Jaguar caused a huge stir in enthusiast circles when it debuted the lovely C-X75 hybrid super car, recently winning the 2011 North America Concept Car of the Year title with its graciously feline design to go with its ferocious 778 hp plug-in engine. And perhaps an even larger one when Jaguar confirmed an association with the Formula One Williams team to build a strictly limited-edition street version of the car, to cost at least £700,000 (about $1.1 million).
But even though only 250 cars in the world are planned for the mid-engine rocket's 2014 (or so) model year introduction, Jag enthusiasts will soon have a much more affordable yet still super-car-quick option at their dealer by this fall: the 2012 Jaguar XKR-S.
With 550 hp and more low-end oomph than Jaguar's last super-car effort, the gorgeous XJ220, it's Jaguar's first vehicle since that high-flier in the mid-1990s to deliver more performance than cushy comfort.
Jaguar says the XKR-S is the most powerful Jag thanks to its plentiful torque (its 550 hp figure matchs the XJ220). And compared to its British-accented Bentley and Aston Martin rivals, it promises to be a screaming bargain as well, even if the final price hasn't quite been finalized in Canada. Jaguar Canada is trying to hammer it down to within 10 grand or so of the coupe's $132,875 (U.S.) list price. But even if it ends up closer to 150 large by the time it arrives, it'll still check in at about half of what a similarly powerful Aston Martin DBS commands.
Based on Jaguar's already powerful but much more luxurious and comfort-oriented XKR 2+2 coupe, the XKR-S adds much more than an "R-S" badge on the back of the XK's rump. On top of the more powerful engine, up 40 hp from the 510 in the regular XKR, the XKR-S takes an aggressively sporting shape, with its large rear wing, extra nostrils near the front of the hood, and exclusive bold blue colour. It's a bit more discreet in the black and dark grey shades also offered on other XKs, but even still, it straddles a line between the boy racer Nissan GT-R look and the sophisticatedly Bond-worthy Aston Martin DBS.
Speaking of that DBS, with this new performance version, Jaguar also joins a collection of luxury auto makers to use R or S or both to distinguish their more sporting models, including Aston, Audi, Bugatti and Porsche. It has been about five years in Canada since BMW unsuccessfully took Nissan to court over Infiniti's use of the M moniker in its ads for its M mid-size cars and manual versions of the G35. But regardless of the potential legal pitfalls, now would be a good time for companies to get more creative in naming their products, performance versions or otherwise.
The XKR-S name may actually underplay the significance of this car for Jaguar, as it drives like a much different car than simply a tweaked XKR. As we drove to our date with the XKR-S near the southern Portuguese town of Portimao, at the challenging track that welcomes Moto GP races as well as Formula One testing, an XKR-S headed the opposite way let out a ferocious wail that clued us in to its radical personality shift. No Jaguar has ever sounded like this, and its active exhausts straighten out at higher rpm for both more power and more bellowing noise.
With 10 per cent more power, 10-mm lower springs - stiffened by about 28 per cent in front and 32 per cent at the rear - continuously electronically controlled dampers and lighter wheels than the formidable XKR, Jaguar has finally crossed over into unabashed sports car territory.
Well, maybe only a little bashed, as when one's going over bumps in all-out Dynamic mode - don't try this with a bad back. Sure, the Normal mode is a little softer and more comfortable. But you'll still have your chiropractor on speed dial if you continually drive over rutted streets. It's a touch more relaxed than a hard-edged Aston DBS, but much more track-ready than a similarly powerful but comfier Bentley Continental GT.
Around the circuit, the extra communication coming through the steering wheel is a marked improvement over the XKR's super-light feel. Dynamic mode sharpens up torque delivery, holds each gear to red line, prompts faster shift speeds from the paddle-shifted six-speed automatic, and sharpens its adaptive dynamics for faster responses and surprisingly little body roll for a Jaguar.
A six-speed manual or faster-shifting dual-clutch transmission would make for a more classic or cutting-edge driving feel, respectively, while the latter could likely shave a couple tenths from its factory-supplied 4.2-second 0-100 km dash time, potentially putting it in the much more exclusive three-second club.
Dynamic mode also opens up those active exhaust valves extra wide, relieving much of the back pressure - and sound-deadening - of the XKR's muffler. It is this freer-flowing exhaust and a retuned ECU that were the main ingredients to this car's 40 extra ponies, said Tim Clark, Jaguar's technical specialist.
The 2012 Jaguar XKR-S is a statement vehicle for Jaguar. Not that this is its new XJ220, that's what the C-X75 will be in a few years' time. This car shouts out that Jaguar is out to reclaim its lost place among the revered pantheon of serious sports car makers: both now, and in the future.
2012 Jaguar XKR-S
Type: Mid-size luxury performance coupe
Base price: (estimated) $145,000
Engine: 5.0-litre supercharged V=8
Horsepower/torque: 550 hp/502 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with paddles
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 18.9 city/8.6 highway; premium fuel
Alternatives: Aston Martin DBS, Bentley Continental GT, Maserati GrandTurismo MC Stradale, Mercedes-Benz SLS, Nissan GT-R, Porsche 911 Turbo S