Blood & Thunder

Jaguar once built the best sports saloon in the world and if the new S-Type is to succeed it must do it all over again. Matthew Franey pits the new car against a ratherspecial version of the old.

Heritage. You can define it easily - enough the Oxford English says simply "anything that is or may be inherited" - but try and put your finger on what it means in an automotive sense. Our industry is littered with examples of successful and not so successful attempts at creating cars that seem to spring genetically from their forebears. Yet while some are noteable for their almost intuitive sense of evolution - Porsche's 911 springs instantly to mind - others play the most tenuous of heritage cards. There are few things the increasingly informed consumer likes less than a car that purports to offer the trappings of modernity in a classic shell while in reality delivering scarely anything. MG's ghastly RV8 ring any bells?

What judgment then can you draw from the arrival of Jaguar's much heralded new 'small car', the S-type? Here is a car that bears the onerous responsibility of continuing the marque's welcomed revival while at the same time trying to drive a wedge firmly back into a fiercely competitive market sector that the Coventry firm vacated several decades ago and has since been monopolised by the likes of BMW, Mercedes and even Lexus.

Visually, Jaguar has presented its marketing team with a conundrum. The S-type, so obviously drawing on styling cues from the original MkII and original 1960s 'S' is an attractive car. In fact, I'd say that L have never driven a mass-produced road car that has turned so many heads and even forced pedestrians to step into the road to catch a glimpse of that evocative headlight cluster and front grill. And the problem? It's a two-fold thing. Firstly, no Jaguar fanatics were seen jumping from the kerb to look at the rear of the car, which is a bland and unsatisfactory way to round off an otherwise elegant design. And secondly, I have yet to see a photograph in any publication that fully captures the S-type's head-on visual impact. If the car does attract buyers in their tens of thousands, it will be because they saw one on the road or in the showroom, not in the pages of a brochure or magazine such as this.

Indeed, it is the marketability of the S-type which will, in the end, dictate whether it is a success and, on that front, Jaguar have a real fight on their hands. When the overdrive version of the 3.8-litre MkII car rolled out of Browns Lane at the beginning of the 1960s, The Autocar claimed it was unbeatable value for money: "In one compact car an owner has Gran Turismo performance, town carriage manners and luxurious family appointments." Things have changed in the intervening years and the car to beat now comes not from Coventry but from Munich. For the S-type to reclaim that top spot it will need not just to equal but exceed the capabilities of BMW's 5 series, arguably the most complete all-rounder in automotive history.

Buoyed by some rather unBritish exuberance, Jaguar christened early designs of the new car 'the BMW killer', a tacit admission of the task in hand. To win, all the company had to do was build a car that matched the 5 series in ride quality, handling and overall driving pleasure while maintaining those quintessential Jaguar qualities that The Autocar praised so highly some 40 years earlier. Some task...

You will have a choice of three S-types when you stroll into your local Jag dealer. Base model is the manual 3.0, producing 240bhp from a Ford-derived V6 engine, a five-speed Getrag transmission and a price tag of £28,300. For an extra £4,850 you can swap the manual 'box for the equivalent automatic unit from ZF plus the sundry goodies that comprise the 'Special Equipment' version, while top of the range is the 4.0-litre auto, which utilises Jaguar's own 281bhp V8 block and produces a highly respectable 287lb ft of torque. Prices climb again to £37,610 - some £700 more than BMW's 535i - but it comes with performance to match.

The elder statesman on hand is a 3.8-litre MkII that early in its life enjoyed the close attentions of that master Jaguar fettler John Coombs. Chosen because it represents both the pinnacle of the '60s model and also for the fact that it stood the best chance of keeping up with its younger cousin on the day, this pristine MkII underwent a comprehensive rebuild at Coombs' Guildford garage in the mid-'60s. For the grand sum of £185, new high compression pistons, crankshaft, flywheel and a gas-flowed cylinder head were fitted while a further £40 bought two inch racing carburettors. Power was boosted to well in excess of 250bhp from an already impressive 220bhp while another £24 gave uprated front springs and a new anti-roll bar that ensured all that excess thrust went onto the road and not up in smoke.

