I've never been a Jaguar fan, but I changed my mind in a hurry while test-driving the 2011 Jaguar XKR Coupe, which combines the elegant road manners of one of my favorite cars from Daimler (DDAIF:US), the Mercedes CL550 Coupe, with the raw speed of a Mercedes CL63 AMG. That's a high compliment because the XKR starts at a "mere" $97,000, which is 18 grand and 55 grand less, respectively, than the above-mentioned Mercedes models.
Jaguar as a bargain brand? Not exactly, but it's incredible how much performance, luxury, and value the company has packed into the XKR, an upgraded version of the Jaguar XK that only comes as a two-door coupe or convertible and (for 2011, at least) is only powered by a supercharged 510-horsepower V8 engine. The rear-wheel-drive XKR is not only quick as a Corvette but one of the most beautiful cars I've ever test-driven. Everywhere you go in this car, people wave and smile and give you the thumbs-up, or come running with their cell phones to take a photo.
One of the few hesitations I have about the 2011 XKR is whether to wait for the 2012 XKR-S to come out this fall. The XKR-S is a juiced-up, even speedier version of the XKR that packs 550-horsepower under its hood. Personally I don't like the way the XKR-S looks: It only comes in five colors and has virtually no exterior chrome; other than the leaping Jaguar logo on the rear end, the trim is body-colored. I also don't like its price: The XKR-S starts at $132,875. I'd stick with the regular XKR and use the extra 36 grand to buy a Chevy Volt for day-to-day driving.
Like other cars in its class, the XKR isn't exactly easy on gas. It's rated to get 15 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway, 17 on average, and in about 400 miles of mainly highway driving I got 17.9 mpg. The Mercedes SL63 AMG (rated at 12/19/14) is one of the few rivals with significantly worse fuel economy. With an automatic transmission, Volkswagen's (VOW:GR) Audi R8 4.2 Quattro gets 13/21/16, General Motors' (GM) iconic Corvette 15/25/18, the Nissan (NSANY) GT-R 16/21/18, and the Mercedes CL550 15/23/18.
Whichever model you choose, a Jaguar offers extreme exclusivity. It's a niche brand in the U.S., with total sales in the first four months of this year of only 3,750 units (up 15 percent compared with a year earlier). Combined sales of all versions of the XK were only 149 units in April. Given the quality of the XKR, it appears that India's Tata Motors (TTM), which bought Jaguar (and Land Rover) from Ford (F) in 2008, is committed to putting the storied brand back on the map.
Behind the Wheel
The XKR Coupe is blazingly fast for a luxury car that weighs 3,865 lb. It's rated to accelerate from zero to 60 in 4.6 seconds, but I consistently clocked my test car at 4.2 seconds. Car and Driver magazine got a time of 4 seconds flat.
That's another reason I probably wouldn't spend the extra money on the XKR-S, which is rated to do zero to 60 in 4.2 seconds: XKR is already at least that fast. Then again, if you're obsessed with speed, the XKR-S will probably end up clocking in at something like 3.8 seconds in zero-to-60 runs, which would be truly phenomenal for a big luxury car.
One reason the XKR is so fast off the mark is that instead of conventional traction control it has Active Differential Control, a clutch-like system that transfers power to the rear wheel with the best traction. This minimizes slippage and power loss on less than ideal road surfaces.
The XKR isn't available with a stick shift, but the automatic transmission has a manual function that allows the driver to do the shifting via steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. There's an "S" setting that makes the car more responsive, ratchets up the already audible growl of the exhaust, and generally makes the XKR more fun to drive.
What's remarkable about the XKR is how well-mannered it is in day-to-day driving. Adaptive damping control helps make the suspension supple enough to consistently iron out bumps and irregularities in the pavement. There's none of the jerking and hopping at slow speeds that you sometimes get in a car with such a powerful engine. The ride isn't as smooth and the cabin as sound-deadened as in the Mercedes CL550—but it's close, and the Jag is a lot faster.
The cabin is upscale, with stitched leather on the dashboard and seats, a choice of aluminum, oak, or piano black trim, and a number of cool touches. Instead of a shift lever, there's a round knob that rises out of the center console into the driver's palm. You turn the knob to put the car in gear. As in a Mercedes, the controls for the 16-way power-adjustable front seats are on the front doors where they can be easily seen, rather than on the sides of the seats where you have to manipulate them by feel alone.
However, you pay a price inside the car for the XKR's gorgeous exterior lines. Headspace is tight in the front seat (37.4 in.), and the rear seat verges on being a joke. Rear headroom is rated at a mere 30.2 in. and rear legroom at just 27.6 in. This being a genuine coupe (meaning it only has two doors), it's almost impossible for a full-size adult to crawl into the XKR's back seat, let alone sit there comfortably. The rear seat is best left to small children, and they probably won't like it much.
Another negative: The trunk is shallow and not very spacious. It measures 11.7 cu. ft. in the Coupe and 7.1 cu. ft. in the Convertible with the top down.
Buy It or Bag It?
If you're interested in the 2011 XKR, you have three choices: the Coupe (which starts at $97,000), the Convertible ($103,000), or the XKR175 ($105,500), a special version of the Coupe that commemorates Jaguar's 75th anniversary. The XKR175 only comes in black and has aerodynamic enhancements that include front and rear spoilers, side sills, and a rear diffuser. Top speed is 174 mph, compared with 155 for the regular XKR.
The ultimate XKR to date will be the 2012 XKR-S ($132,875). With its 550-horsepower engine, spoilers, lowered stance, and numerous other aerodynamic and performance enhancements, it's billed as the fastest Jag ever. Top speed: 187 mph.
I like the car I test-drove, the basic (if you can call it that) XKR Coupe. To my eye, the spoilers, body-color trim, and other "enhancements" to the XKR175 and the XKR-S ruin the car's lines. The XKR Coupe is insanely fast, elegant-looking, and starts at less than 100 grand. It also creates a stir wherever you take it.
Click here to see more of the 2011 Jaguar XKR Coupe.