With the sexy beast that is the XKR, Jaguar is back in the game, reclaiming its classic status alongside Ferrari, Maserati and the rest, says William Cash
For the last three months, I have known what it feels like to be a hibernating hedgehog whose sleek nose — in this case a supercharged silver nose backed by a 4.2 litre engine — has been craving the first signs of summer.
Because the car I have been driving has not been my loyal old BMW 740, which I loved until it had a heart attack on the M40, but rather the new Jaguar XKR 4.2 convertible. The Jaguar factory lent me the car while my garage in Shropshire tried to source a new engine for my BMW.
So far they haven’t had much luck and, frankly — three months later — that suits me just fine.
The only snag has been that until we went to press, the winter has been so bad that there has been almost no opportunity to take down the roof and really see what the new breed of XK Jaguar is all about.
Drive around Mayfair and London’s most fashionable streets and you will notice that the Jaguar has finally made a comeback; certainly aesthetically.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have walked out of a restaurant, or a country house during a shooting weekend, only for some braying upper-class accent to drawl: ‘Nice car, William — is that the new Maserati or an Aston?’
On another occasion, I was filling up the car at my local petrol station on Sloane Avenue in Chelsea when I noticed a foxy blonde, whom I quickly recognised as an ex, eyeing up my car.
She couldn’t take her eyes off the beast. Only when I loudly called out her name did she realise that it belonged to an ex-boyfriend of hers. She was much more interested in the car than its driver — regardless of any personal history.
Does the XKR really compare with the Aston Martin Vantage V8 convertible, which Aston Martin likes to call its ‘Roadster’, or is it more like the DB9 Volante, which was almost towed off to the Hague and put on trial after being accused of an evil amount of shaking when you put your foot down?
In terms of price, at least, the Jaguar comes out on top with an ‘asking price’ of £74,900. Against this, the Maserati Quattroporte S starts at around £78,000 and the Aston Vantage starts at £83,000, with the Roadster quoted at £93,000.
However, what you actually pay for a new car these days is very much down to your negotiating skills. A hedge-fund friend of mine walked into a Range Rover dealership
(part of the Jaguar family) and walked away with a new Range Rover for £45,000 — when his wife had walked in two days beforehand, the asking price had been £71,000. ‘It wasn’t the very top model, it was the second top model,’ he told me smugly.
I had to wait until a glorious winter’s morning on the narrow lane from my house at Upton Cressett in Shropshire before finally having had enough of driving with the roof up. With a flick of a switch, the roof whirred in a hydraulic, winter-awakening flexing of the muscles and performed a balletic roof movement that soon had the roof collapsed into a tiny area behind the rear seats (if you can call them seats, that is).
Then we were away, burning down the old medieval road faster than anything had probably ever travelled down the lane before — I made it to 105mph in the space of what seemed like a few seconds before a few scared pheasants darted out of the hedgerow and I had to slam on the brakes.
Thank goodness for the R performance brakes. Had they not been so effective, I was looking to toss a dead cock pheasant into the trunk — which is not large by any standards — and take it home for dinner.
I know about Jags. My father used to have a Jaguar XJS in which he used to enjoy burning down the country lane to our house in the 1980s; and before that he had a Jensen FF, which was four-wheel drive and the Audi R8 of its time.
All went at a fair lick on the single-track road that was built for Sir Francis Cressett, who was the closest Charles I had to a ‘trusted financial adviser’. All my father’s cars had a tradition of being road-tested up and down our local version of the Cresta Run — what I like to call the Cressett Run,
like the infamous Cresta of St Moritz, only it is longer, more treacherous, steeper and more punishing, whether your mode of transport is foot, horse, car or tractor. This super-steep hill, called Meadowly Bank, starting at Underton, is where England’s finest racing trainers bring the Queen’s horses to build up their stamina and speed as yearlings.
It is more treacherous and testing than the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb in nearby Worcestershire, which has long been thought of by speed addicts as the most pure and testing of British speed climbs ever since the Midland Automobile Club was first given permission by the tenant of Court House Farm to use the steep medieval bridle path running up through his fields for a speed trial.
That was in 1905, when normal cars just timed themselves racing up Shelsley’s notorious hill. It wasn’t until 1913 that specially prepared and stripped-down cars, built for competition, were timed racing up the hill — with the proviso that they had to have four-seater bodies and a ‘full complement’ of passengers.
The latter doesn’t really exist with the XKR as it has only two seats — the rear seat is ideal for my wife’s chihuahua, Pitufa, to curl up comfortably, but that is about it.
So it was my wife, the chihuahua and myself making up the ‘full complement’ as we made our first high-speed assault on the Cressett Run with the roof down. When English Tour de France wannabes want to taste real pain and put themselves through agony with a hill climb that matches the torture of the Pyrenees, they line up at the bottom of the Cressett Run, in all weathers, to see who is man enough to take the punishment. The hill is also regularly used by a former winner of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix (historique) to practise his hill-climb technique in a Bugatti Type 59.
In the Jaguar XKR I beat all previous timed records on the Cressett Run — the 120bhp engine scrambled, roared, and flew up the hill in under 48 seconds. The car will hit 62mph in 5.9 seconds; and will rocket on to reach 155mph without much of a fuss. Mid-range acceleration is where the beast comes into its own, screaming from 50 to 70mph in 2.5 seconds.
The noise was like a plane taking off when I put my foot down, as the V8 really screams; but what do you expect when you have 313lb-ft under the bonnet? I didn’t have marshals lining the course, but I did have my gardener stand at the top of the hill preventing anybody coming down — otherwise they would have got a nasty shock.
