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Thursday 16th February 2012


DRIVEN: JAGUAR XKR-S CONVERTIBLE

Highway to the danger zone (sorry...) in Jaguar's fastest and most expensive convertible


Even by the standards of car launch excess this one takes the proverbial somewhat. 11 hours to San Diego, a vmax run along a runway in a 550hp Jaguar XKR-S Convertible, 11 hours back.

A real chance to let the XKR-S off the leash
A real chance to let the XKR-S off the leash
I've driven this car twice before too, once pottering through downtown LA and the second time only the other week, sideways on snow in Finland.

Neither occasion offered opportunity to get beyond third gear. This one will. Maybe it's the fact I've completely missed a night's sleep and might, just possibly, be a bit strung out. But I'm barely a third of the way up the runway of the El Centro Naval Air Facility 100 miles east of San Diego and consider this might well be The Most Exciting Thing I've Ever Done.

Normally the idea of straight line speed, especially on a 60-metre wide stretch of concrete, doesn't sound too thrilling. And not, it's fair to say, worthy of a transatlantic flight.

Jag faster than one of these up to 170mph
Jag faster than one of these up to 170mph
But there is the question of context. And the fact I've just lazily drifted the Jag past a multi-million dollar line-up of US Navy F-18 Hornets while their pilots are on their lunch break is, quite frankly, as ludicrous as it sounds.

Scene of the crime
This off the back of a briefing in the self-same hangar used for the scene in Top Gun where a cocky Tom Cruise mocks Kelly McGillis's lack of knowledge of the fictional MIG-28. Yes, as if access to an active military airfield wasn't enough, El Centro's role in everyone's favourite homoerotic homage to fighter jocks and bad karaoke is being celebrated with a recreation of the film set, complete with complimentary aviators and a briefing from station ops chief Karl Garcia.

Top Gun briefing scene filmed here
Top Gun briefing scene filmed here
The scene wasn't even meant to have been filmed there either, the film's technical adviser (and genuine Top Gun veteran) Peter 'Viper' Pettigrew apparently horrified at Jerry Bruckheimer's insistence they contrive it in the hanger rather than the genuine Top Gun briefing room he had in mind. But Bruckheimer insisted, saying 'Mom and Dad in Oklahoma' wanted to see fighter jets and a big stars and stripes in the background and, authenticity be damned, that's what they'd get.

I'm almost hoping we get the chance have our request to the control tower for a fly-by denied on grounds that the pattern is full too but, sadly, we're denied that thrill and waved straight out. Loud though it is I'm not sure a high-speed pass in a Jaguar is enough to result in spilled coffee in these parts anyway.

Ops chief Karl Garcia lays down the law
Ops chief Karl Garcia lays down the law
Ego suitably massaged by the Jag's compliance in smoking up its rear tyres and scribing fat black lines across El Centro's immaculate concrete surface, I do it again on the approach to the holding area at the end of the runway. Compared with his day job of launching fighter jets off the front of carriers, this probably isn't the most taxing day Garcia's ever had in the office but he seems happy to let us play and points to the runway. Another eruption of tyre smoke follows and I'm off down the 1.7-mile run again.

"This is Ghostrider..."
Expecting little sense of speed from such a featureless location, it's a shock how fast it actually feels. 100mph passes in a blink, the acceleration ferocious and only levelling off north of 150mph.

175mph with the roof down: blustery
175mph with the roof down: blustery
175mph passes easily though, even a cheeky few hundred metres pinned past the point where I was meant to be backing off failing to get any closer to the 186mph vmax. Blame the showy departure from the line and my bloody-minded insistence on having the roof down.

Thankfully the drive to El Centro has offered a taste of how the XKR-S copes with terrain more challenging than a wide, flat runway. You're not long out of San Diego's sprawl before the topography takes a turn for the seriously spectacular, twisting, fiercely cambered tarmac fighting its way over a 1,200-metre mountain range amid spectacular Martian scenery where whole hillsides are formed of cascades of car-sized boulders.

The runway is fun but corners are better
The runway is fun but corners are better
A flat black line across the horizon to the right marks the border with Mexico, frequent sightings of border patrol 4x4s and a simmering paranoia about the drug violence and illegal immigration spilling across adding spice to an already bleakly impressive panorama.

Frontier spirit
A mindful eye for California Highway Patrol aside the main focus is enjoying the XKR-S's easy-going agility. Protestations that the Convertible boasts comparable stiffness to the coupe (it runs the same spring and damper rates, impressively) don't quite bear out and there is a little shimmy now and then. But generally the Jag startles with its quick-witted agility.

Weighs nearly 1,800kg, doesn't feel it
Weighs nearly 1,800kg, doesn't feel it
The steering is light, in the Jag mould. But it's fast and faithful and any vagaries about what the front end is up to can simply be dialled out with a bit more throttle.

The clever Active Differential introduced on 2010 XKR and XFRs can switch from fully open to 100 per cent locked in just 200 milliseconds, Jaguar's belief that maximising fun stems from minimising DSC intervention meaning there's an aggressive rear-axle bias to the handling. No complaints there and TracDSC loosens the electronic reins a little, should you wish to exploit this trait to the full.

Wonderfully fast and responsive two-way switchable Adaptive Dampers do a good job of hiding the 1,795kg kerbweight, the droptop weighing just 42kg more than the coupe. The Jaguar ethos seems to be about letting the car move with the terrain and interact with the road's undulations and camber changes rather than just steamroller it into submission. 10mm lower and running spring rates nearly a third stiffer than the standard XKR it can chatter over bumps but the body control is beautifully judged.

XKR-S styling is full on - better in muted colours
XKR-S styling is full on - better in muted colours
Light fantastic
Chassis and powertrain are neatly harmonised too. The supercharged 5.0-litre V8 has huge lungs but doesn't crash in with the diesel-like whump you get from the twin-turbo V8s from AMG or BMW M. Frankly you soon forget the fact it's got forced induction at all, the wide power band and aggressively cackling exhausts wonderfully charismatic and about as restrained as the aero mods and wilder paint schemes offered on the XKR-S.

And though the Jag's six-speed auto might sound old-tech compared with the dual-clutch transmissions in the shifts are quick and decisive in the manual mode and intelligently timed in auto.

Red leather about as subtle as the bodykit
Red leather about as subtle as the bodykit
It's not perfect. The base XK feels like a big GT, an SL or 6 Series rival. Certainly a lot more substantial than a 911 and yet the rear seats are nowhere near as viable as the Porsche's. That six-figure pricetag is edging into Aston territory too. In isolation an impressive effort then but in context a slightly harder sell.

Playing at Top Gun has been a fun demonstration of the XKR-S's firepower and the roads on the way a convincing display of its dynamic prowess too. But against a brand new SL and 911, not to mention the new M6, the XKR-S will face sterner tests than this.


JAGUAR XKR-S CONVERTIBLE
Engine:
5,000cc V8 supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 550@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 502@2,500rpm
0-62mph: 4.4sec
Top speed: 186mph (limited)
Weight: 1,795kg
MPG: 23mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 292g/km
Price: £103,000 (list price)


VIDEO

Dan attempts to max the Jaguar out - note tragic attempt to look a bit 'Top Gun' with blagged Aviators...

 

A rather slicker edit from Jaguar showing the car in action along the El Centro runway









Author: Dan Trent