With a leap and a growl 

Off the floor

Off the floor

My experiences as a cat lover have always taken a slightly hallucinatory tack. Perhaps the model glue had something to do with it back in 1964, when I christened a Jaguar XK-E roadster as the maiden contribution to a large fleet of model cars I would eventually build and cherish. Some 31 years later, the numinous landscape of Wales may have cast its own spell: I was walking alone for hours between hedgerows on the Ffawyddog road, when a Jaguar XJ6 sedan rolled up silently behind me at no more than one or two miles an hour—presumably on little cat’s feet. Since the Welsh lane might accommodate either sedan or walker—but not both at once—I played pied piper for Jaguar until we reached the next available turnout some hundred paces down the road.

More recently yet, the aroma—I swear—of rich cream butter and ancient cognac billowed about me every time I slipped behind the wheel of Jaguar’s XJR super-sport sedan. Each time I made a conscious attempt to detect the source of this marvelous waft, it disappeared until my attention returned to more roadworthy matters. Thus did Jaguar’s stunning R-Car cast its spell and hold me in thrall.

For 1998, Jaguar’s XJ sedans in general and the XJR in particular have emerged from their lair with world-beating confidence. These are arguably the most beautiful sedans in the world, regardless of price or pretensions. And while investment and enthusiast audiences are going ga-ga over Daimler’s courtship of Chrysler, executives at both Jaguar and Ford must be rubbing their tummies in smug satisfaction at having beat them to the altar. Jaguar’s XJR isn’t mostly about beauty contests or ingenious stock-swaps, however. It is mostly about the 370 horsepower underhood that transforms a mere drive in the country into a hallucinatory warp of our time-speed continuum.

There is no shortage of fast cars in this world. A 345-horsepower, 3,200-pound, two-passenger Corvette roadster is fast, for example, and it makes mincemeat of zero-to-60 in five seconds or so. But a 4,100-pound, five-seater luxury sedan routinely turning 5.5s in the same sprint is a whole lot more than mincemeat; it’s pâté de foie gras aux truffes de Savoie. What’s more—and what’s so completely mind-boggling about the XJR—this car never even gestures to loosen its tie nor doff its straw boater while stringing followers in its wake like pearls on a necklace. It’s just the darnedest thing.

It’s possible, of course, to limit a description of the XJR to a shopping list of components. The 4.0-liter V8 is a twin-cam, 32-valve masterpiece borrowed from the sultry XK8 coupe and roadster that Jag debuted last year. This is the first V8 in Jaguar history, and it’s very much a beneficiary of Ford’s managerial and financial support. All by its lonesome, the AJ-V8, as it’s known, is capable of 290 horsepower; but in R-trim, the motor wears a little welded-aluminum bonnet directly atop the intake plenum. Dubbed an Eaton M112 supercharger, this patented pair of “twisted helix” impeller blades whirs up at twice engine speed to cram psi after psi of concentrated fuel-air mixture down the engine’s throat—all in the pursuit of those 370 glorious horses. For you technical-stat scorekeepers out there, the XJR’s 11.08 horsepower-to-weight ratio beats the Corvette’s 9.28 by almost 20 percent.

Then there’s the drivetrain: In light of current events, it’s more than ironic that an automatic five-speed transmission designed by Mercedes is the only one capable of handling the XJR’s titanic 387 ft.-lbs. of torque. To keep all this rocket power from evaporating into so much tire smoke, a brainy traction-control system integrates fuel and spark management with the four-wheel ABS brakes. And speaking of brakes, when it’s time to get back down to earth after a quick visit to the lofty realm of triple digits, there’s a disk the size of a wheel of Stilton cheese at each corner; underneath are black, sticky slabs of Pirelli PZero tire measuring 255/40ZR-18. When you want to stop, this car will really stop.

Curiously, the feel of the brakes is at first disconcerting. Not only does the brake pedal hit the foot low on the arch—rather than at the ball of the foot, where sporting practice traditionally dictates—but pedal pressure is very soft, almost spongy. The brakes are there and definitely ready to spring into action; but the crisp, positive feedback that a sporting driver expects is missing, and it takes a few miles to adapt to a different rhythm of timing and pressure.

