Jaguar's New XKR: One Fine Ride

The feline member of Ford's family raises the carmaker's profile with a nicely priced and compellingly exciting sports car

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Outstanding design, surprisingly supple ride, gobs of power,excellent transmission

The Bad: No side curtain airbags, ugly whip antenna, awkward shift lever, minor visibility issues

The Bottom Line: A car that draws stares ordinarily reserved for more exotic vehicles

I am not a fan of celebrity gossip magazines. These publications are full of pretentious and speculative paparazzi-snapped pictures that shamefully pry into peoples' lives and support aspirations of a supremely materialistic existence. That said, my high and mighty moral stance quickly went out the window once I slipped behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel of the 2007 Jaguar XKR.

The XKR exudes socialite status with pedigree to spare. Parked on Manhattan's posh Fifth Avenue, the sleek cat draws more envious stares than a supermodel passing by a Weight Watchers meeting. From old or young, tourist or local, the XKR solicits neck-snapping, jaw-dropping, finger-pointing attention that the driver simply cannot escape. Go ahead and call me a hypocrite, but it feels good to be in the limelight.

XK-Series cars can trace their roots back to iconic Jaguar models like the XK120, XKSS and E-Type. The new-for-2007 XKR is a performance variant of the XK (formally known as the XK8), a rear-wheel-drive car introduced as a second-generation model in late 2005. As with XK, the XKR is available in coupe and convertible. Much like BMW's M-badged vehicles (M stands for Motorsport), the R in XKR stands for racing.

Raising Ford's Stakes

The XKR's closest rivals in terms of vehicle dimensions, price, market positioning, and performance attributes are the BMW M6 ($99,100), Cadillac XLR-V ($97,460), Mercedes SL55 AMG ($129,575), and, to a lesser extent, the Porsche 911 Carrera S ($82,600). Jaguar has not released projected sales targets, but says the XKR model mix in the U.S. is running at 30% to 35% of total XK-Series production. According to the Automotive News Data Center, Jaguar sold 745 XK-Series models in the first two months of 2007—a 186.5% jump from the same period in 2006.

Now that Ford (F) has sold Aston Martin (Jaguar is a Ford-owned marque), Jaguar has become one of the crown jewels of the company's Premier Automotive Group (PAG). Ford still owns Land Rover and Volvo, but while Ford had Aston Martin, industry analysts often wondered if Jaguar models had to intentionally hold back so as not to encroach on their sister company's niche market. With Aston Martin no longer part of Ford, Ian Callum, Jaguar design chief says, "I like to think it takes that glass ceiling away. We're already talking about taking the brand slightly higher in terms of performance stakes."

The XKR Coupe offers loads of meaningful differences when compared with the XK. Along with subtle yet effective aesthetic changes, the performance ante has been raised substantially. This is thanks, in large part, to the addition of a supercharger to the XK's 4.2-liter V-8 engine. XKR also offers a recalibrated suspension system for enhanced ride and handling.

Like its XK sibling, the XKR uses a new bonded and riveted aluminum structure. The aluminum skin has replaced the steel body used on previous-generation XK/XKR models. This all-aluminum construction is not only supremely stiff, but light, too. At 3,814 lb., the XKR Coupe is only 143 lb. heavier than the XK Coupe and only slightly heavier (29 lb.) than the previous generation XKR.

Behind the Wheel

The 420-horsepower (413 lb-ft of torque) XKR offers staggering power, with a zero-to-60 mph time that is a full second faster than the 300-hp XK at 4.9 seconds. I could attest to this awesome and immediate passing power during my day of driving on long stretches of New York's Westchester County highways. Power is on tap, always. The stability-control program can be turned off partially or completely, which allows for the aspiring drifters among us to easily swing out the car's tail during handling maneuvers.

The XKR attacks corners with aplomb and feels quite nimble for a car of its size. Steering, which is electronically assisted, offers a little less road feel than I would have liked, but the car is quite tossable at speed. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph. I had to take Jaguar's word for that last one.

My $96,675 test vehicle was a fully optioned "Lunar Grey" coupe with 20-in. "Senta" alloy wheels ($5,000), adaptive cruise control ($2,200), the luxury package ($2,100), and the premium Alpine-branded sound package ($1,875). This loaded test car adds more than $10,000 to the $86,500 manufacturer's suggested retail price.

