Driving Impressions

By March 8, 2013

The Jaguar XK models use generous amounts of riveted and bonded aluminum to save weight, yet they still weigh in at nearly two tons. It's tempting, therefore, to conclude that the XK really isn't a sports car and will not take kindly to being flung around corners at violent speed like a feather-light Lotus or a pure race car. Then, what kind of car is this handsome brute? Is it an overweight boulevardier, meant for waving and being waving at? Or is it a pur sang high-performance Jaguar, ready to take on all comers and the lap record as well?

We took the furiously powerful XKR-S, all 550 hp of it, to the track to find out. In sum, it is stupendously fast, and at the same time, sublimely refined, a track-burner that offers all the racetrack weaponry your skills can use. Yet it has all the grand-touring comfort you could ask on the drive home.

State-of-the-art electronic shock damping, in the form of Jaguar's Adaptive Damping System, allows you to select exactly what sort of ride control you want, and unlike so many other systems, Jaguar's provides real, substantive change. The system simultaneously controls throttle mapping, too. So with the mildest setting, you have a pleasant boulevard ride, low-rpm shifts of the 6-speed transmission for optimum mileage, and elevated anti-slip protection, all those things you want for relaxed daily driving.

Driving the car harder calls for a little more lateral and forward wheel-slip. With a push of the Jaguar Dynamic Mode button, a little checkered flag on the dash indicates you're ready to work the tires without interference from the brakes. The engine note immediately comes alive as well, the transmission holding each gear up through the revs and producing thrust that will staple your shoulders to the seatback.

But the XK goes even further; it has a button which, when depressed for five full seconds, will cancel the electronic stability control system altogether. Nearly all of Jaguar's competitors also furnish such stability-control cancellation buttons. However the others' buttons cut off some stability control, while Jaguar's simply shuts everything off. Jaguar takes you at your word when you cancel stability control. You're the driver, and Jaguar trusts you know what you're doing. You'll likely only want to use this feature when on a race track and are finding the stability control is slowing your exit speeds out of corners.

On the highway, the XKR-S is the heart and soul of good manners. Its ride is well-tempered, lively, but completely free of harshness. The engine note is distant and unobtrusive, but tromp down on the pedal and you hear all manner of goodness up ahead as its 550-hp supercharged V8 springs into action.

Even in the XKR, with its mere 510 horsepower, you're faster than almost everyone. But if you really like to race people instead of simply blowing them off, the 385-hp 5.0-liter XK is your Jag. It will keep you grinning all afternoon.

At Lime Rock Park, a racing circuit in northern Connecticut, we selected Dynamic Mode in our XKR-S and watched the little checkered flag light up. The engine note brightened immediately, and the butterflies in our chest awoke, prepared to explore this proud car on a track we know well. Would this be a slightly choppy, ragged drive, like some powerful recent Corvettes, or would it be something more, something truly surprising?

Forcing 3968 pounds to grip the road around turns at high speeds is a sacred responsibility, especially in a $132,000 car. We took an exploratory lap or two, looking for bad signs, danger signals. We found none. The Jaguar turned in strongly, directly, with remarkably little understeer. As we increased speed, this remained unerringly true.

Soon we were going as hard as the track would let the Jaguar go. In the long Downhill Bend and fast West Bend, cornering as hard as it would, the XKR-S hung on like the Mighty McGinty. Never a hint of darting or directional instability. Powerful. Settled. Effortless.

And braking into a slow corner at the end of a straight from high speed, it felt like very suddenly our chute had opened. The deceleration was linear and violent, the car hauled down from high speed by an act of will, along with grippy tires and big brakes. Downshifting with the paddles, meanwhile, caused the engine to blip automatically, matching its revs with the next lower gear. Fast. Hyper-functional. Dead solid perfect.

Accelerating hard out of the long bend, immersed in this adventure of power and speed, you couldn't help feeling you were someone special.