Coventry Climax

A supercharged V8 motor mates Jaguar’s new XJR the quickest saloon car in production but, as Andrew Frankel discovers, it is merely the crowning glory of a radically improved range

I have long believed that the perception of a car’s performance is more important than the reality; indeed one of the reasons you and I like older cars is that they tend to feel faster than they actually are. If you can create the illusion of speed without having to charge about the place at antisocial speeds, so much the better.

‘The delight of this rule is not that it can be applied across the board but, conversely, that every so often, a true exception will emerge. Jaguar’s new XJR is one such car. It is truly and astonishingly quick, faster than any road-going Jaguar in history if you except the extremely limited and rare XJR-15 and XJ220 but, once aboard, this seems scarcely the point. What is rather more impressive is that it gathers speed with so little drama that the most noticeable aspect of its acceleration is the rate at which the speedometer needle will sweep round to 155mph before its majestic and hitherto unassailable progress is abruptly halted by electronic intervention.

Spend much time in the car and those first vague feelings of disappointment from being robbed of the more traditional sensations of acceleration are replaced by deep-seated admiration. This is not a car which needs bluff and bluster to establish its credentials; it has a 4-litre, eight-cylinder, supercharged engine to do its talking and that, it would seem, is all that’s needed.

It seems strange that now all jaguars are powered by V8 engines when the sixes and the twelves have given so nobly to the Coventry cause. Until now Jaguar had never designed an eight-cylinder engine. Even so, this is Jaguar’s engine from its cam-covers to its crankcase, signed off before Ford marched in, and shares but one component with other Ford products; and as one sump plug is much the same as another, I think we can forgive that. It comes in three forms, the mighty 370bhp supercharged unit, a still punchy normally aspirated version with variable inlet valve timing and 290bhp and an introductory 3.2-litre engine with conventional valve timing and a still meaningful 240bhp. All are now available in Jaguar’s 10-year-old saloon.

You’ll not lament the sixes they replace for long. My judgement is that even the new bent 3.2 is more than a performance match for the old straight 4.0-litre, and, with the added benefit of much smoother delivery and the responses of a brilliantly slick five-speed ZF automatic gearbox, the powertrain has recovered all the ground lost to the German opposition in the last few years.

Nor do the changes stop when the bonnet shuts. Though it looks almost indistinguishable from its predecessor from the outside (see if you can spot the new lewd’ headlamps or the recently divided chronic strip atop the rear bumper), Jaguar says that 30 per cent of the car’s structure is either new or modified out of all recognition.

Many of these changes, it should be said, were needed to accomodate a V8 in place of a straight six. Even so, Jaguar had squeezed in its 6-litre V12 in the past so that problem should not have proved too arduous. Of rather greater importance is the introduction of the XK8 coupe’s front suspension, brakes and engine mounts. If you thought Jaguar saloons set high standards of ride and handling in the past, the XJ8 will make you realise how much further the talents ofJaguar’s chassis engineers can push back the boundaries.

The cabin has been further cleaned up too. The nasty ledge of switches in front of the facia have given way to conventional column stalks which operate in the same way as, though with rather more class than, those from any large Ford saloon. There’s an analogue clock marking one more step in the welcome retreat from the hideously electronic instruments this car featured at its 1987 launch, more front legroom achieved simply by extra scat travel with correspondingly less rear leg room and even a substantially larger glove box.

What is most remarkable about these changes is that they amount to a greater number of modifications than that the car received in 1994 when XJ40 was replaced by X300 and was heralded then as an almost entirely new car. Now X300 has been replaced by X308 to see Jaguar’s mainstay into the next century and beyond. It is a shame that none of these cars, even the supercharged XJR, can be specified with manual transmission. Many of the project engineers wanted to specify a six-speeder but it was ruled out, firstly because research suggested sales would be negligible, secondly because the resale value of any cars so equipped would have been appalling and, finally, because even the old five-speed Getrag box used until now cost Jaguar more than the automatic even though the customer was asked to pay less.

Climbing aboard the supercharged XJR, several things become immediately apparent even before you move off. The extra legroom, for instance, while quoted at just under an inch, is critical, making the saloon, for the first time in its history, comfortable for those considerably more than 6ft tall. The cleaner dashboard is welcome too even if the new, XK8-derived dials are not: they’re too faintly calibrated and deeply recessed into the dash.

The engine idles evenly but with that curious whine of mechanical forced induction. Tug the gearlever back into Drive, ease off the brake and the XJR oozes forward as you gently apply the accelerator. You notice the sublime slickness of each gearchange and regret Jaguar had to ask Mercedes to provide it, the usual and excellent ZF ‘box lacking the strength to cope with 387Ib ft of torque at 3600rpm.

