The Chinese giant has added another arrow to its quiver. And this one actually flies
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There are cannons on the castle walls. They jut out over the parapet above the city of Edinburgh, primed and ready to release a barrage over the sleeping city below. There are eight in total, all polished silver and, somewhat unconventionally, they project out from the rears of three Jaguar F-Types.
Suddenly, one barks triumphantly into life, the guilty party detectable by the puff of white smoke spiralling up into the chill morning air. The guttural roar blasts out in all directions across the Esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle, and, as the sound dies away, there’s a final sharp crack, a rifle shot of noise, as the revs settle back. Then the throttle is healthily ignited a couple more times, just for good measure. This is big sound, a rasping flare up the musical scale and an uneven crackle and pop back down. Grins all round. Edinburgh’s one o’clock gun has just sounded six hours and two minutes early.
A head jerks out from behind a van way across the other side of the Esplanade. A small woman with a large clipboard bustles across, flustered. “We’re about to go live. Do you think you could keep it down, please?” At 6.58am, we’ve just successfully panicked ITV’s outside broadcast unit and given a weathergirl the jitters. Two minutes later, and we’d have announced the F-Type’s arrival live to the whole of the nation and created ripe fodder for out-take shows for the next generation or so. Shame, really.
A few minutes later, our convoy of 12 fat tyres and eight proud exhausts rumbles over the cobbles down Mound Place. Destination: further North.
The Jaguar F-Type has arrived. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited car of the year. A sports car Britain can be proud of. And, being greedy, we have all three of them: the base V6, the V6S and the V8S. F-Types, in triplicate. And we’re off on a red, white and blue procession through the Highlands in search of scenery and answers.
We have some answers already. Sam Philip, Paul Horrell and I have each spent the weekend in an F-Type, driving the 400 miles up to Edinburgh on the Sunday evening. The lack of bootspace has annoyed everyone, especially as our cars carry optional space-savers, meaning anything bigger than a Tupperware container has had to travel in the passenger footwell. Road noise is less well insulated than we’re used to from Jags, surface sensitivity is increased and they’ve proved reasonably economical. The V8S has averaged 25.5mpg on the long haul up, the greater and lesser V6s 26.5 and 27.1mpg respectively. Now they’re up here, those figures will fall dramatically, the V8 falling furthest and fastest. You’ll get 20mpg from it. We, er, didn’t.
We escape Edinburgh just as the shunt of rush hour gathers momentum, and, having crossed to the north side of the Firth of Forth, pause to take stock under the mighty sweeps of the rail bridge. You don’t need me to point out that the F-Type is a very good-looking car. It’s been admired far and wide by all who have seen it, mainly for its rear end, but it’s a striking car from whatever angle you view it.
And occasionally familiar, too. Crouch down and view it directly head-on, and there are hints of Nissan GT-R, while the broad width of rear deck and thin light strip carries hints of BMW Z8. The rear haunch is all Jag’s own, though, the swell and roundness being the chief signifier that the F carries the E-type bloodline.
Our favourite, we decide, is the white car with black detailing, the V6S. The blue V6’s smaller silver wheels look too dainty and the red V8? Well, it’s fussier. There are carbon inserts on the 20-inch wheels, the quad-pipe rear end is messy and there’s an unsightly black boil on the rear bumper: the rear-view camera.
Our cars have all been specced pretty similarly, so there’s less to choose between them inside. All three have the same £2,445 Performance seats, £650 flat-bottomed (and fat-rimmed) steering wheel and an ambience worth tens of thousands. Jaguar calls it a 1+1 layout as the driver and passenger are separated by a sweeping grab handle, and, yeah, if you are a passenger in an F-Type you will feel slightly excluded, cut off from playing with the buttons and knobs.
Materials and quality are cut from the same cloth as the XK’s, but the design is so much fresher. Those seats hug hard, and there’s little to fault in the driving position, more to complain about in the general lack of space in here. It all feels quite hunched.
And it’s a shame that the touchscreen system, in common with all Jaguar Land Rover products, is slow to respond and confusing to use. As we head further up the A9, I’m trying to find a fuel station along our route, but the system will only tell me about those around the car, and I’m not about to spear back south for fuel. Irritating. Similarly, it’s not until much later that we discover that the Dynamic mode operated via the rocker switch on the console is individually configurable (for suspension, gearbox, steering and engine behaviour) deep in the menu settings. My favourite detail is something that’s missing altogether - there are no washer jets on the bonnet. Instead, they’ve been thoughtfully mounted on the wipers themselves, clearly designed for the peculiarly British weather conditions we’re currently suffering. April showers. Of snow.