If the hereditary principle is what you look for in your car you cannot fail to pick out the influences exerted on current Jaguar designer Geoff Lawson when it came to penning the S-type. The oval grille, a recurring theme from the time when Sir Williams Lyons sat at a drawing board, is as distinctly Jaguar as a three-pointed star is Mercedes-Benz. The curves and prominences of the bonnet line could sit comfortably on no other make of car while you could mount a rock solid case for plagiarism when you study the graceful curves of the rear quarter lights on the old MkII.

From the driver's seat however, the disparity between the timeless feel of the Coombs car and the sterile modern cabin of the S-type is striking. While leather and veneer are in no short supply in either cabin, the S-type feels less Jaguar than the firm's other cars. One colleague described the interior of "having the smell of Ford" about it and some of the switchgear looks suspiciously similar to a Mondeo I recently drove. And while I am being pernickety, please will someone stop and think for a while about cars and clocks. MOTOR SPORT's wonderful long-term XJR has an analogue clock that can only be read if you are sitting in the rear left seat and S-type goes one step further, with a tiny digital affair buried within a mass of other glowing figures on the stereo display. Bring your magnifying glasses...

Optional extras include a complex satellite navigation system that did well over the course of a week but did get a little confused on a trip to Finchley and a very neat voice recognition system that can tune your stereo, dial the office and turn on the air conditioning when it hears your voice.

Aboard the smaller V6 Jaguar, and with ignition key turned, all the correct sensations make their way through to the driver; the engine's gentle whirr rising progressively in tone as the revs rise. Depress the light but long clutch pedal, ease away and the Jaguar displays considered poise and stability as speeds rise. In fact where the S-type shines - right through the range - is during hard driving, where the car's balance and poise is a match for anything that BMW can currently throw at it. The steering on the 3-litre cars will be too light for the most committed of drivers but the superb traction control and optional CATS - Computer Active Technology Suspension - allow you to hustle the car through a series of tightening S-bends at considerable velocity. Riding on attractive 17 inch alloy wheels and Pirelli's P6000 tyres - non-CATS S-types are 16-inch - road holding and grip levels are prodigious.

Slowest of the range in accelerative terms is the V6 automatic with 60mph coming up in 8sec but long gearing in its manual equivalent means both cars feel slower than they might. If you are buying your S-type for more than motorway cruising, then look to your wallet and the bigger V8. With weightier steering and real torque - 287lb ft at 4300rpm - the 4-litre car surges to 60mph in 6.6 seconds and tackles country lanes with real aplomb.

Surprise of the day, however, comes from the Coombs MkII. With its uprated suspension and V8 equalling power output, the elderly Jaguar displays a remarkable appetite for disposing of great swathes of country lanes. Revving freely and pulling hard in all four gears, the only obvious signs of the car's age are its low-geared steering - over four turns lock to lock - but once accustomed to giving a hefty heave on the wheel all that is required is that you sit back and savour the glorious howl of that XK engine and equally throaty roar of the exhausts.

On straighter, longer roads the overdrive top allows for a slightly more refined journey but this is a car to be driven with vigour. Ride quality understandably comes in the 'jarring' category but what can you expect of a tuned '60s racer? Expectation levels of the new S-type however should be much higher and if there is one single area where the cars on test failed to come up to scratch it is, surprisingly for Jaguar, ride. The CATS-equipped car so good on the open road makes heavy work of humps and potholes. Common consent says the conventionally damped cars ride better, so it is a compromise that I am surprised the company is prepared to make.

Make no mistake: S-type is a highly competent luxury saloon; in some aspects it is superb. But it has to compete in a sector that's seen such development that to become a market leader, to be able to say that you produce the best car in the world, requires the creation of a car that gives everything to an unforgiving public. And this the S-type does not do.

So will Jaguar's revival continue? The answer is yes. For all its faults, and they are small, this is a car that will be bought in its thousands by those who, ten years ago, could not see themselves ever buying a Jaguar again. What's more, the brains behind the real best car in the world - ex-BMW man Wolfgang Reitzle - now runs Ford's luxury brands. The future for Jaguar and its fine S-type, seems bright indeed.