Ah yes, the torque. If bald figures fail to put the output into perspective allow me to dress them up a little. Ferrari’s F355 produces just 268lb ft of torque, way up at 6000rpm. You’ll need to point the XJR at a short straight if you need further explanation. It’s best not to kick the throttle to the floor as this makes the ‘box jump down a couple of gears and the effect is lost. Leave the gearbox calibration in its economy setting, squeeze hard on the throttle and watch as speed is simply acquired. The prow doesn’t reach for the sky, nor does its bottom sit down, so controlled is its suspension by mechanical linkage and electronic damping. You don’t even feel a thud in the back: the superlatively stuffed Lear seats just seem to hold you a little closer.

There is a noise, and an interesting one too. There’s not much of the traditional 90deg V8 soundtrack left but its replacement, a whirring hum at low revs which develops into a curiously attractive off-beat roar as maximum power is produced, still provides pleasing company. Compared to the XJR it replaces, which used the old AJ16 straight six, it is a far more sophisticated, not to mention more powerful, unit.

Though Jaguar is putting more power through this chassis than its original creators ever envisaged, it copes with ease, flowing through the corners with a composure that belies its considerable 1775kg weight. New Servotronic steering reduces helm efforts to limousine levels but does little to help feel through the corners. Like every other Servotronic system I’ve encountered, the sensation of being electronically distanced from what’s going on under the front tyres remains. Even so, the chassis has such natural balance and mighty grip from the 255/40 ZR 18 Pirelli P-Zero tyres, the steering is never likely to put you off hard motoring. Turn the superb traction control off and probe the limits of adhesion a little harder and you’ll find nothing more than safe, friendly slides.

The Daimler variant of the XJR, called the Super V8 is funnier still, if only because, with its long wheelbase, chromed exterior brightwork and sumptuous interior, it looks more dignified carriage than car capable of hitting 60mph from rest in 5.3 seconds, less time than a Ferrari 456GTA. It wallows a little more, feels a shade more ungainly than the Jaguar but still covers the ground at an unlikely speed while cruising the motorways with not far short of Mercedes levels of refinement.

These strengths are not confined to the flagships either. The normally aspirated Jaguars and Daimlers have enjoyed full advantage of the updates too. Even so, comparing standard XJ8s with both 3.2 and 4.0litre engines proved that the optimum variant lay somewhere between the two. In favour of the car with the larger engine is not so much its extra power but its torque: 290lb ft at 4250rpm compared to 233lb ft at 4320rpm. The principal difference is that the 4.0-litre has to spend much less time looking around for the gears with which to deliver its performance than the short-stroke 3.2. Its progress is notably more effortless.

But it is neither as comfortable nor is its engine as smooth. The smaller powerplant revs more freely, and the chassis is equipped with softer suspension and 225/60 ZR 16 tyres; the 4.0-litre comes with sports suspension and much stiffer 235/50 ZR 17 Pirellis. The result is a car with a ride no smoother than that of the titan XJR, with only a small improvement in poise and grip. The best blend in theory would be a 4.0-litre with standard suspension but such a creature only exists in expensive and longwheelbase-only Sovereign form.

UK sales start on September 26, the car having been launched officially at the Frankfurt Motor Show on September 9 and, in keeping with Jaguar tradition, the most fearsome weapon it has in the struggle against the Germans is its price. The cheapest variant is the XJ8 3.2 Sport, costing £34,475 which compares well to the £43,705 which BMW asks for the slower, less powerful but rather more roomy 728i, while at the other end of the scale a £62,775 Daimler Super V8 looks cheap against £73,455 that BMW asks for its range-topping 750iL.

This new range of Jaguars still falls far short of perfection. The basic problems inherent within its design, particularly the limited interior space and poor packaging, would not go away with a million more tweaks. Nor can you escape the fact that, these days, there are BMWs, Audis, Mercedes and Toyotas which are quieter at speed. None, however, rides better than a 3.2-litre XJ8, nor will they eat a wide road with the same alacrity as an XJR. What’s more, the new eight-cylinder engine is a triumph by anyone’s standards while quality, that subject which preys most on the minds of the men of Coventry, has moved once more in the right direction.

What Jaguar has provided with these saloons is, while not the finest range of four-door cars in the world, then at least real and serious competition to the established German hierarchy. And in the XJR in particular, it has something truly special. It will be challenged severely, no doubt, by next year’s BMW M5 and Audi S8, but until we can report on that contest, the finest sports saloon on sale in the UK conies not from Munich or Stuttgart, but, for the first time in a generation, from Coventry.