Wait, what? Bentley confirms its first official entry in the ‘race to the clouds’
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That’s a lot of initials.
Aren’t there just. First, in 2006, there was the XK, then the XKR arrived with a supercharger to partner the 5.0-litre V8, then along came the XKR-S with yet more power and control, now this, the XKR-S GT. Which is something altogether different.
Guessed as much from the size of the wing and general… attitude.
Yeah, it is quite hard to ignore, isn’t it? Visually it’s all wings, dive planes and easily scrapeable carbon, which, since the advent of the Bentley Conti GT3 racer, don’t look quite as out of place as you’d expect, given they’ve been added to a large, front-engined grand tourer.
This isn’t a grand tourer any more, then?
Don’t be facetious, of course it isn’t. The easiest, most throwaway comparison is against the Porsche 911 GT3 of course, and while that’s not inaccurate exactly, it’s not spot-on, either. The areas of commonality are clear: they’re both expensive, track-orientated machines that look good in white and have stripped cabins. But where the Porsche is honed and tight and endlessly engineered with astonishing traction and grip, the Jaguar has a more bespoke, charismatic feel. Where the Porsche has been developed from the outset to terrorise apexes everywhere, you can tell the Jag started out with a very different work ethic and has had its focus realigned.
Ah, like forcing a round peg into a square hole?
Exactly that, but in a good way. Though the end result may only post a 7m 40s lap of the Nürburgring - where a GT3 is over ten seconds faster and a Nissan GT-R Nismo a sub-7m 10s - the point this car is trying to make is that pure speed isn’t the be all and end all. It aims to deliver an experience as much as raw speed. To quote David Pook, the project’s chief of steering, handling and dynamics, “we weren’t chasing the GT3, that’s not a performance level we were aiming at. Instead we wanted lots of really exploitable performance”.
Isn’t that just a way of saying Jag hasn’t done much to the underpinnings?
That’s what we suspected until we started reading into the work that’s been done - the fundamental work, not the visual flim-flam. Because what this does is take elements of the new F-Type and re-engineer them back onto the XK. The steering rack is faster, the whole rear axle is new, on the front suspension only the upper arm is carried over, there’s more camber on the wheels - the list goes on.
It doesn’t include the engine and gearbox, though, which have been left alone. The aim was not more power here, just a purer driving experience. Besides, 542bhp and 502lb ft of torque at 2500-5500rpm is hardly shabby, is it? Jaguar claims a limited 186mph max and 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds. We say the former is happily achievable, the latter would need a surface with exceptional traction.
Just as well those brakes look a bit trick, then.
Well spotted - they’re brand new carbon ceramics, developed ultimately for the forthcoming F-Type Coupe, but getting their first outing here. They’re giant: 398mm at the front, 380mm at the back, but perhaps most significant of all, compared to a standard set-up they reduce the all-important unsprung mass by a total of 21kg. That’s over 5kg less a corner for the suspension components, springs and dampers to deal with. Speaking of which, the Jag features springs that are stiffer by a whopping 68 per cent at the front and 25 per cent at the rear.
What’s happened to the weight?
Good question. It’s gone down, but not by that much - about 40kg reckon Jaguar, so still weighs in the region of 1713kg. Ripping out the unwanted sound deadening and back seats, plus replacing the fronts with lightweight buckets is offset by the insertion of the cage. Beyond that though, Jag hasn’t put the GT on too much of a diet. Where the GT3 has fabric pull tabs for door handles, the Jag still has a full keyless system, plus a heated steering wheel. Yes, really. For those moments when you need to make the sweat evaporate from the alcantara, we assume.
Are those moments frequent?
What do you reckon given it comes wearing Pirelli Corsa track day rubber and we were driving it in December?
That it was beyond frightening.
