, so the awkwardness receded to be replaced by the occasional flash of brilliance, but still there were too many bum notes. And then one day you turn up and suddenly it’s all working, all the elements have gelled and the result is pure, sweet music. You wonder briefly why it took so long, but are soon overcome by the magic being played out before your eyes and ears. You conclude that the wait was worth it.

In Jaguar’s case, we have waited years while watching it try and fail to build a world-class sporting saloon. There have been some good examples – about a decade back when it was my happy lot to occupy the editor’s chair, I spent a very contented year putting 35,000 miles on the clock of a supercharged V8 XJR – but they were flawed and added up to nothing to make you think back to the marque’s halcyon days when rivals shook at the thought of just how fearsomely good any new Jaguar might be.

But I bet this XFR will be inducing a quiver or two in Munich and Stuttgart right now. It is not just an excellent car, it’s an excellent Jaguar too, with as strong and proud a sense of its own identity as any BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

How it came to be that way is a triumph of ingenuity and determination in the face of being skint. Jaguar’s perennially parlous state is something we’ve become used to over the years, marvelling at how much they have done with so little. When the original XK8 was launched to some fanfare in 1996, I don’t remember anyone pointing out that circumstance meant it could not be a truly new car, but had to adapt the architecture of the 20-year-old XJS. Likewise with the XFR: look beneath those fresh lines and you’ll find the same platform first used by the ill-fated S-type over a decade ago.

The reason Jaguar can get away with reheating old soup like this is that, like so many Ford-financed platforms, it was and remains an extremely good foundation on which to build a proper driver’s car. And if you look back at all the criticism justifiably lobbed at the old S-type, you’ll find none of it had anything to do with its chassis.

What Jaguar has done over the years is constantly evolve the suspension and, for the XFR, come up with an entirely new state of tune, complete with state-of-the-art electronic damper control and the first limited-slip differential to be used by a mainstream Jaguar since the XJS. And all because this chassis has finally been given an engine worthy of it.

Some have understandably assumed that the 5-litre V8 used by the XFR is simply an enlarged version of the V8 that has hitherto been in use under the bonnet of certain XFs, and all XKs and XJs. In fact it’s an entirely new, direct injection unit which, once supercharged, puts 510bhp under its owner’s right foot.

But that’s not the figure that matters. A more important number is its 461lb ft of torque. But the one that really counts, the one that reveals the effortless, imperious way this car goes down the road, is the 2500rpm at which it is developed, and the fact that it’s all still there 3000rpm later on. To put it in a less statistical perspective, when an XFR hits peak power at 6000rpm, a BMW M5 has not yet hit peak torque.

The engine also interacts with its six-speed ZF automatic transmission so well it makes you question the value of double-clutch transmissions and paddle-operated manual shifts. The XFR has a torque converter, but so immediate are its changes your fun remains uninterrupted.

And there is a lot of fun to be had. Of course it is monstrously fast, swifter even than its 4.7-second 0-60mph time suggests, but its real joy is the accessibility of this performance. Not only is the throttle response uncommonly sharp, the car also feels outstandingly wieldy for a four-door saloon weighing little less than 1900kg. The steering has real feel, by no means a given with cars of this size and weight, plus that typically Jaguar linearity which allows you to place the car precisely where you want on the road. I’m still amazed at how many cars fail this fundamental test.

Once in a corner, there is grip in abundance and a wide range of options at the exit, all the way from gently squeezing on the power and making the most of the extra traction provided by the diff, to jamming open the throttle and power-sliding like no Jaguar I’ve driven since I went up a wet Goodwood hill in a racing TWR XJS on cut slicks.

But perhaps what appeals most about the XFR is that the moment you want to calm down and drive a large comfortable saloon once more, you can. You can’t just waft along in an M5: it’s too manic, too aggressive to play it soft and gentle. But it’s second nature to the XFR which, at £59,900, is over £5000 cheaper than the BMW.

Of course the usual XF criticisms endure: there’s not enough room in the back and the looks at the front are not to everyone’s taste, but there is no disputing the excellence of the car as a whole. It’s not just quicker than an M5 from one place to the next, it’s more fun too.

It’s just one reason why, at JLR, Jaguar is now being perceived as the golden boy and Land Rover the problem child. It may seem an amazing turnaround in fortunes, but as Land Rover’s heavy and outsize SUVs fall foul of the fickle finger of fashion, so Jaguar is not only producing ultra-competitive cars like the XFR, its pioneering development of aluminium monocoques makes it exceptionally well placed to capitalise on future demand for luxurious and sporting but lightweight and efficient premium models. Rumours of a new small car – the so-called XKE – fly sufficiently thick and fast for its production to be considered a near-certainty. In the meantime it seems our appetites will remain whetted by a stripped-out, lightweight, two-seat XK, to do for Jaguar’s flagship coupé what the 911 GT3 does for Porsche’s seminal sports car.

Despite the current doom and despondency in the industry, I detect a real sense of optimism and excitement at Jaguar. “If we can get through the next year or so, our future could be brighter than it’s been for half a century,” said one well placed staff member. Fighting talk maybe, but if they can keep cars as good as the XFR coming on stream, it’s not difficult to see why.