2008 Jaguar XKR, Part Two

The 2008 Jaguar XKR is a fast car. With the added 'R,' the hood louvers inscribed with "Supercharged" and the aggressive body work, however, that probably goes without saying. Those visual cues hint at the added performance. Power is up from 300bhp in the non-R version to 420. It makes 413lb/ft of torque. Why, then, isn't it good for driving fast?



Let's flash back quickly to yesterday. Driving the XKR around town, I felt incredibly special. Hold the start button down and you're rewarded with a deep growl as the engine kicks into life. All the cues of a fast, rewarding car are present. When it's not being pushed, the suspension feels firm and controlled; the engine feels powerful and responsive; the gearbox feels smooth and quick to change gear. The problem is, it feels like the XKR has been designed to deliver impressions, rather than actually deliver.

Up here, on the tight, wet roads through the Catskills, what's needed for fast driving is precision, not power; confidence and control, not bounce and squirm. Last year, in similar conditions, an Audi R8 was sheer pleasure, setting an unbelievably fast pace past sheer cliffs, through hairpin curves and down muddy tracks without once feeling overwhelmed. The XKR couldn't be more different.

The suspension that felt so in control yesterday feels out of its element up here, bouncing over bumps and squirming around corners. Carrying speed through mountain bends is a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best experience — you can never be quite sure what's going to happen. Even in the fastest of corners there's enough play in the steering that constant adjustment is needed to maintain a constant radius. A slow in, fast out approach would seem to make more sense, but that unpredictable two seconds of wheel spin that felt good in town yesterday feels scary when you're two inches from snow-covered Armco.

The engine still feels incredibly powerful, but the automatic gearbox makes it unpredictable. Leave it in drive and unexpected kickdowns deliver unwanted pulses of power. Flip the J gate over to sport and start shifting gear with the paddles and things get a little better. The XKR never lets you forget that you're manually overriding an automatic gearbox. It'll still shift up at the redline and even though a downshift delivers a nice sounding throttle blip, it results in no meaningful engine braking, leaving you to use the big, soft brake pedal to reach retardation. This stuff does not a supercar make.

Driving down into valleys, the roads open up into long sweepers that run alongside rivers and lakes. Allowing the opportunity for high speeds, the Jag still feels good when it can stretch its legs. But high speeds and gentle curves aren't the XKR's forte either. The weight shifts considerably rearwards under hard acceleration, removing weight and subsequently feel and accuracy from the steering.

The small, narrow windows that delivered an impression of safety and clubhouse luxury yesterday serve only to slow me down today. The A-pillar and mirror block a significant part of the forward view around left-handers. Around uphill right ones, the rearview mirror rears its ugly plastic head, obscuring enough of the view to have you hunching into the steering wheel to see the road ahead.

White with winter, frozen waterfalls falling off cliff faces and streams running fast with melted snow, the Catskill Mountains make a beautiful drive. Slow down, look around you and take time to appreciate the world that sits out past the sloping hood and the XKR begins to make a lot more sense, its outward promise of speed temporarily forgotten.

Part One of the Jaguar XKR review appeared yesterday, Part Three will appear tomorrow.

Photography: Grant Ray

Previously:
2008 Jaguar XKR, Part One