The 'entry level' Jaguar roadster has reached test-mule stage - but it won't look like the F Type concept.
In case you missed an edition of AutoEvoCarBlog, the word is that Jaguar plans to replace the current XK range with two front-engined roadster and coupe models sharing key underpinnings and architecture but different bodywork, powertrains and styling. One will be a new entry-level two-seater (possibly badged XE or XKE) with V6 and (possibly) V8 power that's likely to be revealed 18 months from now. It will be priced between the Porsche 911 and Boxster, we're told, while its sibling will be a more expensive and larger 2+2 that will replace the newly facelifted XK a year or so later.
While it's tempting to talk of the new two-seater as a spiritual successor to the E-type, there's resistance to that idea at Jaguar. Ian told us he doesn't hold with it due to both the weight of expectation and the baggage such a comparison brings. Anyway, the high performance, premium XK is probably closer to the E-type in spirit than a new, harder-edged small sports car.
The last time a junior Jaguar sports car was close to the launch pad was a decade or so ago, when the F Type show concept was revealed to suitably lip-smacking responses at the Detroit Auto show.
The F Type was created by a project team led by Keith Helfet under design boss Geoff Lawson. A heart attack ended Lawson's career tragically early, and the show concept was completed under his appointed successor Callum.
While punters in their droves cried 'just make it', Ian now maintains that few people really appreciated how far from reality the F Type concept was. "We couldn't build it, because it had a really low windscreen and high bonnet," he says, "and by the time we normalised it for production it took all the character out." Reading between the lines it may not have helped the F Type's cause that Ian, in his role as vigorous new broom at Jaguar, was already pursuing his own design agenda.
That stillborn mid-engined F Type has never been seen in public, but if you can visualise a roadster of Boxster proportions with an XJ220-esque nose and circular air intakes raised above the waistline ahead of the rear arches, you'd be close-ish. (Ian would probably take exception to this simplistic description but forgive us, we've only ever glimpsed this intriguing clay model as an iPhone thumbnail!)
So what of the F Type's 'spiritual successor' today - and why now, if not then?
We've known an entry-level roadster has been a Jaguar priority since 2009 because Ratan Tata said as much, and all subsequent reports suggest it's going to be based around a version of the platform architecture underpinning the new XJ.
"There's always been a case for this car, we're just late getting there," says one of the men making it happen, brand supremo Adrian Hallmark.
"Why did Porsche enter the SUV segment when everyone said it had peaked? It hadn't, that's why. Everyone talks about emerging markets like Brazil and China, but Jaguar's traditional markets are predicted to be bigger than BRICS for the next 20 years, and demand for premium products is set to increase. The only downside is ever increasing pressure on CO2 emissions, which will be addressed by downsizing, hybrids and other technologies - so the death of the sports car is greatly exaggerated."
You've also got to have a few quid in the bank for development, and JLR is sitting on a pretty pile of cash. As well as a hefty £1.126 billion profit last year (which takes into account existing R&D spend), a whole extra billion cleared into the company's bank account last month as the result of a 10 year bond issue.
"The commitment to invest in the Jaguar brand - well, I've never seen anything like it," says Adrian, a high-flyer who's CV includes stints at Porsche and Bentley amongst others. So what could possibly go wrong?
"Only we can do a Jaguar, but we need to compete where other companies are excelling. The biggest strategic mistake we've made before is doing neo-Jaguar design instead of designing for the future. Not every car needs to look the same, and I think some of our competitors are reaching a level of 'sameness' that's dangerous," he says, adding the Jaguar brand can definitely support the broad 'bandwidth' that has allowed the hard-core - and widely acclaimed - XKR-S to emerge. "The XK is very much a GT, but the R-S has been invaluable to see just how sporty people imagine Jaguar can be."
Ian agrees that a new entry level sports car should have a harder performance edge to it.
"If you define a sports car for two people, it has to be delivering driving focus. If you define a 2+2 it's a GT car for touring," he tells us.
"My design approach won't change from what we're already doing," he says. "Fantastic proportions and great lines, and always pushing boundaries to get proportions as good as I can."
Having touched briefly on the limited volume, extraordinarily high-tech and fabulously expensive hypercar in development with partner the Williams F1 team, we were intrigued to know where Ian thought the project might lead. And he acknowledges that while there's no current strategic or business plan for Jaguar to develop a presence in the 'mainstream' supercar sector, it could open doors in future.
"The reason we're doing CX75 is that we want to demonstrate our amazing innovation and technical prowess," he says. But could it lead to a less esoteric supercar project in future? "Well it's nice to think that might be possible, and it's a direction I'd personally like to go in," he says. (Hold the front page - that makes it 'official'! Ed.)
The £700k bolide's final specification is still being refined, and while it was expected that a version of the proposed 'new for 2014' 1.6 litre four cylinder F1 engine would be used in the Jaguar, the news that the engine planned for F1 has been now been officially re-spec'ed as a V6 means Jaguar and Williams will surely have to react.
So if they've got to make the engine bay bigger anyway, let's hope they remember to leave room for a supercharged V8...