"Save the Ring."
That's what the signs read as I arrived at the world's most famous motor racing track – Germany's Nürburgring. I was there to test-drive some hot Jaguars on the celebrated Nordschleife – the 22-kilometre North Loop. The Ring is holy ground to German gearheads. To them, it's a pilgrimage destination as significant as Lourdes. So why would the Ring need saving?
Rounding a corner, I saw the cause. Four years ago, the German government blew €350-million on a Leisure Park – read tourist trap. It includes a posh hotel, a shopping mall, an indoor go-kart track, a giant event arena and a €15-million roller coaster that runs up and over most of this. The whole complex is as empty as a ghost town. The roller coaster has never been allowed to operate as it exerts a G-force on passengers that only an astronaut could handle.
This big white elephant is the cause of a scandal involving politicians and over-promising promoters that will play out for years. Economically, it's a disaster. The problem for gearheads is that management wants to cover the huge losses on the Leisure Park through greatly increased fees for motor racing fans plus a five times increase for the automotive industry in track rent for their prototype testing sessions.
Ah, testing. Back to the story. Jaguar has been testing its products here for more than 20 years. When the hallowed Nordschleife is not used for racing (hardly ever) it's the favourite testing site of car companies, tire manufacturers, shock absorber suppliers – basically anyone who wants to be associated in a marketing sense with the "greatest" of all race tracks. Mind you, the sainted north loop – the Nordschleife – is so narrow and dangerous and difficult, that Formula One racers have refused to race there since 1976. Perhaps that adds to the legendary status.
Cadillac, for example, which was the vehicle of choice for funeral directors for decades, now advertizes its lap times on the Nordschleife. Jaguar, which has also been a lost brand for years, now boasts about its Nordschleife heritage and, of course, its lap times. The cachet of Nürburgring, even with its Leisure Park caused financial and identity crisis, is marketing gold.
I was at the track to test drive a new model in Jaguar's XJ lineup – the Supersport. The XJ is its flagship luxury sedan and it's is available in five models: Luxury, Premium Luxury, Portfolio, Supersport and Ultimate. To further complicate the choice, each model comes in standard wheel base or L for long.
The XJ is built of weight-saving aluminum and weighs in an average of 150 kg lighter than its rivals. Although it's a large car, it is remarkably agile and fast in the corners. The Supersport is pushed along by a five-litre Supercharged V8 rated at 510 horsepower. Nordschleife even gives a 510 hp car (and its driver) a good workout. It's a course with brutal turns with zero runoff areas. It's also an uphill-downhill course with elevation changes that make your ears pop. Plus, it's so big that it was pouring rain on one side of the track and hot and dry on the other.
I've always liked the XJ and believe that it doesn't get the credit in deserves in the big leagues of luxury sedans. Jag knows it has to sharpen up its image and there's a new car about a year away that should do just that. Jaguar has confirmed that it is building a new two-seat roadster designated the F-Type. It will be available with the same 510-horsepower engine that was in the XJ Supersport that I thrashed around the track. Jag hopes the F-Type will do for its image what the R8 did for Audi. I snooped around the Jaguar test facility but if it has an F-Type prototype for testing it's keeping it well hidden.
One last point about the Nordschleife; since its opening in 1927, it has always been available for public use when not closed off for racing or testing. For €26 (almost $34) per lap, people from all over Europe come to try their luck on the course where their heroes have raced; and of course, just like the Autobahn, there is no speed limit. Masses of cars from Ferraris to Ford Fiestas are out on the track together. It is mayhem. I saw a video of crash after crash after crash as would-be racers found the track was more than they could handle. That's German car culture at its finest and reason enough to "Save the Ring."