I’ve never experienced wipers that deal so well with smeary salt residue, and, given we’re running roofs-up at the moment, wishing that a similar amount of attention had been paid to improving over-the-shoulder visibility and that we’d worked out how to remove the optional (but essential when roof-down) £250 mesh wind-deflector that’s currently blurring the view out the back.
I’m in the base V6, the blue car, and, like all of them, it’s cruising very happily, unperturbed by the snow. We’ve already worked out the gearbox is best in manual mode - bit too keen to kick down unnecessarily otherwise, but the gearing itself is phenomenally long. All have slightly different final drives, the V8S pulling a scant 1,500rpm at 70mph, giving it a theoretical top speed of 313mph.
At roughly 250mph less than that, the F V6 isn’t perfectly quiet, but then this isn’t a traditional Jaguar. It’s not a GT car, it’s a sports car, and the benchmark was the Porsche 911. So there is constant road noise, and on coarse surfaces there’s enough of it to occasionally drown out the exhaust roar. This is saying something.
The ride is also surprisingly abrupt, but, in a typically Jaguar way, it never savages you. It’s just quick to respond, the whole car feels secure and stable, which is surprising given how much length has been chopped out of the wheelbase. I say chopped out, because the F-Type isn’t a new-from-the-ground-up design. The aluminium platform is a modified version of the XK’s, but stiffer even than the XKR-S’s. The panels are aluminium, too, apart from a plastic bootlid, and the weight distribution is quoted (including driver and passenger) as a perfect 50:50 across all three cars.
Given all this aluminium, then, what’s most surprising is how much the F-Type weighs - this one is the lightest of the three, at a hefty 1,597kg. Just as well it has the guts to pull itself along, the guts to make the most of the double wishbone suspension.
A 335bhp supercharged V6. Instant, meaty response, an exhaust note that’s part rotary, part raspy old straight-six and oodles of good, old-fashioned forced-induction shove. Even as an entry-level model, the F-Type is a quick, quick car with an effortless mid-range.
But I have to say that, despite all this, despite the looks and noise and the excitement of the F-Type, up until now (now being us turning off boring roads through good scenery onto great roads through stunning scenery), I’d been slightly underwhelmed by the F-Type - not convinced its front-engined layout made it any sportier than an SLK or Z4 and concerned that, like them, it would suffer from independently minded, if not actively disjointed, front and rear ends. Puzzled, too, by the sharpness of the controls - the over-eager throttle, the almost grabby brakes, the keenness of the steering even when changing lanes on a motorway. It all seemed a bit hyperactive (especially when you factored in the raucous exhausts) as if Jaguar wanted to make 100 per cent sure that there was no way this could be labelled a hairdresser’s car.
No chance of that. It’s too expensive, for one thing. And too good. Finally, the snow has cleared off to the east, while we’re heading west, to the best landscapes in the British Isles. The roofs have been dropped, an act that occupies just 11.1 seconds of slow-speed travel, shockingly effective heated seats are toasting our posteriors, the pop-up dashtop vents are blowing 25°C air at my knuckles, the cockpit is proving almost immune to buffeting (but not noise) and it finally feels that the F-Type is properly communicating with us.
There are differences between them, largely a corollary of the way that each car is configured. The V6 has an open rear differential and passive dampers; the S gets a mechanical limited-slip diff, active dampers and switchable exhaust; the V8S has an active electronically managed differential in place of the LSD. Rumour has it that the V8S is a bit of a handful, what with 488bhp in a compact frame, but, thus far, it’s been as manageable as the V6S.
Both are better-controlled than the base V6. Out here, on roads that regularly seem to head in several different directions at once, the lack of active suspension is telling. The V6 bucks a bit, the rear end occasionally bouncing around. It’s fluid, the most supple of the three, possibly due to the smaller wheels and softer suspension. Some unscientific testing as we sweep alongside Loch Cluanie confirms that there appears to be nothing in it for pace between the two V6s. Hardly surprising when there’s just 7lb ft of torque to separate them.