Of course, despite the six-speed paddle gears, called the Jaguar Sequential Shift system (taken from Formula One technology), you are going so fast that you don’t really know what gear you are in, but, believe me, it is blisteringly fast and the grip — and this was winter, when grit had recently been put down on the Cressett Run — was better than the grip of my wife’s chihuahua on my nose when I sat on her by accident before watching an episode of Law and Order.
So the XKR is fast and it could probably have beaten even the great Hans Stuck to win the Grossglockner mountain-climb in 1938, but what about the car itself? Is it a looker? Or does it suffer from the Jaguar curse of making you feel every time you get behind the wheel as if you are en route to the accountant’s office or the golf club secretary’s private parking bay?
Thankfully the launch of the XKR has cured the Jaguar of its quaint Kent suburb image as well as that of a Mayfair crack dealer; or as the sort of car that Arthur Daley would try to flog to an East End antiques dealer.
Even Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear team have been won round recently to the aesthetic joys of the new Jaguar XKR: ‘The Jaguar XK is the car that began the turnaround of Jaguar’s fortunes. Fabulous to drive, has a great street presence and the quality to match more expensive rivals.’
I first got the message that the XKR was a much envied Coventry beauty shortly after I picked up the car before Christmas and went for a shooting lesson at the West Midland Shooting Ground, which was founded in the 1930s and has been popular ever since with local tycoons, aristos and entrepreneurs who want to improve their shooting skills.
The famous ground has actually been around longer than Jaguar itself as a name in sport — Jaguar launched in 1948 with the technologically advanced XK engine that appeared in the XK120 sports car.
I had just parked the spanking new Jaguar in the car park when a middle-aged man wearing a tweed jacket jumped out of a silver Aston Martin DB9. ‘Is that the new XKR?’ he said, jumping out of the Aston while the engine kept running. ‘Mind if I have a look? I’m thinking of swapping mine for one.’
The man eased himself into the Jaguar and started making strange moaning noises of delight, running his hands along the inside roof of the driver’s seat, which is a delightful chamois leather. Then he started sitting in the charcoal/charcoal ivory seats and messing around with the sixteen-way electronically adjusted seats — as if he were about to lie back and watch the Test match. ‘Very comfortable, I like it, I like it,’ he said.
My father still has his convertible XJS from the 1980s parked outside a barn at home in the country. His old Jag hasn’t been driven for about ten years and is now a rusted wreck, but he keeps it in the dim hope of one day having it restored. When he was at Oxford back in the ’50s, his first car was a Jaguar SP 250. He still says it is the best sports car he has ever driven.
That’s the thing about Jaguar: it does have this completely fanatical loyal customer base. People like my father never bought Jaguar just because it was ‘British’. They bought their cars because they were the fastest, the sleekest, and the best. Which is why I think my father has been a little jealous of late, seeing the new gleaming XKR parked next to his rusting XJS convertible wreck.
He loved his Jag — until it rotted on him. Still, he appreciates classic good looks and the message a Jag sends out. Whenever anybody like a builder or a decorator appeared down the drive, he would call me and say: ‘Drive the Jag around the back — now! You don’t want them to think you’re too rich.’
So I have spent much of the last few months jumping into the passenger seat and reversing it into an old garage at this primitive form of financial Morse code practised by my father, whose house is just down the drive. One thing I truly love about the car is the ‘keyless entry’ which means that when you approach the car it automatically unlocks.
It took me a while to work out how this worked (after pressing the door handle), as I could have sworn I had locked the car, only to find that the car was open for anybody to help themselves to my wife’s handbag, or worse, her little dog. Unlike the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, which is a true gran turismo two-door, four-seater, be under no illusion: the XKR is not a family car, it is for touring à deux (mistress, wife or girlfriend optional).
The other thing I love about the car — apart from the heated leather steering wheel and the 7in touch-screen navigation system, linked to a Bowers & Wilkins surround system which you can plug directly into your iPod — is the Smart Key System.
This means that you only have to have the key in your pocket to ignite the engine; no more putting down all the shopping while you dig around for your keys. Combined with the red starter button which fires up the V8 supercharged engine, this was pure style and I loved it.
The car did fail to start once or twice, requiring me to pump down on the parking brake to get the juices going a bit, but what do you expect from a finely calibrated pure thoroughbred?
The other thing I liked was when I got a puncture and I called up Jaguar to help find a dealer who could get the right sports tyre (they are not cheap at nearly £400). Being used to dealing with BMW dealers, who are expensive and efficient but charmless, I had forgotten the pleasure of being well looked after by an old-fashioned dealership — in my case Creamer & Son, tucked away down a mews off Kensington High Street.
It’s like going back to a wonderful family butcher’s — like Lidgate in Holland Park — after years of exile queuing up at Tesco. Jaguar dealerships have a different smell from other dealerships; maybe it’s the leather polish or just the smell of fine service. Having spent much of my early life hanging around in Jaguar dealerships and garages while the XJS was being fixed, it felt good to be back. And this time it was only for a puncture.
This year is the 60th anniversary of Jaguar. In 1949, the XK120 grabbed the headlines when it reached more than 120mph in an official record run on the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium. This was the start of Jaguar’s ‘golden age’ in British motor-racing history.
By the 1980s, however, such achievements had become history. It wasn’t until 1996 that Jaguar revived the classic XK name; and thank God they did. Now the XKR is rightfully as much on every hedge-fund manager’s wish list as a Ferrari, Maserati or Aston. Only they can’t really afford them any more; not at least this bonus season.
For the record, I am happy to drive the car around Mayfair every lunchtime, parking next door to all the fanciest restaurants and bars, to entice more hedgie orders if that means I can keep the car into the summer.