The pit lane setting is familiar enough, but Martin Brundle, the former F1 driver turned television commentator, looks slightly naked minus his broadcasting gear. Probably feels naked, too, given the near-freezing temperatures.
He's here to drive the 2014 Jaguar F-Type, the first true Jaguar sports car since the E-Type. It's not as if Jaguar hasn't built a decent driver's car since the E-Type, but stuff like the XJ220, the old XJS-R 6.0 and current XKR-S are big machines, not really aspirational sports cars in the current Porsche mold.
But the new 2014 Jaguar F-Type is exactly that kind of car. An aluminum-bodied front-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-seater, powered by a range of V6 and V8 engines, it'll start at $70K when it goes on sale later this year. That means it'll straddle the divide between Porsche's Boxster/Cayman duo and the 911.
"We benchmarked every competitor," says Adrian Hallmark, Jaguar's global brand director, "but this isn't a pastiche. It's a true Jaguar. We have to have a point of differentiation from the Germans. Technology is crucial, but it's more than that. The car has to feel alive in your hands."
No Civilian Drives Yet
We're anxious to measure its pulse for ourselves and discover what this thing feels like to drive. Unfortunately, Jag isn't letting journalists behind the wheel just yet. To hold us over, it decided to throw some keys to Mr. Brundle and let us download his driving impressions.
Now, the fact that he's an undisputed hot shoe is a good thing. Great drivers can dissect a car quickly and with details that would be lost on the less skilled.
On the other hand, Brundle has a long association with Jaguar, which is a bad thing. He's known for calling a spade a spade, but like any race driver, he's not stupid enough to bite the hand that feeds.
With that in mind, we don't expect to hear much about how the 2014 Jaguar F-Type could be improved. Instead it's likely to be a breakdown of what it does well and how it goes about doing those things. At this point, though, it's still better than nothing.
What Makes a Good Sports Car?
While we're waiting for Brundle to hit the track, we take the opportunity to ask what he looks for in a sports car. "For me, a car starts and finishes with its engine," says the man you would expect to be banging on about handling. "You can have the greatest chassis in the world, but if the engine's no good, I'm not interested. That's why I love Jaguar's supercharged V8," he says predictably before adding "and I'd include Mercedes' AMG 63 V8 on my list, too."
Does it matter which end is doing the driving?
"It's got to be rear-wheel drive, hasn't it? I don't really like front-wheel-drive anything. I mean they can be engineered to be fun. And I don't really like four-wheel drive either," he says, before going on to rip shreds from a recently released fast German wagon.
He lifts his hands up to an imaginary steering wheel, the standard stance for any man involved in serious car chat. "I want to get in and go. I don't really want any surprises to distract me from the act of driving. I like to sit low, like a Touring Car driver. You only have three contact points with a car: the wheel, the seat and the pedals, and if a car is going to slide, your eyes are the last to pick it up." Jag man or not, Brundle knows his stuff.
What's on Tap
Brundle has two cars to play with today, one visually representative of the product we'll be getting next summer and the other a well-used, well-disguised but dynamically perfect pre-prod mule. Both are midrange V6 S-spec, the model likely to account for the majority of sales.
It's a fabulous-looking car in the metal. Not radical, but crisp, cultured and contemporary. Certainly there are historical Jaguar references for the die-hards to spot, but as Jaguar's design director Ian Callum says, "If you've never seen an E-Type taillamp or bonnet bulge, it doesn't matter; the design stands on its own merit."
And if anything, the interior is even better. The twin instrument dials, analog affairs with hip-looking typeface, are stylish and easy to read, the rocker switches click satisfyingly and the rotary dials move with the sort of precision that suggest Jag's chassis demigod, Mike Cross, might have been involved in tuning their feel.
Initially, there'll be three engines: The base $70,000 car gets a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 good for 340 horsepower, 161 mph and zero to 62 mph in 5.3 seconds, while the $81,000 V6 S gets the same engine boosted to 395 hp, shortening the yardstick dash by 0.4 second and adding 10 mph to the top end. S spec also means a growly exhaust, courtesy of some Aston-style flaps, adaptive rather than passive dampers and a limited-slip differential.
