One wears an ‘R’ badge with pride, while the other assaults your senses with an ‘R-S.’ We try and sort through the acronyms to find out if these badges actually mean anything at all?
I’m filled with a strange sense of déjà-vu as I pilot this Jaguar XKR convertible on some stunning mountain roads along the West Coast of the US. You see, in 2008, shortly after Jaguar was taken over by Tata Motors, I drove the very same car on the very same roads, and came away reasonably confident that Tata had made the right choice in acquiring the legendary British marque.
Of course, then another global recession hit, and Tata saw Jaguar Land Rover sales plummet. But, they didn’t flinch and continued to invest very heavily in product development and R&D. And boy does it show – because this car is more refined, more powerful, and more enjoyable than it was just a few years ago. In 2008, it had a 4.2 litre supercharged V8 that made 420 horsepower, which has now grown to 5.0 litres and 503 horsepower. But that’s the least of it, there’s also a noticeable jump in cabin quality, and what’s truly impressive is the newfound all-round ability of this all-aluminium chassis.
Don’t get me wrong, a few years ago the XKR was an impressive car, but now it’ll simply blow you away on a twisting mountain road – and this stretch of tarmac not only fits that description, but also happens to be my favourite. The route that we’ve selected to put these cars through their paces (many times over) is a 35 kilometer mountain section that starts in Woodside, California – just west of Palo Alto in the heart of the Silicon Valley. In fact, it was in a garage in Palo Alto that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built HP’s first product in 1939 – so this is really the birth place of the Valley. Now, of course, not too far away, you have the brand new headquarters of Facebook, which are built to resemble a University campus (Harvard I presume)!
But back to the road, which starts in Woodside, as California Highway 84, and snakes its way up the mountain in a ribbon of tarmac that includes tightening bends that continuously change camber as they flow from one corner to the next. This then leads to Skyline Boulevard, or CA35, that opens out a little to include fast, flowing corners of varying surfaces with stunning vistas. The combination of tight corners with sheer drops and flowing tree-lined bends can really test the best sport cars in the world. Skyline leads to CA92, which can take you to the Pacific Ocean to the West or the San Francisco Bay to the East. I chose, instead, to turn around and head back into the mountains (on more than a few occasions).
Well, the revelation here was that the ‘R’ badge on the XK convertible is truly well deserved. For starters, it looks fantastic – managing to be both aggressive and elegant at the same time. This car really turns heads. And, if it can achieve that in the midst of the ‘dot-com’ billionaires, it can do it absolutely anywhere. The white paint of our test car shows off the added vents and mesh of the XKR perfectly. On the inside, there’s no sense of this Jag being anything other than a luxury cruiser – with the exception perhaps of a pair of very supportive front seats that hint to its g-force generating capabilities. You still get everything lined in fine leather, as well as the ultimate in luxury – seat warmers for your derriere, and a steering warmer for your palms. But all that is fast forgotten when you step on the right pedal. Oh my lord, how this car shoots forward! There’s simply no sense of lag from the supercharger at all, and the conventional 6-speed automatic transmission with steering mounted paddles is quick and seamless as it transmits all 503 horses to the road through the rear wheels. Plus, the XKR convertible now steers and corners like the best sports cars in the business. Previously, it would charge into a bend and then proceed to wallow through it as best it could. Now, it simply sticks to the tarmac asking for more power. The front end is incredibly sharp and pointy – to the extent that you’d imagine that there’s a feather light (yet astronomically powerful) four cylinder under the bonnet, as opposed to the pretty substantial V8 with a supercharger mounted on top of it. All said and done, though, there are two attributes that truly set this car apart. Naturally, the first is its power, which is all consuming in any gear at any rpm. The second is the ride – it’s compliant and comfortable when you want it to be, as well as firm and responsive when you need it to be.
The question that arises then is – if the XKR is such a capable machine, can the XKR-S really be much better? Well, the XKR is more of a GT car than a sports car. And you can’t even turn the traction control off fully. Whereas in the XKR-S you can – with 542bhp and (I’m assuming you’re already sitting down, so here it is) 680Nm (yes that’s six hundred and eighty Newton meters) of torque at your disposal. So, did I – turn the traction control off that is? You bet I did! I mean, how could you not with that much power at your disposal on roads such as these? But, there are two prerequisites here – you have to be slightly of unsound mind, and the chassis has to be absolutely sublime. Fortunately, between the Jag and I, we fulfilled both these criteria with much ease on this occasion.