It doesn’t take long behind the wheel of an XJR, however, to conclude that a list of parts and specs does no justice to this car’s overall personality. Take handling, for instance. The car seems unflappable, and despite two tons’ bulk and all that monstrous horsepower, the ride remains placid, the handling famously reactive and precise. Steering, in particular, is incredible at all speeds, despite those fat, extremely low-profile tires.

Inside the leathered and paneled cabin, there is just enough audible evidence of the world outside for passengers not to feel hermetically sealed. Calm, however, always prevails, whether idling in the driveway or blurring the scenery in wanton smears of acceleration. Actually, it’s very hard to describe the oh-so-British sense of complacency this car evinces. The hood ornaments try to show it: The svelte cat affectionately known as “The Leaper” pounces over a grimacing, bas-relief “Growler” with teeth bared and eyes focused on its prey. Perhaps it is enough to say that the Jaguar is truly feline in the hallowed British tradition of lion rampant.

With color-keyed bodywork in the place of chrome, the XJR is simultaneously subtle and recognizable. More’s the pity, then, that the massive 18-inch wheels are so overt and showy. Passengers tone-deaf to the siren lure of this car’s performance may pipe up with a whine of their own regarding the “intimate” seating accommodations. In the rear, leg- and head-room are notably snug by the standards of this luxury class; and even up front, both driver and passenger will feel either nested or somewhat confined, depending on the intensity of their automotive passion. All-new electronics for ’98 are intended to banish once and for all the Prince of Darkness who formerly held sway over Jaguar’s “current” fortunes. It makes me wince, then, to report that the cigarette lighter failed altogether to power my cellular phone—a fact I only discovered when the phone battery died in the midst of a call.

Nevertheless, I pinch myself now that the car is gone to prove that I really am awake and that I really did do the dance for many a beautiful mile behind that big, wholesome walnut steering wheel. My abiding respect for and pleasant memories of the XJR are my proof, and they are hardly figments of my imagination. My determination to repeat the experience, on the other hand, compells me to dream on.

Who Needs Enemies Dept.

First comes word that some 17 workers up the road at Chevrolet’s Corvette facility in Bowling Green are being charged with various drug possession and trafficking offenses. Seems the “blow” they fancy has nothing to do with the wind in your hair. Scarcely a week later, the wires hummed with news that the former chief of Korea’s Kia Motors was arrested for a variety of ethical lapses, including embezzling $37 million. While Kim Sung Hong faces the prospect of life in prison, owners of Kia’s Sephia sedan and Sportage sport/utility models may themselves be sentenced to years of uncertainty as Kia’s already dim prospects in the U.S. fade further.

CarMaxima

Nashville finally rates not one but two used-car superstores: AutoNation USA in the CoolSprings area and CarMax near 100 Oaks. Both are loosely scheduled for 1999 openings, although the industry—particularly dealers—currently marvel at the fast-fading hype surrounding these “big box” used-car retailers and their lackluster financial performance. Just the same, Nissan Motor Corp. USA, itself no stranger to financial struggles, has agreed to grant dealer franchises to CarMax in hopes of supercharging its own sales. CarMax apparently intends to maintain its emphasis on used-car sales at most of its stores, but the relationship with Nissan will allow the company to hedge its bets somewhat with new-car offerings. No-haggle pricing has long been the byword at CarMax, and company officials insist that the same policy will be extended to any new-car Nissan stores that it opens.

'Birds on the wind

Last week, Ford made twin announcements intended to create some buzz, although the news sounded more like sighs of relief. First came the unveiling of the redesigned Windstar minivan. The new Windstar now trumps its rivals by offering the world’s only pair of power-sliders for access to the rear seats. For coupe aficionados and nostalgia buffs, Ford also announced the return of the fabled Thunderbird as a rear-wheel-drive “specialty” coupe for the 2000 model year. The car, which debuted in ’54, was banished from the nest in ’97 after years of sluggish sales. Now T-bird will apparently return to the roost as a two-door version of the same platform that underpins the innovative Lincoln LS sedan, also due in 2000.

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