The first time I drove the 2007 Jaguar XKR coupe, I didn't get beyond the parking lot. The engine had a problem, a warning light indicated, and Jaguar did not want me testing a glitchy version of a car that retails for $90,575 (including options). This was not a good sign. It wasn't long ago that Jaguar was considered the Lada of luxury models, so prone to breakdowns that mechanics could send their kids to college on the repair bills. Jaguar has, in fact, vastly improved since Ford Motor Co. bought the venerable English brand in 1989. According to the latest J.D. Power survey, Jaguar ranks on a par with BMW for long-term reliability a respectable showing for a make that used to be the butt of those auto-repair jokes.
With the XKR, Jaguar has finally produced a car that may silence the brand's other knock: that it's more about aristocratic style than performance. The XKR is the supercharged version of the XK sports car, which was completely redesigned for the 2007 model year. The outgoing edition had scarcely been updated in a decade, and Jaguar overhauled everything from the sheet metal to the transmission. Instead of steel, the new XK is sheathed in high-strength aluminum, forming a shell that's 30% stiffer and 10% lighter. The XKR's V-8 engine got a boost, producing 420 h.p. and 413 lb.-ft. of torque good for a 0-to-60-m.p.h. time of 4.9 sec. And Jag loaded up on high-tech gadgetry like shift paddles on the steering wheel and parking assist (via a video screen). Buyers may also opt for adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to adjust the car's speed on the basis of the proximity of vehicles in front.
All these features make the XKR more competitive with sports cars from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Lexus. What those brands don't have is a model as visually dashing. Designed by Ian Callum, a Scotsman who created the gorgeous Aston Martin DB7, the XKR's flowing roofline tapers off to a rear end that's neither fussy nor overwrought. A few performance elements and design cues punctuate the body: air intakes on the hood, side vents and an R badge on the rear, emblazoned like Superman's S. But the car's elegance speaks for itself. As I pulled out of a parking space in Manhattan, a man in a wheelchair nodded in approval and remarked, "Go ahead, hit me." He was only half-joking.
Jaguar spent no less effort improving the six-speed transmission. There are three modes: automatic, sport and manual (using the shift paddles). In manual, according to Jaguar, the gears respond to the driver's touch in 600 milliseconds, and the sensation is pure greased lightning. Sport mode feels silky smooth too. Overall, the car isn't as lithe or fun to drive as a Porsche 911 with a manual stick shift. But Jaguar has concluded that its core market is drivers who want a balance of performance and luxury, and in that respect the XKR hits its mark.
Inside, Jag went for a mix of Old World luxury and high-tech gadgetry, not as successfully. My test model was laden with poplar trim a nice touch for the Duke of Edinburgh set but incongruous amid features like satellite radio and a touch-screen navigation system. Speaking of which, Jag could improve its digital mapping, which produced a spartan display of highways and back roads on a trip to Atlantic City, N.J. Nonetheless, the cockpit felt roomy, with plenty of head- and legroom. As with most sports cars, the rear seats are too cramped for adults to sit comfortably.
Jaguar still faces loads of competition in this class of cars, and purists who want a sports car may gravitate to Porsche for its unbeatable manual transmissions. But say this for the Brits: they finally made a model that lives up to its good looks.
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