When Mike Cross and his team of engineers first began thinking about the new Jaguar XFR, inevitably the BMW M5 reared its not so ugly head. Jag knew that, despite the cliché, it would need to take on and beat the BMW at its own high-powered game if the XFR were to stand any chance of being a true world beater. A BMW M5 beater, no less.
Yet as the project progressed and the XFR went from idea to engineering reality to production car, the template shifted and the XFR became a different kind of animal from the one that was first discussed.
The further Jaguar developed the XFR, the more obvious it became that the end result was going to be rather more than just a straight M5 rival. And the more time that Mike and his team spent driving the opposition – Audi RS6 and Mercedes E63 AMG included – the more they realized that there was a small but perfectly sized hole in the market, into which the smoother, more refined but no less exciting XFR would fit quite beautifully.
The car you are looking at, and the one in which I’ve just been driven at breathtaking speeds across most of north Wales, is the end result. And before we go so much as a sentence further, let me tell you that it really is one heck of a car. Of all the various shapes and forms of vehicle that grace our roads, I think that über
-fast sedans are my outright favorite breed, which is why I’ve run quite a few over the years, including a previous-gen M5. Yet after a day in the XFR, albeit in the passenger seat, I think that it shows all the signs of being the best of the bunch.
Of course it’s fast, and of course it hangs on to the road well compared with most other four-seat sedans; if it wasn’t and didn’t then Jaguar would have dropped an almighty you-know-what from the very beginning. But what the XFR also does is cosset and comfort its occupants as they fly toward the horizon, providing a degree of refinement and apparent usability that no M5 driver could even dream about.
It’s so soothing in the way it flows across the ground, even when that ground is soaking wet and strewn with potential disasters (potholes, sudden humpback ridges, badly repaired roadwork scars… you name it, we drove over it). The XFR can’t help but knock you sideways, no matter which of its five seats you happen to find yourself in. And that’s before you so much as mention the small matter of its price.
At just under $80,000, the 155mph XFR might not be the four-wheeled answer to our current financial woes, but it’s still $6,000 less than an M5, $1,100 less than the E63 AMG and a faintly ridiculous 21 grand cheaper than an RS6. Oh yes, and in case you’re thinking that the reason it doesn’t cost as much as its mega-horsepower German rivals is because it isn’t as quick as them, think again.
Jaguar’s official claim for 0-60mph is 4.7sec, while 0-100mph takes a mere 9.8sec, exactly the same time as we recorded for the M5 when we road tested it in 2004. And over the most important speed range of the lot in the real world – 50-70mph in kickdown – it pretty much murders the competition with a dazzlingly rapid 1.9sec.
And the bad news? Apart from a slightly disappointing lack of engine and/or exhaust noise under full throttle, I honestly could not find much from where I was sitting.
What’s more, in order to get a more accurate idea of how capable the XFR is across country, I took my long-term Lexus IS-F along as a chase car, and that was a fairly eye-opening experience in itself.
At one point I became uncomfortably aware of how hard I was driving the Lexus just to keep up. For half an hour in the middle of nowhere it was proper eye-bulging, heart-thumping stuff. Yet when we climbed out and compared notes, steam pouring off the IS-F’s tires, it was obvious that Cross hadn’t been trying that hard. And the IS-F isn’t slow, even if its ride is nowhere near as composed as the Jaguar’s.
So how on earth, you may be wondering, has Jaguar managed to create such a well-rounded machine when we all know how much less money it has to play with than the likes of BMW and Mercedes? The key is the XF itself, which, for various reasons, provides a near-perfect platform with which to tinker.
“We knew early on that the hard points for the car were really good, and that’s down to the quality of the basic XF,” explains Cross. “That’s why we’ve been able to create a car with, we feel, more range to its ability. What we wanted to make was a car that has a duality of purpose, one that can be enjoyed not just by more skilled drivers but one that flatters the less-talented driver as well.
“In some of the German rivals that we tried, we found that you have to be quite committed behind the wheel to get the best out of them, and unless you are you can feel left out. We wanted to avoid that high-end focus with the XFR. We wanted to make it a relatively easy and enjoyable car to drive for a wider audience, but still one that satisfies on the highest level.”
