At long last, the Cat is out of the bag… By Andrew Frankel
Factfile Price: £79,985 Engine: 5.0 litres, eight cylinders, supercharged Power: 488bhp @6500rpm Torque: 416lb ft @2500-5500rpm Transmission: eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive —————- 0-62mph: 4.3 sec Top Speed: 186mph (limited) Economy: 25.5mpg CO2: 259g/km
To me it should be a matter of indifference whether the Jaguar F-type is a good or bad car. As an objective observer of fact, I should be able to approach Jaguar’s third attempt to replace the E-type (the first two never made production) with an entirely dispassionate eye.
But I can’t. It didn’t just matter to me that F was a letter worthy of following Types C, D and E: it was essential.
By lunch on day one of its launch, my hopes lay strewn across a circuitous route from Pamplona airport to the new Navarra race track. My greatest fear had been that the F-type would feel not like a true sports car, but a four-fifths scale XK. A tourer, not a roadster.
And so it had proved. The Jaguar looked great parked in the Spanish sunshine and I understand the commerce behind the decision to launch the convertible ahead of the forthcoming coupe. But it soon became apparent that something was substantially wrong. The 335bhp supercharged 3-litre V6 made a suitably invigorating noise and provided convincing if not exceptional performance, but on some of Europe’s greatest roads it had failed to invigorate to any great extent, let alone inspire. The car felt imprecise, the steering seemed vague about the straight-ahead and the suspension surprisingly under-damped. Vertical movements over long-wave undulations were merely mitigated rather than resisted, so you were diffident about committing to quick curves. You felt the car likely to roll not too much but too quickly, then lurch over the surface changes that pepper roads in this part of the world.
Worse, around the lunch table no one seemed to be talking about the car, a sure sign of a bunch of hacks not wanting to be drawn into a tricky conversation with the manufacturer.
Things improved afterwards, not just because I was able to head out onto the track and behave like an idiot for a few laps, but because I was now driving the F-type S, with a 375bhp version of the same engine. In fact it was splendid fun. On a smooth circuit with none of the surface issues that so upset the standard car on the road, and with the added bonus of a standard limited-slip differential, it drifted around quite amiably until I felt sorry for the next person who’d have to use its tyres, but gave no great hope for the afternoon run back to Pamplona. The extra power was welcome, but I feared would only highlight the chassis’ inadequacies.
Within five miles my passenger and I were exchanging quizzical glances. Something about the car had changed — and so significantly you didn’t even need a steering wheel in your hand to sense it.
I knew already that, diff and additional power aside, the F-Type S came with adaptive damping, but I’d not attached much significance to the information. The spring and roll bar rates were unchanged as was the suspension geometry. True, the S came with 19in wheels as standard, but they were hardly going to transform the car.
But transformed it was. The F-type was now close to the car I’d hoped it might be from the start. All the heave and wallow that had so affected the earlier car was notable only by its absence. Instead the car felt taut, poised, ready for anything.
In turn that meant I was ready to throw everything I could at it. Indeed I felt obliged to discover how deep this new talent ran because it wouldn’t be the first time electronic damper control had created a skin of sophistication for an allegedly sporting car, only for it to be sloughed away by the first set of sharp and tricky corners it encountered. So I tried and tried, as hard as was sensible on deserted but still public roads. And yes, you could still make it struggle for composure, but only by first identifying a particularly difficult sequence of curves and then deliberately unsettling the car. In anything even the most die-hard of road warriors might identify as remotely normal driving, the car was unshakeable.
Then I could enjoy its other attributes. The engine sounds fine, even if the pops and bangs on the overrun are clearly arranged rather than inherent. Supercharging might be unfashionable these days, because of the parasitic losses at maximum effort (the F-type’s requires 60bhp just to function), but if you can put up with the thirst then the noise, lag-free throttle response and torque spread beat even the cleverest modern turbos hands down. I didn’t even mind the eight-speed auto gearbox; true, I’d have preferred a manual and probably even a double-clutch arrangement, but the ZF unit locks its torque converter the moment speeds rise above a crawl and will shift in less than 200 milliseconds. That’s quick enough for most. I was heartened, not least because I knew the best was to come.
That’s the job of the 488bhp, 5-litre supercharged V8 S F-type. Some Jaguar people had suggested its handling might be blunted by an extra 45kg, but that was not my experience. The extra weight of the engine is almost entirely offset at the back by the additional mass of an electronically controlled differential. Unlike the standard LSD in the V6 S, this can operate anywhere between fully open and fully locked according to need.
Predictably, performance is on another level to either V6 car, but you no longer feel any need to wring it out to the redline between shifts. Because it accelerates like an artillery shell from idle, by the time you hit 4500rpm your fingers are itching to throw another gear at it and feel that kick again.
Later there was much talk about which F-type was preferable. So often with expensive sports cars, the cheapest is the best. That’s certainly the case with the F-type’s closest rivals, the Porsche 911 and Audi R8. Here, however, this is emphatically not so. The standard F-type is a disappointment, a car for people more interested in being seen in an F-type than actually driving one.
At £67,520 the S is £9000 more expensive and worth every penny. Forget the extra power, it’s the chassis that counts. It’s still a little too pliant to convince as an outright sports car, but there’s no shame in that. In fact the hybrid role of super-sporting GT car is precisely that performed by the E-type in 1961. The V8 costs another £12,465 but it takes the F-type to another level. Unlike the majority of the press pack, who favoured the V6 S, if I’d determined to buy an F-type I’d now not settle for less than a V8.
Even at its very best the F-type is not a landmark car and does not today approach the standards of performance and value that so shocked the world when the E-type was unveiled 52 years ago. But that world has become a very different, more highly regulated place. Just ensuring the car complies with all the safety and emissions legislation probably removes 90 per cent of freedom to design a car any damn way you choose.
But within the bounds of what was achievable, Jaguar has done a fine job with this car. Most hearteningly, we now know those looks did not flatter to deceive. Jaguar has designed a successor to the E-type in more than merely name. And I’ll not disguise that, from where I’m sitting, that’s a relief.