"The most extreme expression yet of Jaguar's passion for building beautiful, fast cars" is how Jag heralded the new XKR-S at its launch in Geneva earlier this year. They promised a top speed of at least 300kph and used language like 'driver-focused' and 'harder-edged character' to describe the driving experience. Could they deliver all of this, or would it be just an XKR with more oomph, stiffer springs, and a body kit?
There we were...with the track to ourselves and both the new XKR and the XKR-S at our disposal. A semi-naked Megan Fox with come-to-bed eyes couldn't have looked more inviting. Well...actually she probably could, but you get the point. That we chose not to go out in the XKR-S first was a lesson in restraint that would have made a Trappist monk blush, but we decided that the best way to see what kind of advances Jaguar had made with the R-S was to sample the new XKR first.
So, out onto the track we went and after a couple of warm-up laps it was time to raise the tempo a bit. Braking for turn one at Portimao is an unforgettable experience, because you do so pointing downhill quite dramatically at the end of a long straight and travelling at about 240kph. Imagine entering a dip at the end of a straight like the one at Brands Hatch's Paddock Hill at 150mph and having to brake hard as the car plunges downhill, and then get tucked-in to a tight right-hand turn at the bottom. Tests of brakes, tyres and suspension don't get much fiercer than that, but the XKR scrubbed off the speed without any drama. It turned in quite well too, but not in a way that would impress Porsche devotees.
The rest of the lap continues in much the same vain; it's a really busy rollercoaster of a circuit and you feel like you're always either climbing or dropping downhill steeply - and almost all of the braking is done going downhill. Jaguar obviously picked this place deliberately to test all aspects of their cars' performance thoroughly, and we were happy to oblige.
After several laps a few things were clear about the XKR (and those who have driven or own one will doubtless know this): The new 503bhp engine is superb (it sounds spine-chillingly gorgeous), as are the brakes. But this is not a track car. Of course, it isn't meant to be one, but even in Track DSC mode and using the 'manual' shift it just didn't feel at home being hustled around on anything more demanding than the average A-road. This last department is where we expected the XKR-S to be a big improvement, so we eagerly approached 'the fastest Jaguar for a generation'.
Opening the door to the XKR-S reveals pretty-much what you'd expect from a top-end Jag', with the possible exception of the carbon-effect fabric on the seats. Opinion was split between observers on the day as to whether this is a bit too much of a blingy departure in an area that Jaguar has always excelled.
That said, once your backside is planted you feel right at home in the 16-way adjustable 'Performance' seats, the instruments are clear, and the use of alcantara as headlining seems so right it makes you wonder why any manufacturer of expensive performance cars wouldn't use it in the same way. Determined scratch-and-prod merchants will eventually find a couple of barely significant uses of less-then-premium materials, but rest assured the interior on the whole is befitting a one hundred grand GT.
Out on the track the first thing that struck us as we approached the braking section for turn one was that the R-S was going at about the same speed as the XKR, despite having 542bhp (versus the XKRs 503). Braking, too, was impressive, but the similarity stopped there. For the first hot lap we turned in at the same speed as we had in the XKR, but as the R-S headed towards the apex there was no tyre squeal and even less roll - it just calmly tucked in as if we'd just asked a concert pianist to play 'Chopsticks.' On the way out it applied the power in a way that allowed you to almost forget just how fast you were accelerating and concentrate instead on where you were going to brake and turn in to the next corner. As good as the XKR was the R-S gave the initial impression of being on a different planet in terms of dynamics; we could point it at parts of the track in a way that would have caused the impressive-enough XKR to cry 'enough' and it would duly oblige without any drama.
With 'Track DSC' (which is set up differently in the XKR-S to all other Jaguars equipped with that function) and 'Dynamic Mode' enabled, the car's enhanced ability to slow down, turn-in, and drive out was astonishing. We pushed a bit harder. As we approached the limits of adhesion, the car began to break away in a neutral, predictable fashion. The Track DSC seemed to be teaching us; 'Brake a bit earlier here, turn-in harder there, you can get on the power a little earlier...' And when you went too far there was no sudden and dramatic electronic bollocking from the system, it just subtly reined-in the event you'd just tried to cause and let you get on your way. Very impressive, very composed.
'It's not a track car' said the Jaguar chap as we sat in pit-lane listening to the exhausts ticking away as they cooled down after a couple of sessions. He could have fooled us. Chatting with one of the track's professional drivers confirmed what we'd suspected. He confessed: 'It doesn't feel quite as sharp as a (Porsche) GT3, and is perhaps a slightly harder car to get the most out of, but the lap times are probably very similar.' Similar lap times to a GT3...from a Jaguar which, with all the driver-aids turned on, can also be as docile as a three-legged elephant suffering from bronchial pneumonia (but much, much more comfortable) is impressive. There's that word again...
Gripes? Well, parked next to the XKR we didn't think that the R-S was a great looker from the front - kind of a cross between an XKR, a Skyline GTR and a Koi carp. Although the front-end treatment does apparently reduce lift by about 30 per cent - perhaps this could account for the same end-of-straight speed as the slightly less powerful XKR?
The gearbox is another area that, while being very good, can still show a bit of weakness in some areas. For example, shifting up a gear while accelerating uphill at full throttle can sometimes result in quite a sudden 'clunk' when in Dynamic Mode. It doesn't really cause any problems, but it was a bit unpleasant and did cause us to lament that a conventional six-speed with a clutch isn't available.
Is the XKR-S is now a full-on, bona fide GT car? In terms of the blend of ferocious performance and on-road refinement it's an overwhelming 'yes.' Despite the enormous power and aggressive looks, it's not the savage track-beast you might expect it to be - but this is a compliment to how careful Jaguar has been in developing such a composed, indecently fast car. Certainly, Jaguar devotees who can asee past the front-end treatment and the odd blingy touch will be utterly blown-away by how this car drives. It's that good. So, now that there's a Jaguar which can turn lap times similar to certain Porsches and other renowned road-going track-stars, would you be tempted?