The problem for the entry-level model is that the F-Type is a pointy car. You will not encounter understeer, the front just grips and grips and then, for good measure, grips some more. It’s very precise and backed up by wonderfully accurate (if light on actual feel) steering that requires no more than a nudge of lock to commit to most corners. The question is whether the loading you’ve put through the front axle will be tolerated by the rear as well. If not, if you’re going hard or the road is very uneven, the V6 can load up its outside rear tyre and heave and pitch. It’s never enough to be concerning, and it’s chiefly noticeable because the structure itself is so stiff, but if one F-Type could be said to lack focus, this is the one. It hasn’t quite made the full leap from GT to sports car.
The other two have. They wear peculiar green and pink fluoro S badges and feel that bit tighter of focus, more exploitable and even better balanced. Here, among other things, you get to play with a switch to alter the exhaust note. At this point, a public service notice is required. Leave it unpressed. The F-Type’s plenty raucous enough already. Of course you won’t; you’ll do what we did and engage maximum volume. But be warned that your neighbours will demand you be served with an Asbo, and there are probably track days you’ll be turned away from. The V6S in particular is like a rally car with anti-lag. The V8S on the overrun is distant artillery; the V6S is the crackle of small-arms fire in the next room. Do yourself a favour, and reduce the loudness when you overtake someone. It wouldn’t do to cause an elderly Suzuki driver to have a heart attack.
But this is good, isn’t it? Jaguar hasn’t shied away from making the F-Type a full-on sports car. I know: you probably doubt me because it’s not mid-engined, because it’s a Jaguar and because it looks too pretty and harks back to the E-type. And I can’t deny there is an edge of theatrics to the loudness and the immediacy of the controls. It’s as if all the responses are magnified; initially, this is unsettling, suggesting that the car has been artificially enhanced somehow, that it’s not a purely natural performer. The fact that all the noise comes from behind you is, for me, a disappointment; this is the easy end to make sing.
But then you sit back, exhaust clacking and popping like fireworks night, and think: “It may be obvious, but I’m having a beltingly good time in here.” And then, after a few hours of familiarity, your inputs adapt and you realise just how cohesive and drivable the F-Type really is. How reassuring and powerful the brakes are, how the shifts of the automatic ‘box are so quick that it feels more like a twin-clutcher, how amazingly well controlled both S cars are, how much traction they generate out of corners and how they’re never fazed by anything. The F-Type may not be the subtle Jag you were expecting; instead, it’s something better: a fun one.
And none of us can think of anywhere else on Earth we’d rather be right now than the Highlands. Massive, triumphal scenery, lightly coated with a distant dusting of icing sugar and served under a blue sky. We charge ever westwards through it, gawping at the formations, hearing echoes from rock faces, finding unbelievable roads with huge sweeping uphill hairpins the same radius as aeroplane vapour trails, convinced there’s no finer place in the world, and few finer cars.
And then the V8S bit me. On the Applecross Pass (Bealach na Bà for you Gaelic speakers out there). Loss of traction? Yes. Slewing sideways? Towards a rock face. It missed. God knows how, but despite sawing one way and then the other, neither nose nor tail met granite. That was the V8 asserting itself, a reminder that you can’t take liberties (in this case, disabling the traction control) in a compact roadster with 460lb ft of instant access and any-rpm torque and expect to get away with it. It was a fright, and one of the factors that went towards convincing us that the V8S is only the second-best F-Type.
It is shockingly fast, a real hot rod handful and almost a caricature of itself. You could slap a Yorkie logo on the back and have done with it. On wet, bumpy, cambered or coarse tarmac the traction light flickers like a strobe. It’s the one F-Type I’d say is possibly too much.
The V6S is the better blend. Its engine is more usable, and although both are equally beautifully balanced, feeling almost mid-engined at times, the lighter V6 motor feels fractionally defter, better able to hold a cornering line, a bit cleaner and ultimately more satisfying to drive. I even prefer the way the V6S sounds - it’s more unusual than the burbling V8 and sounds even more delicious when downshifting.
Any other issues that need raising? A couple. The poor packaging is enough of a factor to potentially influence your buying decision, and although Jaguar has been widely criticised for the F-Type’s lofty pricing strategy, now that we’ve driven it, our doubts are gone. It fully justifies its price and positioning.
The F-Type isn’t perfect, but it’s an exceptional sports car, sharp and invigorating and full of life and charisma. It’s a car Jaguar should be proud of, the best sports car to emerge from Britain in a mighty long time.