That’s what I thought, too. Until I drove it. Now, I’m not going to say it’s a pussy cat, because clearly you need to be circumspect, but you can work with it, play with it to a degree I didn’t expect. Partly this is down to the fundamental friendliness of the front-engined layout, but compared to the F-Type, the XK’s 120mm longer wheelbase means it’s less snatchy as your backside isn’t perched directly over 500 angry horsepowers. But that isn’t the first thing you notice about the XKR-S GT anyway, because it takes a bit of time to work your way up to a realization that track day tyres somehow work in winter.
What is, then?
Well, once you’ve got yourself settled in the low slung seat and toyed with the harness vs conventional seatbelt debate (you have a choice of both in here), you jab the starter button. Noise occurs. Possibly more noise than anything road legal that I’ve driven before. Now, the F-Type V8 S is a very noisy thing, I run one as a long termer and drive about the place mostly giggling at the absurdity of it. But the noise in the F is a bit… forced. Here, it’s the full Le Mans, a purposeful burble and braaaap, followed by the gurgle and chunter of delicious overrun. It takes a little while before you discover the Dynamic Mode switch, which further liberates the exhaust. Jag admits the catalyst pack in the GT isn’t standard. Apparently it passed all the necessary drive-by noise regulations. In all seriousness, I’ve no idea how it achieved that.
Noisy then. And hard-riding, too?
Not exactly. When we went out to do the pictures you see here, our photographer, Rowan Horncastle, reported that the car looked like it was jinking about all over the place, but on board the experience is much more placid. However, if you’re thinking that means Jaguar has pulled off the trick of making the GT retain its essential ‘Jaguarness’ you’d be wrong. It drives like no Jag I’ve ever driven before. In a good way. I was never a fan of the XKR-S - for me it didn’t go far enough, it didn’t take the XK in a new direction, move the game on far enough or show that Jaguar could do something different. This does. It’s an XK transformed. So yes, the ride is more than tolerable, but the lack of roll, the incisive and immediate front end (the track width is up by 52mm), the commitment you can use through corners, the feel through steering and chassis, these are all new to the XK. New and exciting.
So it’s useable on the road?
It is indeed. It’s not really deflected by camber, and traction is surprising. Up to a point. If you jab the throttle, 502lb ft will arrive at the back axle with all possible haste and the GT will spit sideways just as your foot so inconsiderately commanded. So you need to be smooth, use the weight wisely. Take liberties with the brakes by all means - they’re superb, amongst the very best carbon ceramics we’ve used, full of feel and power - just be a bit wary of the engine and gearbox, primarily because this uses the old six-speed automatic, which is slower on the uptake than the eight-speeder fitted to the F-Type. Upshifts are slightly slurred, but such is the torque and engine response that it’s not too much of an issue.
One gear does it all?
Third or fourth. Both are rampant and I’m not sure I ever used full throttle. Normally this bothers me as it hints at traction issues, but somehow it didn’t here, probably because speed was being heaped on plenty quickly enough and I was enjoying the noise so much. Special mention to the steering, too. It’s not super-precise and brimming with jiggly feedback, but after a while you realize how well synced it is to the chassis, how you know exactly what the car is up to. This trustworthiness meant I was always surprised quite how much speed and grip the Jaguar was able to find in conditions that are about as alien to track day cars as it’s possible to imagine.
But British buyers can’t get hold of it, can they?
The original plan was that Jag would only build 30 left hookers for the US market, but it subsequently decided to make 10 available in the UK. It’s now saying that up to 50 could be produced in total depending on demand. It’s not a big chunk of business, even with the car costing £135,000, but as a brand-building exercise, it’s a very valuable one.
OK, fundamental question: did you enjoy it?
Way more than I thought I would. I hadn’t quite realised how full-on it would be, nor how absorbing to drive. No, it’s not as incisive or scalpel-like as a GT3 and I’d have liked to have seen more weight taken out, but it is astonishingly muscular and charismatic, with an utterly addictive engine and, thinking about it afterwards, it does have recognisable Jaguar traits - the surprising suppleness and traction, the chassis’ well balanced ability. Most of all though, I’m really happy to see how far Jaguar has managed to move it on from the standard XKs. This new direction bodes well for the future. More like this, please Jaguar.