Monday 14 February 2011

Driven #21:- Jaguar S-Type :- Unexplained Attraction

Flaming Hot Monster Munch. Never liked ‘em. I didn’t really like any spicy food much, to be honest, and yet now if a peppered steak appears on the menu I’ll jump right at it, and the nice, gentle Roast Beef Monster Munch no longer hits the spot.

It’s funny how we suddenly take a liking to a taste, a sensation or a product that we previously held with disinterest or contempt. It happens with music, it happens with fashion, and it happens with cars. And yesterday evening, it happened to me with the Jaguar S-Type.

Coming on stream in ’99, the S-type marked a step down-market for Jaguar, intended as it was as a both-barrels attack on the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class, models traditionally seen as beneath the Jaguar XJ’s portion of the market. For the past two decades Jaguar had been pretty much a two line range, you had the XJS if you wanted to go fast and the XJ6/12 if you wanted to go luxuriously, though with hindsight both cars were equally capable in either role.

In the 1960s the range had been broader, the Gangsters’ favourite the MK2 ran at the same time as the limousiney MK VIII, both sharing that legendary 3.8 straight six. And all the while the E-Type stood as the sultry temptress at the sporting end of the range. Wind forward to ’99 and the XK8 had the E-Type sector covered and the XJ8 was capably filling the shoes of the old Mk VIII. If only there was a way Jaguar could tempt those with a little less cash to throw around.

Enter stage left a platform, codename DEW98 that Ford had been developing for US brand Lincoln. Eventually this would underpin the Lincoln LS, the Ford Thunderbird and yes, the Jaguar S-Type. Available at first with Ford based AJ-V6 or home brew AJ-V8 engines, a smaller 2.5, an economical diesel and somewhat special Supercharged variants would turn up in due course.

On launch to an excited public at the Birmingham Motor Show in '98, the S-Type was met by universal “Oh's”, raised eyebrows and confused shrugs. A bewildered press thought maybe Jaguar had brought one of it's heritage fleet to the launch “for a laugh”, either that or the world and its contents had been transported back to a bygone age. To say that Jaguar had piled on the retro touches was something of an understatement; the car was long of bonnet, short of boot and with a drooping, saggy bottom like, well, like Jags did forty years ago. And so did Rovers, Singers and Standards. Germany was staggered just how far from the Zeitgeist the English car had fallen. Here was a new car for retired middle class accountants, not the thrusting captains of future industry who are key to the BMW heartland.

If the curiously Victorian exterior was surprising, the inside was perplexing. For the first time since the XJS in '75 Jag were trying its luck with a non wood-and-leather interior. This was almost universally rejected by the press and Jaguar backtracked and rectified things a few year later with an interior very close to that of the XJ and far more in keeping with the restrained nature of the rest of the car,

And that pretty much summed things up. At a time where repro Le Corbusier recliners were popular, Jaguar had released a wing-back chair. It became a familiar sight on British roads, usually driven by elderly types who wanted a car like the one they had forty years ago.
Could it be any coincidence that I collected the car in these photos from a seventy-five year old man? I fear not. 

This three year old example, a 2.7 Diesel Sport model, was being traded for a Mercedes E320 diesel and I was in charge of delivery and collection. Last week I had driven a tired, hundred thousand mile '04 2.5 S-Type, and it hadn't exactly turned me on. I handed the Benz over to its new owner and sat behind the wheel of the Jag, and somehow, ten minutes later, my world was being torn apart.

I think firstly it was the engine that impressed me. Previously I had only encountered the V6 petrol engines which didn't exactly feel special. Tonight though my ride tonight contained Jaguars 2.7 V6 diesel, smallish but with extra whoosh from a pair of turbochargers. And boy, do they give good whoosh. A solid, thumping fist of torque but hardly any commotion in the cabin. This felt good.

Also good was the ride. Not the floaty over-soft experience I swear I could remember, but something far more controlled. Not hard, just progressive. You can feel that you're moving along an imperfect road surface.

My evening drive was in two stages. It was dark when I left my Girlfriends house, I got back in the Jag and suddenly the uninspiring interior in my mind was replaced by an aircraft cockpit. The dials, their graduations marked sharply in bright green, are patrolled by bright orange needles swinging fluidly about their axis. The touchscreen Sat-Nav had defaulted to the Jaguar logo screen, again a feature I was familiar with, but tonight, for some reason, it felt like it was trying to impress me. And it was working.

