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A knockout with punch

TO my co-workers with whom I share the company garage, I’m sorry. The recent presence of the 2007 Jaguar XKR test car left you so breathless as to be practically hypoxic. The resulting blue-faced befuddlement may have been responsible for an uptick in office mishaps, people trying to sharpen their pens and catching their ties in coffee makers, that sort of thing. And remember, gentlemen, check that barn door.

Breathe, colleagues, breathe. It’s just a car, though an uncommonly awesome-looking car. It was strange, really, to walk out to the garage and find people gathered around the XKR in twos and threes, murmuring and bright-eyed, as if they were warming themselves beside some sacred campfire of automotive culture.

Maybe the Jag is just that. Even though the car and company have next to zero in common with the ancien regime, people who wouldn’t know an XK-E from an X-ray machine somehow understand that the soigne XKR means something.

At first, I didn’t get it. When Jaguar unveiled the redesigned XK last year -- the replacement for the grand touring coupe/convertible that had been in service since 1998 -- I wasn’t bowled over. The XK is obviously a well-struck and handsome design, with the long hood, dramatically swept windshield and fastback hatch (like the surprisingly practical E-Types). But the car looked like a bit of a hulk, more concerned with authority than elegance. And that face! I heard people say the car had a feline grace but to me the car looked more catfish than cat.

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But vox populi cannot be denied. People absolutely fall all over this car, and I’m beginning to see their point. For one thing, the car puts the “grand” in grand touring. The XK is significantly longer and wider than either the Porsche 911 or the Maserati GranSport, and wider even than the larger BMW M6 or Mercedes-Benz CL550. And although all of these are pretty gorgeous cars, none of them have the stunning three-quarter-rear view of the XK. From this perspective, the aluminum skin seems to flow around the car in a single, rushing hydraulic moment. Maybe the effect is less aerodynamic than Jungian: This is the shape of a coveted thing slipping through your fingers.

What about the convertible? As with the original E-Type, the gentleman’s choice is the coupe. The coupe has the finer line and the great dignity. The XK Coupe is proud; the XK Convertible, vain.

Whatever graces the 300-hp XK has, the XKR -- the new, 420-hp supercharged version of the car -- doubles down on. Replacing the XK’s black-mesh oval grille that inevitably reminded people of the Ford Taurus (and Ford’s ownership hanging in the corporate ether), the XKR has racy upper and lower grilles filled with aluminum-finish mesh. Instead of the torpedo tube-like apertures for the fog lights in the standard car, the XKR has flush-fitted trapezoidal panels. Blade-like aluminum sashes along the fuselage are “power vents” (a design feature that is quoted on Jag’s new concept car, the C-XF, seen in Detroit). On the back, a bold band of polished aluminum on the trunk plinth gussies up the rear view, as do the mortar-like quad exhausts.

The best detail is the near-ellipse of brightwork around the window opening, a beautiful bit of self-symmetry that restates the whole of the car.

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With 120 more horsepower and 103 pound-feet more torque than the standard XK (413 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm), the XKR is a far quicker breed of cat. Sitting on top of the 4.2-liter, 32-valve, variably timed V8 is an Eaton supercharger blowing about 8 pounds of maximum boost into the cylinders. The boys at Car and Driver recorded a quarter-mile pass of 13 seconds flat, and 0-60 acceleration of 4.5 seconds. Those are huge numbers. However, Jaguar’s own estimation of 0-60 mph in 4.9 seconds is more in line with my experience of the car.

In any event, these numerical absolutes don’t really do justice to the car, which is more about the profound competence than back-slamming aggression. Get the XKR pointed up the freeway onramp and roll on the throttle. It won’t disappoint. You’ll sink deep into the leather sports seat as a deep trenchant warble comes out of the quad pipes and a steely supercharger whine colors the air. What time does this train get to Waterloo station?

Like the XK, the XKR is fitted with a smart, quick-shifting six-speed automatic with sequential-shift mode. Full-power shifts are greasy-smooth and seamless. In manual mode, shifting is more aggressive (higher allowable rpm) and crisper, but generally, the sport automatic mode is plenty clever enough to go fast.

To match the XKR’s increased output and weight (3,814 pounds, 143 pounds heavier than the XK Coupe) Jag up-rated the springs as well as retuned the adaptive damping, steering and electronic stability and traction control. The front brake discs are more than an inch wider (13.98 inches) than the standard car’s. Clamping duties fall to black-painted “R"-badged brake calipers.

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All these tweaks to the hardware don’t transform the car so much as raise its parametric limits. The XK’s aluminum monocoque easily handles the extra horsepower. The interior ambience is hushed and unperturbed. Unlike competitors like the Porsche 911 and BMW M6 -- which dole out suspension travel like it was the world’s rarest commodity -- the XKR has a fairly limber suspension, making it more comfortable over long distances.

There’s little of the concussive edginess of those cars in the XKR. That said, there’s nothing remotely flick-able or toss-able about the XKR. It’s a grand touring car that requires commitment and forethought to drive fast. If you put it into a corner at high speed, you have to expect the car to give a little waggle as it scrunches down on its springs, trusting that the big Dunlop SP tires will hang on (and they do). Because of its weight, the XKR will pitch and heave and have trouble catching up with itself on rough pavement.

If you’re considering a high-performance variant of a luxury machine, my advice generally is, don’t: High-five-figure luxury cars already have more performance than you can legally use, so what’s with the supernumerary excess? The case is more complicated with the XK, which I think is slightly underpowered in its off-the-shelf form. Also, consider the dollar-per-hp formula. The XKR is $11,000 more than the XK, a difference that equals about $91.66 per extra horsepower. This actually is a huge bargain. A BMW 6-series coupe with 360 hp starts at $73,900, and the 500-hp M6 starts at $98,600. That comes to a whopping $176.42 per additional hp.

The other complication of the XKR has to do with the interior. The XKR’s interior decor is perfectly functional -- more functional, in terms of intuitive ease, than either of the German cars’ controls -- but not particularly gracious or satisfying. The Mercedes, the BMW and Maserati all have more refinement, richer materials and more artful layout in the cockpit. And these cars also have longer lists of amenities and technologies.

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So where does that leave the Jaguar XKR? I suppose it comes down to something called brand equity. Some cars are better at things than others: BMWs seem to handle better; Mercedes-Benzes are elegant, smart and safe; Lexuses are impeccably crafted.

Jaguars are primarily beautiful, and people who buy them typically put beauty before how many speakers are in the car or whether there’s an air bag in the cup holder. A Jag is a value statement that says: More than anything, I want this bright piece of varnished speed in my driveway.

Who could say that’s wrong? Not me.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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2007 Jaguar XKR

Base price: $86,500

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Price, as tested: $88,700

Powertrain: Supercharged 4.2-liter, 32-valve V8 with variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode; rear-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 420 at 6,250 rpm

Torque: 413 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

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Curb weight: 3,814 pounds

0-60 mph: 4.9 seconds

Wheelbase: 108.3 inches

Overall length: 188.6 inches

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EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Sex kitten


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