Looks Like a Million

Considering how well equipped the XKR is right out of the box, some of these options seem unnecessary. Some notable standard equipment includes adaptive front lighting, keyless entry and keyless start, 10-way power-adjustable driver and front passenger seats, and a multimedia system set into a 7-in. touch screen (includes navigation, Sirius satellite radio prewiring, Bluetooth connectivity and AM/FM/CD). If one were to go easy on the options, the XKR seems a relative bargain vs. the competition. It should be noted, however, that the Cadillac and Mercedes models both boast a folding, retractable hardtop. A feature like this would likely raise XKR's retail price tag.

While pulled over or stopped at traffic lights in Manhattan, people repeatedly mistook the XKR for an Aston Martin. When I was cruising on New York's West Side Highway, one guy even stuck his head out of his car window and screamed, "What is that, about $250,000?" The Jag simply looks more expensive than it actually is.

Design, which I feel is XKR's most endearing quality, is one of latent power fused with elegant lines and aluminum brightwork. The muscular stance, long hood, and beautifully sculpted rear shoulder haunches make the XKR look as if it is just waiting to burst into action. The highly emotional design plays a crucial role in defining the XKR's character. Think of the car's movie-star good looks, sumptuously appointed cabin, and surprisingly supple ride quality as the "beauty." A menacing mesh front grille/fascia, tasteful use of brushed aluminum, ventilated hood, exposed black brake calipers, and grumbling quad-tail exhaust note are the "beast."

Smooths the Road

The sum of this metaphorical equation is a multifaceted GT (grand touring) car that envelops you in luxury while simultaneously offering supercar-like levels of exhilaration off the line, around corners, and in the top end. Whether you're attacking a sun-drenched strip of twisty country road or leisurely cruising down that long stretch of interstate, the XKR just works.

"Our aim when engineering the new XKR was to ensure that the car's characteristics remained in balance despite the significant increase in power over the XK," explains Jaguar's chief engineer, Mike Cross. A good example is the car's ability to soak up road imperfections despite its sport-tuned suspension, rigid structure, and 20-in. wheels.

The six-speed is the fastest shifting automatic transmission I have ever experienced. Steering-wheel-mounted "paddles" offer drivers the ability to shift manually without the hassle of a clutch pedal or the distraction of reaching for a traditional shift lever. If this manual mode doesn't interest you, the XKR can be driven automatically in two other modes—Drive and Sport. When you switch into Sport, the shift patterns become much more aggressive, holding each gear farther into the rpm range.

Combining Old and New

The gearbox software adapts according to driver input and prevailing conditions. For example, it recognizes when the car is negotiating a curve, and holds the gear accordingly. This hill recognition enables the XKR to choose the gear ratios to optimize the ascent or descent.

The new XKR's cabin is quite tasteful and smells of rich leather. Buyers can specify numerous interior color combinations. Charcoal leather with brushed aluminum inserts seems to be the most sporting configuration. The cabin's use of digital and analog controls is well balanced, providing occupants with a sense of old and new world. Doors open and shut like bank vault doors and likely contribute to the XKR's extremely low NVH (Noise Vibration Harshness) levels. The 7-in. touch screen allows for easy navigation through the car's multimedia interface.

The interface controls the navigation system and Bluetooth connection, and is more intuitive than BMW's much-criticized iDrive. Unique seats offer more lateral support and added side bolstering. The front headrests, tachometer, steering wheel, and gear selector are adorned with an 'R' badge.

Some Quibbles Inside

My interior issues are limited to the utterly useless back seats and cheap-looking poplar wood that was peeling off my test car's instrument panel. Jaguar also should rethink their tried-and-true J-gate shift pattern as it makes moving the lever into gear somewhat tricky. Another bad note is the archaic whip antenna. For this price, I would like to see a hidden or concealed housing for the antenna.

Unfortunately, my test car's "reverse mirror dip" feature was broken, making it difficult to see the curb while parking. The directional stalk (left) and windshield wiper stalk (right) reek of cheap plastic, which seems below par in this class. And last but not least, the extreme slope of the A-pillars (the structural columns that straddle the windshield) makes it slightly challenging to see while negotiating turns. Visibility, though, is actually quite good from all other vantage points.

Jaguar is a brand that typically appeals to an older audience, but I must be precocious because I found the XKR to offer truly exciting performance, looks that could kill, and a heaping portion of passenger-coddling amenities. It is not the most hard-core sports car you can buy, but it's no slouch either. Many cars that surpass XKR's performance also lack its comfort and refinement. And considering its long list of standard equipment, one year of free scheduled maintenance (BMW is the only other brand that offers this), and base price that is lower than the competition, XKR might be a smart choice for GT car shoppers.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.