Cross and his team didn’t go back to the drawing board to achieve this; they went back to the XF SV8 and began expanding its ability in every direction. The idea was to make a car with 30 percent more dynamic focus but without any serious compromises on comfort or refinement.
They started with the engine, which is an all-new 5.0-liter V8 that will soon go into service in the XK and regular XF ranges, and, perhaps, in future Jaguars. In this instance it has a supercharger and delivers 503hp at 6500rpm and 461lb ft at 2500rpm. In future this could be stretched to around 550hp and over 500lb ft if Jaguar chooses to make an even more focused XFR (of which there has been plenty of talk but, as yet, no confirmation). Or, indeed, a two-seat F-type, which may finally see the light of day, as long as the recession doesn’t wipe out the universe in the meantime.
In keeping with the 30 percent theme, the six-speed ZF gearbox has been reprogrammed to deliver quicker, sharper shifts, while the variable-ratio power steering is also crisper, though only by around 10 percent compared with the regular SV8. Any faster and the XFR would have been in danger of becoming neurotic in its response, and that’s not what Cross was after.
But he did want the car to feel “cleaner” in the way it reacts to the road, and after tens of thousands of miles driving in Germany, mainly on autobahns, and on deserted roads like these in the UK, he alighted on a formula for the XFR’s suspension: 30 percent stiffer springs front and rear, entirely new and extremely trick continuously variable dampers, slightly bigger anti-roll bars front and rear, and a brand new limited-slip “E-diff” at the back, made by Dana.
Although the car has custom 20in tires, courtesy of either Dunlop or Pirelli, the wheel sizes themselves are the same as those of the optional items on the SV8. But the brakes that nestle behind those 20in wheels are bigger and more powerful, while the traction control system has been rewritten to allow three distinctly different settings: normal, track (which allows a degree of yaw) and fully off.
Given that the new E-diff will allow anything up to 90 percent lock-up, that means that the 150-yard powerslide is now well within the XF’s repertoire. But even Cross admits that not many owners are likely to press and hold the button for the required 10sec to disengage the EDC system and go drifting.
A better example of how much attention to detail has gone into this car when it comes to satisfying the enthusiast is the gearbox. As in the SV8, there are paddle shifters and various different modes to suit the mood, but this time there’s an extra setting. If you simultaneously select manual, dynamic drive and sport, the gearbox will not automatically shift up, even if you run it against the limiter.
“We had quite a debate about this one,” says Cross. “But in the end we went with it because we’re aware that keener drivers don’t want the car to upshift sometimes because you lose engine braking, especially on the way into a corner. And less-committed customers probably won’t use the combination much anyway.”
The more time you spend with the XFR, and its chief creator, the more obvious its dual personality becomes. Normally you’d think that such a philosophy would result in a car that was a jack of all trades and master of none. It’s an approach that plenty of other car manufacturers have tried unsuccessfully in the past; most of the more sporting Volvos have been pretty dreadful devices overall, as have many supposedly “comfortable” Maseratis.
Yet the XFR, from the passenger seat at least, really does appear to have pulled it off. Even its throttle response software has been rewritten to deliver a variety of different reactions depending on how hard and how fast you stand on the pedal.
Just brush the throttle and the XFR will waft forward, delivering the sort of serene acceleration that you’d expect from any luxury sedan. Be a bit more enthusiastic with your input and it’ll summon itself with considerably more verve. Really stand on it and it will pounce at the horizon, sinking its claws deep enough into terra firma to scare any M5 driver rigid.
Even the new, sportier front seats with their electric side bolsters (required by the more variably sized U.S. customers, by all accounts) seem to do a pretty much perfect job. They were comfortable when they needed to be, but also supportive when the going got brisk. And on occasions it got very brisk indeed – so much so that we ended up facing the wrong way at one point, the result of one too many runs through a soaking wet corner to bring you the dramatic-looking shots you see here.
But there was no harm done. Mike Cross and the XFR went home in good health at the end of the day, both reputations firmly intact, along with that of Jaguar itself.
Actually, I’d go further than that. With the XFR, Jaguar appears to have turned a corner and made a car for which excuses are simply no longer required. If and when this wretched recession goes away, Jaguar could be some car company in years to come.Words and photos by Autocar magazine