Gently passing the coast road with just the occasional burst of midrange acceleration to wake me up, soon the countryside welcomed my four ellipsoid headlamps with a winding road I am on very good terms with. This is my “testing” road, a place where I try any car I have feelings for, just like Us and Them from Dark Side Of The Moon when I'm trying a new HiFi.

I wasn't on a mission to find the cars limits, I just wanted to see how far it would go to entertain me. In full auto, waftmatic mode, traction control on, I could stuff this big cat into any corner at seemingly any speed and it would just track through on its P-Zeros. My god, this is an easy car to drive fast. Good brakes, too, with a split personality allowing them great town performance when you just dab 'em, but feeling ready to offer the goods on full-attack mode.

I arrived home facing an emotional conundrum. I was enjoying the car far more than I had a healthy reason to. I spent half an hour taking photos of it in the dark on my driveway, when I started to enjoy looking at it I knew it was time to go to bed.

Bright and early the next morning it was time for more driving. My unexpected joy in the hands of the S-Type last night must have been a blip, I had been on an emotional high from visiting my other half, but this steering wheel feels really good in my hands. Or does it? Chris, snap out of it. Fast corner up ahead, feed it in, yeah, loads of grip there, where's the apex? Ah, got it. CHRIS! Stop it. Ah bollocks, I like this car.

I really do. I stopped to take a few daylight photos for your viewing pleasure; through my viewfinder it no longer looked daft and anachronistic, it looked superb. It looked exactly like it does what it does, and that is to spear a lazy driver rapidly around the countryside in absolute comfort. On this later specification it's the details that really consolidate the whole design, those finned multi-spoke wheels and serious Pirellis fill the arches beautifully, the reinstated leaping cat and slightly more pert rear lights are the way they should have been from launch. OK, I'll accept that those are a strange bunch of proportions in this day and age, but it certainly doesn't want for personality.

Driving off again and forgetting my seatbelt momentarily, I noticed that the warning chime sounds like the opening bars of For Your Eyes Only. I love that terrible, terrible Bond flick and again get the impression that the S-Type was fed up with me being scathing about it and was trying to convince me. Perhaps it was just the way I had the seat set up, but the cabin felt great today. Sitting low behind that nicely veneered dash, the matt-chrome surrounded dials in their own recess in the woodwork, it all felt very sporting, and very much unlike I was expecting. The only jarring note, now visible in daylight, was that central Touchscreen and HVAC stack. The generic grey plastic buttonry has no place in a cabin of this class. Oh shit, did I just say that?

A cabin of this class”. Oh deary me, I'm buggered now. I've gone from yesterdays feeling of the S-Type as a failed, old fashioned design folly, to being a junior Bentley were it not for being a few microns of interior chrome shy. Pondering this as I silently dart along the A12 I'm still confused when I pull up at work and am greeted by one of my colleagues, a high flyer in the Mercedes sales army.

He grins, “You love that car, don’t you?” I look at him for a few seconds, and then hang my head in shame.

“Yeah, so do I.” He confesses. He is a man who drives expensive German cars on a daily basis, a man not afraid to call a spade appropriately and who is forthright in condemning cars that fail to engage him. Here he is admitting to me that the facelifted S-Type has a way of getting under your skin and winning you over. And it has. I'm totally smitten and I may need to take professional advice on the matter.

While I'm talking rubbish I'll stretch to say that the S-Type's replacement, the XF, has been with us a few years now. On release there was much talk of The Shock Of The New, and celebration of Jaguar embracing the modern era. To my eyes, now the novelty has warn off, the XF is starting to look like a Big Mondeo. I'm actually beginning to wonder if the S-Type was launched fifteen years ahead of it's time, I'm sure that the market would be cock-a-hoop if a car was launched tomorrow with that kind of individuality.

I must stop typing now, I have the urge for a really hot curry and I never used to like those, either.


  1. I agree with you about the XF. I mistook an early one for a late model Mondeo earlier this week.

  2. Hello Shep! Yep, I doubt very much that the XF will be particularly revered by future generations...

  3. These S Types certainly grow on you.The retro looks are great: a Steam Punk deco machine that can hit 140 in sublime comfort. This is a classic Jag...all personality and character.No retired accountant is going to be cornering near a ton in sport mode...which this dignified beastie can do.