x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Road Test: Jaguar XKR has a split personality

Thrillingly fast yet comfortable and serene, Motoring is in love with the Jaguar XKR.

This Jaguar XKR turned heads for the wrong reasons but it is a thrilling yet comfortable ride that puts a smile on its driver's face. Andrew Henderson / The National
This Jaguar XKR turned heads for the wrong reasons but it is a thrilling yet comfortable ride that puts a smile on its driver's face. Andrew Henderson / The National

Jaguar has been no stranger to column inches over the decades. From the 1970s through to, oh, I don't know, somewhere around 2005, it was usually for all the wrong reasons. The cars were always luxurious and usually nice to look at. They were almost always decent to drive and yet the problems experienced by buyers who boycotted reliable German brands for something with some proper English cache almost sank the company. Customer satisfaction surveys must have been read by Jag's top brass through their fingers. If you valued style over substance then a Jaguar was your car of choice but, if you rather liked getting to the office on the same day you set off, you went for a Merc, BMW or anything without a leaping cat for a badge.

That's changed, evidently for good. Apart from build quality issues, Jaguar sacked the stylists who seemed obsessed with making every new model a pastiche of former glories (which bored prospective purchasers the world over) and recruited former Aston design boss Ian Callum. He set about providing Jaguar with a modern design language while the engineers got to grips with build quality, and the results are now quite astonishing.

With the overdue death of the ugly S-Type (replaced by the beautiful XF) and X-Type (replaced with nothing, as it was an irrelevance to a sporting luxury brand), and the introduction of the XK in 2006, as well as an all-new XJ that still shocks two years on with its controversial and futuristic looks, there's been a Jaguar sales resurgence that seemed an impossibility just a decade ago. Jaguar owners are getting younger, and the cars are getting better and better all the time. And the transformation of the company's fortunes started with the XK.

I've driven plenty of these cars while in the UK but my time in the UAE has been entirely Jag-free until now. With the recent announcements of planned production of the C-X75 hybrid supercar and the C-X16, which perfectly captures the spirit of the legendary E-Type, Jaguar is riding the crest of a wave and I thought it was high time I got back inside an XK. One with a supercharger, thank you very much.

The XKR is an incredibly versatile performance car and I've been looking forward to experiencing the latest model for some time, but the shock of what turns up at my apartment is palpable. What HAVE they done? The colour scheme on this test car is, let's be kind here, lurid. With massive lime green and silver decals covering the entire length of the car and a Jaguar cat seeming to leap out from each rear wheelarch, this thing is going to turn heads, all right. I just fear for all the wrong reasons.

I'm missing the point somewhat, though, because Jaguar's Middle East team had decided to have a bit of fun with it and I should just stop being a grump. Lighten up, Hackett. I still hate the black painted wheels, though. And turn heads this thing certainly does. On the E11 between Dubai and Abu Dhabi during morning rush hour, I rapidly become conscious of every other road user straining to check it out. The driving standards are mad enough on this stretch of road - I don't want to be responsible for any more accidents.

Handy, then, that the XKR's supercharged 5.0L V8 develops a heady 503hp and 625Nm of twist, because it makes for a fast getaway from the seemingly suicidal drivers trying to invade the Jag's personal space. I'd forgotten just how urgent these things feel - one flex of the right foot and the big cat growls with a bass baritone bellow and instantly shoots toward the horizon with effortless pace.

I'd also forgotten how supremely refined they are. Seriously, you could drive over the entire family from next door and not feel a thing. It's a magic carpet ride but, when you want it to handle, boy does it sharpen its claws and put a smile on your face.

Roads where you can experience this dual personality are few and far between in the UAE but I know a place where I can let a car like this off the leash without falling foul of either the law, other road users or pedestrians.

No, I'm not telling you where it is but, if you were to find it, you'd see black strips of rubber scarring the face of the smooth tarmac. Switch off the electronic stability control, select Track mode, override the automatic gearbox, put it into first gear and floor the throttle. Instantly, the rear tyres spin into a frenzy, threatening to overtake the front wheels, resulting in massive amounts of oversteer. It's a monster, a real handful, a car that cannot help but make you shout a yeee-ha while you're wrestling with the steering wheel.

And yet, amid all of this tyre-smoking tomfoolery, there is calm, comfort and serenity. The XKR's split personality is always simmering under the surface, but it's never at the expense of Jaguar's stock-in-trade ride quality. And that's an incredible accomplishment.

In expert (that is, not my) hands, this car can powerslide and pirouette around corners with all the grace and delicacy of a ballerina but, as I hamfistedly fight the big cat's natural tendency to swing its tail, I cannot help but laugh out loud.

Even with all the electronic aids switched on this car feels like a hooligan. Enter a tight corner with any sort of speed and the front tyres dig with small dollops of understeer but, in the blink of an eye, you become very aware that those 503 horses are galloping through the rear, as the back end dances about before regaining composure. It's a car that demands respect, even if the colour scheme makes onlookers laugh. That's what it's there for, I suppose.

This model is being phased out, with the 2012 version sporting even more improvements, but a less elegant front end, which is a retrograde step in my opinion. But as a reminder of just why Jaguar is setting the pace after three decades in the doldrums, this has worked just fine. Love it.

Base price / as tested Dh450,000 / Dh480,000

Engine 5.0L supercharged V8

Gearbox Six-speed automatic

Power 503hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 625Nm @ 2,500-5,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined 12.3L/100km