x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Jaguar XKR-S: the feral gentleman

Jaguar's latest sports car is powerful like you wouldn't believe, yet still maintains its decorum, says Neil Verano.

The XKR-S is Jaguar’s most powerful series production car ever, achieving a speed of 100kph from standstill in just 4.2 seconds.  Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
The XKR-S is Jaguar’s most powerful series production car ever, achieving a speed of 100kph from standstill in just 4.2 seconds. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

I like Jaguar. Even during the lean times in the 1980s, the brand had a certain mystique about it, something so very genteel and British. It's built some of the most beautiful cars ever to grace asphalt, but it's more than that; from its sports cars to its saloons, and all through the years, Jaguar has always sported the character befitting a country gentleman off to the golf club or pheasant shoot, with poise and manners no matter the car's performance.

Now, picture that same country gentleman in a silk robe entering the mixed martial arts octagon. Because, with its latest sports car, Jaguar has taken the gloves off and curled its stiff upper lip into a nasty snarl. Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, the XKR-S.

This is Jaguar's fastest, most powerful series production car ever, though it's not all-new. It's based on the XK model range of grand tourers that have been about since 2006, but while it keeps the same shape and general look, this car might as well be a beast of its own. Jaguar has changed the dynamics for the XKR-S so much from the base model that its entire character has changed - less country club, more race track.

You'll feel it in the ride right away, too. It's much more firm as you toddle along in traffic, not uncomfortably so, but gone is the plush cushiness that soaks up the cracks on the road. In fact, Jaguar has upgraded the entire suspension, both mechanically (with new wishbones, knuckles, geometry and spring rates) and electronically (a bespoke Adaptive Damping programme) and the car also sits 10mm lower, for better handling. But it's when you stab the throttle that you realise this is a very different car.

See, it's not so much the 550hp that gets you right away, it's the massive torque of 680Nm - available at just 2,500rpm - that will drop your jaw. There's enough torque to turn the car sideways leaving the car park and, were it not for the traction control, you'd have to carry a few spare pairs of underpants. It will get the XKR-S to 100kph in just 4.2 seconds, which is supercar territory, and to pass a car (or many cars) on the motorway, it's almost like you just have to think it, and the Jaguar leaps ahead effortlessly. That supercharged engine, which has been massaged from the normal XK line-up with different mapping for its direct fuel injection and a higher compression ratio, goes from a low rumble to a snarl worthy of its power under duress, though it's muffled at just the right point for passengers inside. You can still hear the thrilling soundtrack but it doesn't overpower your conversations.

Speaking of the traction control, Jaguar has added another level to the electronic nanny - a track DSC mode - to allow a considerable amount of slip before it reels the car back in. It delivers a lot of fun while still being safe. Think of it as a way of finding your limits before you sail past those of the car - and probably into the side of another one during a wild, uncontrolled slide. Unfortunately, I didn't have this car on a track, and that's a shame, because I think that's where the XKR-S would shine. You just can't reach its limits on a public road. At every roundabout and on every tight corner, I'd try to reach the understeer point but couldn't. All that effort on improving the suspension has made this an extremely neutral-handling car, and with crisp, precise steering, this new XKR-S just seems to turn into anything you want it to.

It's a sleek, low, sultry car, but I wouldn't call it beautiful, really - not with all that stuff going on at its nose. The splitter, side vanes and added slits and vents all detract just a little from the simple, clean beauty of the regular XK. But, apparently, they're necessary. Jaguar says these additions help with front downforce so the car can actually be controlled at 300kph, its limited top speed. The car also has a carbon fibre wing and a diffuser at the back for added aerodynamics. Unique to this car, too, is the French Racing Blue colour scheme, which Jaguar says is a nod to its racing heritage. But, Jaguar, you're British - I don't get it.

Inside is more of the leather and high-end materials that you'd expect from Jag; I especially like the knob gearshift layout on the console, surrounded by piano black and chrome, and the racing-style bucket seats. But the rest of the interior is feeling a little dated and staid. Considering the stylish passenger compartments of the newer XF and XJ, and that the XK has been around for five years already, I'm thinking Jaguar must be planning a whole replacement for the XK line soon, interiors included. And let's just dispense with those ridiculous rear seats altogether, shall we; I couldn't even fit in them with the front seats forward, much less on any kind of trip. A parcel compartment would be a better idea.

In the world of grand tourers, Jaguar has brought the XKR-S up near the top in power, handling and comportment, easily being able to take on anything from Germany or Italy. But the Middle East may be one of the few places a person could afford to drive the XKR-S. Its fuel guzzling is staggering. The official stats are 8.6L/100km on the motorway and 18.9 in the city - and those are bad enough - but I couldn't, no matter how softly I drove, go below 19.5 in the city, though it was usually at about 22, while at steady, realistic motorway speeds I couldn't even reach single digits. I don't know how the official numbers were set, but I couldn't do it. Couple that with the fact that this car just wants to go fast and you'd better have either a big wallet or an oil pipeline in your back garden that you can tap into.

The thing is, with all this focus on power and performance, the XKR-S is still a lovely drive for your commute to work. It's comfortable and subtle enough that you won't feel like you're driving a bucking supercar in traffic. And that might be the most amazing thing about it - it's tame enough for a country drive but can easily hunt down cars on the Autobahn or the Nürbürgring.

Maybe Jag hasn't doffed its tweed cap altogether, then.

The Specs

Base price / as tested Dh599,999

Engine Supercharged 5.0L V8

Gearbox Six-speed automatic

Power 550hp @ 6,000-6,500rpm

Torque 680Nm @ 2,500-5,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined 12.3L/100km