SEE ALSO: Jaguar Buyer's Guide
I knew the boys from Browns Lane in Coventry, England meant business the minute I got to Bristol Airport for the flight to Biarritz : the 4 engined jet had a huge Jaguar painted on its side!
At the little French airport there was a bus waiting for us with an even bigger Jaguar painted on its side-this was clearly going to be a launch of major significance. If the painted Jaguars were not enough of an exclamation mark the real ones were waiting for us at the entrance of the Hotel du Palais, a little 5 star number with a mere 134 bedrooms and 20 suites overlooking the grey, menacing Atlantic Ocean. Apparently this small pad was the Summer residence of Napoleon 3rd and Empress Eugenia. I know Emperors had to have some staff beyond the odd maid but 134?!
In any case it provided a splendid HQ for Jaguar and the eager scribes who could not wait to be let loose in a car that is vital to Jaguar's success in the 21st Century. I have known the company for a very, very long time but maybe there are some readers who are not aware of the fact that it belongs to Ford Motor Company these days. To be brutally frank-Ford saved Jaguar from extinction. When John Egan-MD at that time- handed over the keys to the Detroit team the place was a mess. From an engineering point of view it was brilliant but from a quality point of view they were in big trouble. It took Ford several years and an awful lot of money to put it right and the S-type is the first genuine fruit of their labor.
Before an exceptional dinner we had a first-class presentation of the car which at one glorious moment was drifting across some sheet ice on full opposite lock during cold weather tests. Could have watched it all evening..
The chief engineer- Dave Szczupak explained to us the task facing the company: to take on the world's leading manufacturers, to compete head-on against BMW's 528 and Mercedes' E class to name but two. Ford musthave been pleased with Dave's work, the following week he was off to a very senior job in Detroit. Of course what really matters is was not what Ford think of him or of the car. The only people who matter in this respect are the potential customers, the buying public. Will they trade in their BMWs and Infinitis or not, will they appreciate the retro look or not? Apparently 80% of the people attending car clinics recognized the Jaguar without the badge, so strong is the emphasis on heritage. Well, this retro look worked for VW with the new Beetle but that of course was at 15 thousand dollars, whether it will work at 40 thousand -I am guessing at the time of writing as prices have not been released- is a different matter.
I shared the driving with my old friend Ian, a bit of a whizz behind the wheel. The names of the little villages were unfortunately a lot prettier than the weather. Cambo-les Bains and St Jean Pied de Port sounded very quaint and romantic but in the steady drizzle we've encountered the magic was conspicuous by its absence. Still, at least we had a chance to try the car under the sort of conditions buyers would encounter in England or in San Francisco during the Winter. Our first car had Jaguar's famed 4.0 liter AJ-V8 under the bonnet/hood. With 281 horses under my right foot I certainly had no problems overtaking the myriads of trucks cluttering up the beautiful countryside. The claimed top speed of 130 mph was clearly out of the question but there was no reason to doubt it either, with the same engine in a different Jaguar we've been known to do all that and then some during a rather rapid return from the Monaco Grand Prix..
In fact with the sport package the car will do 150 at which point the electronic top speed limiter comes into play. Rightly or wrongly only on certain German autobahns as even the State of Montana changed its mind and reverted to speed limits. The interior has that rather reassuring feel one only finds in traditional British gentlemen's clubs occupying most of London's Pall Mall just down the road from Trafalgar's Square and a stone's throw away from Buckingham Palace. Lots of leather and wood you'll understand but under the circumstances positively no gin and tonics! There was however a coffee break after which we switched to the 6 cylinder engine, known as the AJ-V6. With some modifications this engine will also appear in Lincoln-Mercury's soon to be announced LS range. In fact there are several components which are shared between Ford and Jaguar-a perfectly logical step in this day and age when development costs run into hundred of millions of dollars. I certainly don't think it matters one iota, would anybody NOT buy a Jaguar because the 6 cylinder block is based on Ford's modular V6 block? I very much doubt it. Most people, as I've mentioned earlier, probably don't even know that Jaguar is owned by the Detroit giant.
Both Ian and I felt that the car handled better, was better balanced with the smaller engine, both of us felt more at home, more comfortable with it. Mind you, it still did not stop my erstwhile friend from rocketing into Spain..let me explain. On press launches each car has a route map clearly indicating where the journalists SHOULD go. Right. What was I- the navigator at that point- supposed to do when it said in the book sharp right and Ian was doing 60 miles per hour?!
Well, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and simply asked him whether he had noticed anything different. Such as what he said. Such as the color of the uniforms..oh, he said finally, these are green and not blue ,maybe we are in Spain! Maybe?! 100%. Anyway, I should explain that with the advent of the European Community border posts are something of the past, these days it can be hard to tell whether one is in Holland or Belgium for instance. There were certainly no Checkpoint Charlie type barriers between France and Spain- Ian sailed straight through. Nothing that a quick U turn did not cure of course. The natives were in hysterics, apparently we were not the first and not the last to drop in to Spain during the launch. Luckily Ian saw the funny side of it and we motored on in complete harmony.
The only thing we did not care for was Jaguar's "signature" J gate shifter. This was an interesting gimmick when it was introduced well over 10 years ago and we felt that it was well past its sell-by date. Basically you shift down, across and up the other side instead of in a straight line which is what logic dictates. So much so that during the recent Geneva show even senior Ford executives agreed that it was an anachronism but felt that too much interference with Jaguar would have had a detrimental effect on the design team. I had no such inhibitions and said so the following morning as soon as found Jaguar's charismatic boss, Nick Scheele. Whilst he clearly was in no position to agree with me, reading between the lines I had a feeling that changes were on the way. Well, did they succeed, will they succeed? Only time will tell but certain things are obvious. A great deal of work, a great deal of thought and an awful lot of money went into this project which, with its American brother the LS is aimed straight at the heart of BMW and Mercedes. Former bugbears such as rust and faulty electrics are clearly a thing of the past although some unhappy previous owners will need convincing. In this respect the S type's genetic Jaguar heritage might be a handicap but with a four-year/50 thousand miles warranty any salesman worth his salt should be able to clinch a deal should that be the only hurdle.
Ford would not have 20 billion dollars in the bank if they did not know what they were doing. They have put an immense amount of time and money into turning Jaguar round whilst giving them enough independence not to stifle their creativity. On the face of it the S-type should be a winner. We liked it. So before you place an order for a 528 or E class take it for a test drive. In the end you and you alone will be the judge.