The road through Southern California's Little Tujunga Canyon weaves and bobs like a cat trying to shake an angry dog. But the cat we’re riding down the canyon couldn’t be any more sure-footed if it actually had claws.
It’s our first chance to drive the new Jaguar S-Type, the automaker’s first midsize sedan in more than 30 years. The long and eagerly awaited S-Type is meant to begin a phased expansion program that will transform the British marque from a small, niche player into a luxury segment mainstay.
Unlike Jaguar’s two current product lines, the XJ sedan and XK coupe and convertible, the S-Type is the product of a cooperative effort with the automaker’s American parent, Ford Motor Co. The new sedan shares the same basic platform and many of the same components as the 2000 Lincoln LS sedan. Eventually, several other products will sprout from the so-called DEW98 platform, including the reborn, retro-styled Ford Thunderbird.
Sharing is a good thing
The idea of sharing platforms isn’t new. Back in the early 1980s, General Motors all but killed off some of its best-known product lines by sharing everything from suspension to sheet metal. About the only difference was the badge that designated which car was a Buick, which was a Pontiac, and which was a Chevrolet. Today’s designers have gotten a lot smarter. They can make two otherwise identical cars look surprisingly different. How many casual observers could tell that the Volkswagen Golf and the New Beetle have nearly 90 percent of their parts in common?
It’s one thing to look different,
2000 JAGUAR S-TYPE interior
The S-Type's interior is similar to the Lincoln LS,
but all that burled walnut (and right-hand drive in this Euro model)
makes the British heritage shine through.
As we zoom down the canyon, it quickly becomes obvious that the suspension is one place Jaguar engineers have done their homework. We charge through a nasty series of S-curves at 60, defying the steep cliffs that yawn to our right. This car is firmly planted on the road. And for extra security, the S-Type is equipped with a stability-control system meant to catch and correct a skid even before the tires begin to chirp.
Taking control over the cat
On this loop, we’ve chosen the big, 32-valve aluminum V-8, a 4.0-liter powerplant designed specifically for Jaguar. It’s a gutsy engine, with a throaty, resonant exhaust note that underscores the S-Type’s sporty image. At 281 horsepower, it will pull a 0-60 launch in an exhilarating 6.6 seconds. On these hills, the car’s massive disc brakes reassuringly slow us down as we enter another curve, the big V-8 firing us out of the corner.
This is the type of car we love to take on long mountain drives. There’s surprisingly little body roll. Even on the tightest turns, the suspension just doesn’t seem to be working very hard. Steering is unerringly precise, with a clear on-center feel. The words "reassuring," "thrilling," "exciting," all come to mind. The V-8 package favorably reminds us of the BMW 540i, our benchmark for the segment.
Earlier in the day, we took another pass through the mountainous Angeles forest range in another S-Type, this one powered by the AJ V-6. It’s a modified version of the trusty Ford Duratec V-6, but tweaked and tuned to a respectable 240 horsepower. And this engine, produced at the Ford plant in Cleveland, will still turn in an 8.0-second 0-60. Some of our colleagues, in fact, came back from the drive showering more praise on the V-6, but we found one nagging problem that slightly soured the experience for us.
Jaguar style and a couple of quirks
The long-lived J-Gate shifter is one of those British eccentricities we’ve come to accept, if not love. In 5-speed form, it is, at least on paper, an automatic that can stand proud with the best in its class. And indeed, shifts are smooth and silky in standard mode, punchy and crisp when set to “sport.” The problem was that with the V-6, the transmission just took too long deciding which gear to be in. It wasn’t a case of gear hunting, where a transmission constantly keeps shifting. Rather, it seemed almost preoccupied by the scenery. We’d stomp the pedal down to the floorboards and wait. Eventually, we’d feel the power surge, but often it came at a point when we no longer needed it.
A fatal problem? Hardly. Most drivers wouldn’t even notice except under the most aggressive conditions. And it seems the type of issue Jaguar engineers could easily fix simply by changing a few lines of code in the transmission’s computer controller. We’d especially like to see Jaguar adopt a Tiptronic-style system that would let us switch to a driver-controlled manual shift mode.
Let’s face it: Not many drivers will take to the hills with their new S-Type. Most will use the car to commute, or run errands on the weekend. For those in the know, the Jaguar badge instantly lends a cachet to its owner. And with Jaguar steadily surging in the oft-quoted J.D. Power reliability and customer satisfaction charts, owners aren’t as likely to have to defend the car’s quality anymore.
A house of style
If you had to pinpoint the single biggest factor in the British marque’s appeal, it’s that legendary Jaguar styling. Cars like the old E-Type and the newer XK are passionate exercises in design that few modern competitors have come close to matching. The nose of the new S-Type is unmistakably Jaguar-esque, with its horse collar-shaped waterfall grille, thin wisps of chrome-stripped bumpers and dual, off-size headlamps. The menacing air scoop is a direct lift from the XK line.
The car loses a little when viewed in profile. Its proportions are a bit less Jaguar, taller and a touch more stodgy. Chief designer Geoff Lawson explains that in today’s world, and especially in this midmarket segment, buyers simply won’t accept the interior space trade-offs traditional, low-slung Jaguar lines have mandated. And, even now, rear-seat headroom and legroom are a bit tight for a 6-foot adult.
The front seats are quite a bit better. They allow plenty of room to stretch out. They’re supple yet supportive. Even on the backwood twists and turns, we remained firmly planted in place.
On the whole, the interior lives up to what we’ve come to expect from Jaguar. We’re not sure where it’s written down in, er, stone, but luxury buyers just have to have wood. And, with the possible exception of Rolls-Royce, nobody does a better job than Jaguar. Our only quibble is the center stack, where the audio, climate control and optional navigation system come together in a somewhat mismatched jumble of organic curves and hard, straight edges.
The cell phone that talks back
It seems that cutting-edge technology is a must for today’s luxury buyer, and the new S-Type lives up to expectations. The navigation system is one of the better units on the market — and there are plenty we’d rather avoid. But the most “trick” touch is the voice-control system that lets you operate the radio, dial the cellular phone and adjust the temperature, all with a few spoken words.
It takes a while to remember the basic commands, though they’re relatively straightforward and easy enough to master. The system has a nearly perfect first-time recognition for all but the most accented speakers, Jaguar claims. And for those with deep and unusual dialects, says someone from South Boston, the computer can be put into a “learning” mode.
Excluding any of the short list of options, the S-Type with the 3.0 liter V-6 will go for $42,500 when the sedan reaches U.S. dealer showrooms this spring. The 4.0-liter V-8 will command $48,000 base. By comparison, the BMW 528i goes for $43,000, and the 540i is $51,100.
Of course, the BMW is the better-known brand, and it doesn’t have to live down Jaguar’s image of unreliability, something British executives admit will take them years to shed. Still, the new S-Type has enough going for it to believe it will draw its share of customers. Jaguar is so confident, it expects to see a 60-percent rise in U.S. sales this year, even though the S-Type won’t go on sale for several months.
And that’s just the beginning. About two years from now, the British marque will introduce yet another new model. Code-named X400, it’s designed to go up against the likes of the BMW 3-Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Worldwide, Jaguar is angling for volumes approaching 200,000 cars a year by the middle of the next decade. That’s a nearly eightfold increase over the brand’s low point in the early 1990s.
Can Jaguar meet its goal? If the S-Type is the foundation of this growth strategy, the answer is likely to be “yes.” The sedan isn’t perfect. Frankly, Jaguars never have been, but it’s a stylish driver’s car that should surprise and delight owners enough to overcome its relatively minor quirks.