JAGUAR XKR CONVERTIBLE
Graham Bell tries out the most powerful soft-top Jaguar yet
There can be few better ways of promoting your car to the world than having it star in a Bond film. I doubt however that anybody needed to see the current TV ad featuring footage from Die Another Day to know that Jaguar's improvements to the XKR don't include rockets in the doors and mortars in the boot.
And as you can see, they don't include the Bond car's roll bars or Max Power body bolt-ons either. In fact visually there's very little to distinguish the 'new' XKR convertible from the old one, either inside or out, with Jaguar deciding that as the XK's looks have always been its major selling point it was best to leave well alone. The most obvious change externally is the mildly revised nose with almost flush fitting fog lights instead of recessed ones, while on the interior there are new front seats.
All the really significant changes are mechanical and electronic, with the biggest being the fitting of the latest 4.2 litre AJ34 V8 and 6-speed ZF 6HP26 gearbox first fitted to the S-Type R.
The engine isn't just the old 4 litre bored out but an extensively re-engineered unit with a host of improvements including new block and rifle-drilled camshafts to produce an engine that's stiffer and lighter as well as being more powerful. In the case of the XKR, engine improvements plus an increased supercharger speed boost power by 30bhp to 400bhp, while peak torque is now higher and at lower revs (408lb ft at 3500rpm from 387lb ft at 3600rpm).
As with all V8 Jaguars, the revised XKR is only available with an automatic gearbox, the new 6-speeder being both smaller and lighter than the old 5-speeder, though it's still controlled by Jaguar's trademark J-Gate with its sequential manual shift facility and 'sport' mode button for higher revving automatic shifts.
The original XKR was the first really powerful car I got to properly road test and I still have fond memories of the high pitched whine of the supercharger and the storming acceleration it provided, so it was rather disappointing to learn that the supercharger is now fitted with helical gears and produces a subdued hum that's only audible under hard acceleration. And in view of the revised XKR's extra power and torque it was also disappointing to discover that the 0-60 figures of 5.2 seconds for the coupe and 5.3 for the convertible are exactly the same as for the original thanks to an increase in weight.
Admittedly that's still quick for such a big car, though it doesn't actually feel that quick on the road, partly I think because the XKR is so smooth and quiet that its performance is deceptive, and partly because of the automatic gearbox.
Having an auto obviously means you can't rev the engine, drop the clutch and set off with tyres squealing as you try for maximum acceleration off the line. It also means you don't get the off/on power effect of using the clutch and slamming it into gear when accelerating up through the box.
What you do get if you put the XKR into sport mode is acceleration from rest on up to three figure speeds that's so smooth and seamless and without any effort from the driver that it can be a surprise to see just how far round the speedo needle has gone. You can of course get more involved in the process by using the J-Gate's sequential manual shift, but give me a proper manual gearbox any day.
It's a pity Jaguar don't offer the 6-speed manual box fitted to the DB7 Vantage as an option, especially as they've fitted the XKR with the same 355mm front and 330mm rear vented Brembo discs as the Aston. Strangely though, they don't seem to work as well on the Jag, lacking the initial bite of the Aston and suffering momentary lock-up during full-on braking. Maybe that's something to do with the Emergency Brake Assist or again the auto box could be a factor (the auto DB7's braking didn't seem as good as the manual's). It's not that the Jag's braking is poor because by any normal standards the XKR has an impressive set of anchors - it's just that the Aston's is exceptionally good.
It might sound so far that driving the improved XKR was just one big disappointment - and in terms of driving dramatics, it was. But then it's a Jaguar, and your typical Jaguar owner prefers their performance to come with refinement rather than drama, which means no screaming superchargers, roaring exhausts, or squealing tyres but quiet, comfort, safe easy driving and electric everything. And if that's what you're after, then you'll find the XKR far from disappointing. As already mentioned, the supercharger is still audible under hard acceleration though once up to speed there's no mechanical or even exhaust noise, just a some tyre rumble on certain surfaces and a little high speed wind noise with the top up, making for a quiet, refined ride.
The standard air con and 12-way electrically adjustable seats (heated naturally) and steering column make it a very comfortable one too. Well so long as you're in the front and aren't much over 6' tall, because even with the seat set for my average frame there was no leg room in the back, and with the seat on the lowest setting there was maybe two inches between head and hood in the front. The hood is of course electric, though with it down you really need to fit the cover otherwise you end up with unsightly gaps to the rear wings, while rain virtually every day I had the car ably demonstrated that it's also completely watertight.
Combining with the automatic gearbox to provide that easy driving is speed proportional variable ratio power steering carried over from the original model. This is designed to provide greater weight when cornering at higher speeds, but as with so many power steering set-ups still feels rather lifeless.
On the subject of cornering, the XKR is too big and heavy for throwing into bends, but keep things smooth and you can make suitably dignified but quite rapid progress along winding A-roads, Jaguar's CATS adaptive damping system stiffening to prevent undue roll through the bendy bits and softening to provide a comfortable ride on the straight bits.
For those wanting improved cornering, there's a handling pack with lowered uprated suspension and recalibrated CATS and power steering available as one of the 'R Performance' options, but only for the XKR coupe. R Performance options for the XKR convertible are basically cosmetic, including alloy instrument bezels, shifter surround and pedals plus a choice of special BBS wheels ranging from 17" up to the 20" versions fitted to the test car.
Coming now to safe driving, that's aided by the ubiquitous ABS plus the standard Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and optional Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) systems.
ACC maintains a set gap to the vehicle in front by automatically applying the brakes when your pre-set gap is reduced by the car ahead slowing down or something pulling into your lane and then automatically accelerating back to your pre-set cruising speed when the gap opens up again. Feels very strange at first, but ACC could be very useful for frequent motorway users. Pity that Jaguar's engineers can't also fit a gadget that limits the gap to the vehicle behind to ward off tailgating tossers. Mortars in the boot?
As for DSC, as well as providing traction control this compares steering wheel angle to the turning angle of the car to check for signs of understeer or oversteer, and if any are detected will reduce engine power and/or apply braking to the most appropriate wheel/s to help correct it. Some drivers might regard this as unwelcome interference, but having now put it to the test I'd have to say that on wet leafy Autumn roads it's a welcome safety net that can prevent a quick spin round a roundabout turning into a quick spin on a roundabout.
You may have got the impression from this that the auto box and electronic gizmos mean the XKR is completely incapable of providing driving dramatics. Not so. Switch DSC off, manually select bottom gear in the J-gate and it is possible to perform tyre smoking donuts or exit turns with the tail out, but such antics aren't really the XKR's forte.
It's real forte is as a Grand Tourer in the truest sense. With a decent size boot and more than enough engine and braking power to cope with the steepest, twistiest mountain roads, the XKR would be terrific - and stylish - transport for two people and their luggage on a motoring holiday to the Med or across the States. Sadly our budget only ran to a trip to Norfolk, which while not so grand was sufficient to show that the XKR is a pleasant and comfortable - if undramatic - way of travelling long distances.
Looked at in that light, the only real downside with driving the new XKR is that despite the increased power and all the gadgets you'll still end up being outdone by some bloke in an Aston…
Copyright Graham Bell 2002