Like too many Jaguars of the past 30 years, the old XKR relied on charisma to cover its crudity. Although it dressed in modern designer clothes, its chassis had been conceived in the time of Dick Nixon. And while its style appealed to a baby-boomer generation that had grown up lusting after the Jaguar E-Type, it was never a threat to the German sport coupe hegemony.
The new car, though, is different. Developed alongside the standard XK — Jaguar's first all-new coupe in three decades — it combines feline beauty with a thoroughly modern driving experience. It is billed as an XK "plus 30 percent" and rivals the BMW M6, Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG and Porsche 911.
Last month, Inside Line was given an exclusive insight into the new car with the XKR's chief program engineer, Russ Varney. Now, for the first time, they've handed over the keys to a right-hand-drive XKR.
A cat with claws
For some Jaguar enthusiasts, the XKR's overt aesthetics will come as something of a shock. While the old XKR was graceful but largely anonymous, the new car makes no secret of its sporting intent. There are some potent identifiers, such as the aluminum "power vent" behind the front wheel arches, the "R" brake calipers and the quad tailpipes. Much of this jewelry belies designer Ian Callum's eye for detail. Note the mesh grille, the new front foglights and the lovely hood louvers embossed with the word "supercharged." In coupe form, this rear-drive Jaguar looks like a car priced from $86,500 (the convertible starts at $92,500).
Callum has also seen fit to enliven the interior with some "R" accessories. The new aluminum "weave" trim looks much better than it sounds, and the primary controls are now labeled with "R" badges. The heavily bolstered sport seats are also unique to the XKR, but the overall ambience is still disappointingly downmarket. The cabin lacks a sense of occasion and there's evidence of cost-cutting in some of the plastics.
Anyone looking for a practical alternative should note that while the trunk is accommodating, the rear seats are all but useless.
A button on the center console engages the starter motor and breathes life into Jaguar's familiar 4.2-liter V8. Varney and his team spent a long time honing the engine note. The prominent supercharger whine of the old car tended to polarize customer opinion, so it's recast in a supporting role. Taking the lead is a distinctive V8 rumble that crescendos nicely as the revs rise. It sounds good.
And it generates some impressive statistics. The introduction of twin air inlets and Variable Inlet Camshaft Timing have increased the power output of the supercharged 4196cc AJ-V8 to 420 horsepower, while the peak torque output grows to 413 pound-feet. This is 100 hp more than the naturally aspirated XK can muster, and 70 hp more than a Porsche 911 Carrera S. The XKR scampers from zero to 60 mph in a Porsche-matching 4.9 seconds and reaches 155 mph before an electronic limiter intervenes.
The torque output is the key to this car's character. The merest tickle of the throttle delivers a determined surge of acceleration. You tend to drive this car as you might a contemporary turbodiesel, relying on its flexibility and midrange urge to affect an overtake. Drivers used to the high-revving freneticism of a normally aspirated power plant will find themselves adjusting their style.
Praise should also be lavished on the six-speed ZF automatic transmission with driver-selectable programming. "Drive" offers a smooth compromise for everyday driving, while the "Sport" and sequential paddle-shift modes cater to the more committed. The latter, controlled by paddles on the steering wheel, is particularly effective, achieving rapid-fire shifts with impressive smoothness. This system is all but a match for Audi's brilliant DSG system, and a much more satisfactory solution than the single-clutch semiautomatic in the BMW M6.
Ride and handling
According to Jaguar's chassis guru, Mike Cross, the XKR is all about "accessible performance." Cross had sought to develop a car that's less overtly sporting than the 911 or BMW M6, but more focused than the Mercedes SL. To achieve the requisite mix, Jag has uprated the XK's spring rates by 38 percent at the front and 24 percent at the rear. The steering and CATS electronic damping have been retuned and a rear suspension brace has been added to stiffen the structure. Nineteen-inch alloy wheels are standard, but our car rode on the optional 20-inch rims that are likely to be chosen by most customers.
Cross and his team have got the balance about right. At low speeds, it's noticeably firmer than a standard XK, to the point where it occasionally feels fidgety, but it's not nearly as harsh as an M6. And there is an important trade-off in improved body control at higher velocities.
Where the old car occasionally felt crude and clumsy, the newcomer is poised and nimble. It's still not as agile as a 911 or an Aston Martin Vantage, and the steering lacks the ultimate communication of the Porsche, but the Jag is now an engaging back-road companion. You can attack a difficult section with fluency and confidence, rather than relying on a point-and-squirt technique. There's also no shortage of grip from the 255/35ZR20 front and 285/30ZR20 rear tires.
The brakes — a major bugbear of previous XKRs — are also much improved. Larger front discs — now 14 inches — are asked to stop a coupe that weighs 3,671 pounds, 154 pounds less than before. There is no doubting their stopping power, although enthusiasts would still value a firmer pedal response.
Jag's technical gurus are particularly proud of the Dynamic Stability Control program. There's a standard mode for everyday use and a new "Track DSC" mode that allows some slip before it reins in proceedings. The fully committed are also able to turn the system off completely.
The engineering team was commissioned to build a "sports GT for the real world" and it's a brief they've fulfilled admirably. This is a Jaguar that need not rely on character and old-world charm to seduce customers. Some Porsche drivers might still find it a little too soft for their tastes, but it's much easier to live with than an M6 and more exciting than an SL. The XKR could be just the car that Jaguar needs to kick-start a renaissance.