Step up to the $92,000 V8 S ($7,000 cheaper than a Carrera S) and you get cosmetic sill extensions like a flying squirrel's wings, plus quad pipes at the back in place of the V6's twin-center-exit exhaust, just to let everyone know. The mechanical limited-slip diff is swapped for a fully active unit, while the blown V6 makes way for a supercharged V8 pumping out 495 hp and 460 pound-feet of torque. Zero to 62 mph takes just 4.3 seconds and the top speed is 186 mph. Hard to believe that Jag is working on even hotter R and RS models to follow.
How the 2014 Jaguar F-Type drives will be as much a component in that plan as how it looks. Based on the XK's aluminum structure but shortened by 12.8 inches, the 177-inch F-Type is compact, but at 3,521 pounds, not particularly light. It is, however, very rigid: 30 percent stiffer than the XK between the front shock towers. Double wishbones feature at either end and the steering rack (at 14.6:1, the quickest fitted to any production Jag) is hydraulic, which bodes well for Jag's trademark feel. Compared to the loud and lairy XKR-S, Hallmark describes the F-Type as more dynamic, more communicative and more precise.
Brundle is certainly communicating the F-Type's dynamism for all he's worth. Tire shriek and exhaust wail meld together like a satanic Everly Brothers harmony as he teases the Jag between neutral and oversteer on the fast corners, then kicks the tail right out on the slow ones, riding out the slide in a fog of tire smoke.
He rolls back into the pits, brakes trembling, exhaust pinging like a tin can firing range, and cracks into a huge smile as he lets slip about a near-off on a surface rendered dangerously slippery by debris washed onto the tarmac in the recent floods.
So how does he rate the new supercharged V6, given what he said earlier about the importance of a good power plant? "I like the linearity of this V6 engine. The sound of the exhaust is great," he says.
"I like the driving position. I feel like I'm sat in the car, not on it, and the visibility is excellent. I think that's really important; it helps the car to shrink around you and you can place the front tire exactly where you want. Direction changes are really good, particularly though that super-fast chicane. The steering weight is nice and the stability is impressive, too. You can carry so much speed into the corner, push it and believe it's going to stick," he says, reaching again for that imaginary steering wheel.
"But the thing that impresses me most about this car is the front; I really like the way you can just trust the nose. Like all road cars, it'll simply understeer if you go in too fast. But on the track you can really lean on the rear contact patch, particularly on this V6, then pick up the throttle and keep the tire loaded. You can keep the steering wheel in the same place and just drive the car on the throttle."
Does It Really Need a V8?
And what about the V8, which he's sampled previously?
"Well maybe you could do it in the V8 if you had more time to learn it, but I don't think it's quite got the same delicacy." The V6S is the favorite of Jag's chassis guru, Mike Cross, too.
Having said that, Brundle interjects, "I'd still go for the V8, because where I live in Norfolk, you need to be able to overtake six HGVs at a time." The total lack of a smile accompanying his delivery tells you he's not kidding.
But would Brundle want the manual transmission option Jag is currently considering? "No, I'd rather have a really great automatic or dual-clutch," he says, surprising again with his clear disdain for paddle shifters, and not simply because, disappointingly, they're made from plastic instead of metal. "I think people who want to mess around with paddle shifters are just living out some kind of Michael Schumacher fantasy," says the seven-time F1 champion's former teammate. "When you've got a good automatic with a proper Sport mode like this one, you just don't need them, but I was using the paddles a lot more today than I normally do on a road car."
An Unsurprising Verdict
We ask Martin for a final rating after the drive and he delivers a sincere, if not predictable, summary. "It's priced sensibly, it's great to drive and it looks good. So many sports cars look too effeminate, but this is a clever car; it's going to appeal to men and women."
The Jaguar entourage disappears momentarily, leaving us alone in a freezing pit garage, gazing out through grubby windows as Jag's crew spirits away the two F-Types. Only one of us has been lucky enough to get behind the wheel today, but we both know that come next summer this car could well turn the sports car market on its head.
But we also know that, while cars like the Aston V8 look decidedly shaky in the face of this threat, Porsche is at the top of its game right now. The superb new Boxster and Cayman are the Jag's biggest threats and even Martin would probably agree that they're both thrilling to drive, beautifully crafted and a slightly better value than the Jaguar F-Type convertible. No need to bother asking him, though; better to wait until we can get in the F-Type ourselves and draw our own conclusions.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.