What could be better? An electrifyingly fabulous driving road, on a day of heart-quickening beauty. It’s free of traffic, and I’m strapped into the sports car that has had us all aroused in feverish anticipation for more than a year now. Alright, here’s what could be better. I could be driving the thing.
But I’m not. And the only people who have done so, so far, are paid by Jaguar. But since I’m not, this is the best possible way to slake at least some of the raging thirst we have about this car. Strapped in here, booming across the best bits of Wales, steered at some rate by the man who knows it best. The car’s character is oozing out of its every pore.
Its almost brutal acceleration. Its terrific body control. The way it hustles into corners. The way the suspension, quite firm at town speed, starts to stretch itself and breathe as the car gathers speed, allowing the body to flow gracefully over these difficult surfaces whiles the tyres securely track the tarmac beneath. The bellowing exhaust, the cackles and pops as it shifts gears.
The F-Type has clearly got an edge and an attitude that no Jaguar has had before. It’s a punchy little thing, a proper sports car and no mistake.
Jaguar tells us the cars we’re in today are late prototypes. They’re being finally checked out by the development team, while the factory people get a couple of months to make sure the ones that go to showrooms exactly match the feel the engineers have created.
I’m being driven by Jaguar’s Mike Cross. He runs the ‘vehicle integrity’ team. He decides what each Jaguar and Land Rover should feel like. The engineers, led in the case of the F-Type by Errol Mustafa, who’s also here today, then aim to build a car to match Cross’s wishes.
For the F-Type, they all obviously wanted to make a sports car that feels very different from the XK. It’s a rather different strategy from Porsche’s right now. The new 911 Cabrio feels surprisingly similar to (if faster than) a Boxster. The big Jag, the XK, is a suave GT, but blimey the small one, the F-Type, is a far more hardcore device.
After having experienced it only in the artificial lights and human crush of a motor show, seeing the F-type out in the fresh air is a bracing experience. Again, it’s more individual than I’d thought. Its nose is puganacious, its front end sharply drawn, and its tail brief and the point, ending in a scythe-shaped boot-lid. These are prototypes so I’m told not to worry about the slightly gappy edges around the bonnet and doors. No reason to suppose it won’t be fixed for production.
Unlocking the doors unhides the handles from their flush position. You drop down low into the cabin. These cars have the optional ‘performance seat’ which bear-hugs your shoulders to keep you braced for action. The layout is simple, with a row of unmarked toggle switches below three big, easily grabbed climate controls. When the ignition’s on, clear markings for the toggles and knobs magic themselves out of the black surface. Behind that, a spring-loaded lever for grabbing gears through the autobox, rather than the usual JLR rotating drum control. The F-type is designed to be intuitive.
This is the V6S version. I’ll get a go in the V8 later, but the supercharged three-litre V6’s 380bhp is more than enough to be getting on with. Think 0-62 in 4.9 seconds.
In the early miles of the trip, it’s the sort of poke Cross can use for little more than fractions of a second. The road is tight and twisting, through wooded valleys and hillsides, between walls and drops. The surface is in places damp, soaking, gravelly, or lubricated by leaves or mud. It comes with bumps and adverse cambers. A stiff test.
The car feels agile, the nose ducking hard into each tight turn, hardly leaning. Cross has the stability control in the sport position, which lets the car wriggle around a bit, but it’s all about the tail moving, kept progressive by the LSD. The nose stays chained to the apex.
I’m watching Cross’s hands on the wheel. They go in small movements, operating smoothly with little need for corrections. From where I’m sitting the steering is obviously sharp and high-geared, but not twitchy. Now some of this is because he happens to be a truly superb driver, but I’ll hazard that much of it is the car too. It’s seriously frustrating not being able to find out for myself.
Cross and Mustafa say the steering is like that because they’ve built a lot of stiffness into the car, bracing the front suspension mounting points and the suspension components themselves. The F-Type’s track is actually a little wider than an XK’s, and the wheelbase is shorter, the weight distribution more even and the steering rack faster. All factors that lead to faster reactions. In some cars a setup like that feels nervous and tiring. The idea is that the F-type is accurate and progressive enough that it feels intuitive and agile but natural. Only when we drive it will we know for sure, but the signs are good.
Over bumps, the bodyshell certainly feels rigid, so the adaptive dampers can do their thing and quell the shudder and heave. That’s something Jag has a fine record on, and it’s obvious that here that it’s been notched up again.
The powertrain is all about precision and urgency too. The eight-speed transmission has a torque converter that stays locked up nearly all the time, so the wheels react exactly to what’s going on with the accelerator. No slack or delays. When it shifts gear there’s no slurring, just a bit of popping through the exhaust and uninterrupted progress.
The V6 is surprisingly loud when it’s working. No supercharger whine, just sharp senior exhaust and a roar of intake. A proper noise, with definite echoes of an E-Type, strangely (I say strangely because that was a straight-six, not a 90-degree V6). Anyway, it’s not a sound that has in any way been moderated to keep Miami dentists happy. Mind you, it fades away at a cruise. And anyway, if you lower the roof there’s less boominess but all the edgy character. It’s brilliant, and hardly less compelling than even the sounds of a flat-six being given work to do.
And then we set off in the V8. That one, also supercharged, makes a first-division 495bhp, and gets to 62mph in 4.3 seconds. Of course a 911 Carrera with ‘just’ 400 can get off the line faster, but then the Porsche has its engine weight over the rear wheels. Once this Jag is rolling, it’s manic-fast. The engine is actually quieter than the V6. But then it’s not being worked as hard to get the same heart-quickening results. This is the version for the box-ticking Miami dentist, then. But if that dentist were to properly floor the thing, the next day’s patients might get a trembling hand on the drill. This thing just hammers forward.
OK, now a confession. When, years ago now, Jaguar people started to talk of a smaller roadster, I thought it would be simply that. A smaller Jaguar. I liked the look of it when it turned up at the Paris Motor Show last year, but my curiosity was dampened by thinking I knew what it’d be like.
Today the scales fell from my eyes. Yes it’s obviously a Jaguar. But a whole new sort of Jaguar. Hard, extrovert, more engaging, charged with life. Of course are still questions about the way it really FEELS in your hands, because we haven’t driven it yet. But having got this far in my relationship with the F-Type, I’m more aching than ever in wanting to know the answers to those questions…