But, before we go any further, we have to put the XKR-S into historical context. You see, this is the most powerful car that Jaguar has built – ever – and that includes the XJ220 supercar from the 90’s. The stunning XJ220 started out as a concept to show the world the talent and expertise of Jaguar engineers. Well, to recapture the glory days of their immense racing success in the 50’s and 60’s, Jaguar decided to take the XJ220 into production in partnership with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). And while it may not have had the V12 from the concept, it was still the fastest production car ever built at the time – holding the top speed record of 350km/h for a production car.
Now, the XKR-S is just that tiny bit more powerful, and while it may not do 350km/h, it does give you some sense of just how far Jaguar has come under Tata stewardship. It’s a remarkable (and gutsy) idea, the XKR-S that is – and, frankly, those are the best adjectives that I can use to describe the car as well.
The first thing that hits you is the looks. In plain black (which actually has a very deep metallic lustre), it’s the most appropriate automotive equivalent of Darth Vader that I’ve ever encountered. If it seems as though it’s trying to intimidate you, well, it is! The carbon fibre front splitter and rear wing, the vertical slits and horizontal vents – they all just seem to work and make this one of the most stunning cars on the market today. It really is very striking, and when you add to that the guttural exhaust note of this car, you can be rest assured that you will not go unnoticed. It’s just so much louder and angrier than the XKR, which itself sounds absolutely phenomenal. It cracks, pops, barks, and growls – all at the same time – making this menacing looking car appear all the more like the caged beast that it really is.
And, in the mountains, it is so fast – there’s simply no understeer whatsoever. It feels so lithe and sharp that you simply point and go. But be careful with the throttle, because if you so much as blink on corner-exit as you put the power down, you’ll suddenly find that you’ve already arrived at the braking zone for the next bend – it’s just that fast. Luckily, the brakes are equally good – managing to stop this dark force from 100km/h to 0 in just 2.5 seconds. And the gearbox, again, is simply sublime – it’s so smooth, yet so fast and responsive that you just can’t ask for anything more. Put plainly, it allows you the single minded focus to get on with the job of exploiting the power and grip of this incredible machine. In fact, this is the only car that I can think of in which I wouldn’t miss having a manual gearbox – and that’s never happened before.
Truthfully, I just don’t have the adjectives (or expletives for that matter) to describe how good this car really is. It has face-shearing power and speed in every instance, with a chassis to match, a ride that’s usable every day, and a luxury car interior – what more could you possibly ask for? The most incredible thing, though, is the fact that what you have here is a supercar that you can effectively use every day. You simply will not tire of either the pace or the comfort, and that’s saying a lot!
The only issue I had with the XKR-S was the steering. Yes, it points the car exactly where you want. And, like any good sports car, the XKR-S just seems to sense where you want it to go – so you never have to muscle it. And yes, the stiffer springs, retuned dampers, extra aluminium components in the steering and suspension, 20-inch lightweight forged alloys, and aluminium brake callipers all do their job of sticking the car to the tarmac. And yes again, the chassis communicates exactly how much grip you do have, but you just get the sense that the steering could be a little more talkative as well. You don’t expect the kind of discourse that you would get from a Porsche Boxster Cayman R (which I also happened to sample briefly at the same time) for instance, but a little more feel through the steering would be nice all the same.
However, I’m pulling at strings here – I mean here’s a car that allows its (ham fisted) driver to attempt a powerslide coming out of a 15mph hairpin with a drop on one side and a cliff face on the other. And thanks to the Jag, it was attempted successfully on more than one occasion at that. This really is one of the best cars that I’ve ever driven – it’s a supercar, muscle car, GT car, sports car, and luxury car all rolled into one. What an effort, and what execution – it really says something for the abilities of Jaguar engineers.
The R-S nomenclature means absolutely everything in this case. Personally, I think it stands for ‘Really Special.’