Lifestyle

A Tale of Two Kitties


The S-Type R suffers from a split personality: The exterior and engine are all Jaguar. Inside, alas, it looks like a Ford

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UP FRONT.

Pericles' famed eulogy for his Athenian comrade crescendos with the airy maxim "The love of honor never grows old." In the case of Jaguar's S-Type sedan, the line rings true. That's not just because the struggling cat sometimes seems like it is headed for extinction, but also because only the lover of an ideal—the honor of Jags long past—could seriously choose this car over German competition from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

Anyone deeming such an opinion harsh need only peek at Jaguar's sales numbers to be quickly quieted. According to Automotive News, in the first six months of this year, sales of the S-Type tanked by more than 25%, down to 3,627 from 4,868. Overall sales of the British brand were down 32% vs. the same period last year, to 11,649 from 17,162. And, according to company sales figures, Ford's (F) Premier Automotive Group (PAG), which also includes other luxury brands such as Land Rover and Aston Martin, lost $162 million in the second quarter.

Executives said little to reporters in a conference call last week when repeatedly questioned about dumping the brand, given lackluster performance. "PAG will get its act together going forward," Chairman and Chief Executive William Clay Ford Jr. said, then admitted, "In this case it's a product issue." He was undoubtedly right.

My review S-Type came very well equipped but seemed pricey at $68,345, including a $665 transportation and handling fee. On top of the $63,330 base price, the S-Type came with a $500 aluminum finisher package; $1,200 19-in. wheels; $2,200 adaptive cruise control; and $450 satellite radio. British Racing Green paint—the quintessential Jaguar color, in my opinion—was thankfully free of additional charge.

BEHIND THE WHEEL.

Without a doubt, the power plant in the R version of the S-Type is impressive. The 4.2-liter supercharged V8 delivers a whopping 400 horses—more than the eight-cylinder engines in comparable offerings from Audi, BMW, and DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Mercedes-Benz. That's sort of like wrapping the brute force of colonial imperialism in the smooth niceties of afternoon tea and oppressor-oppressed chess matches. Jaguar says the S-Type gets from zero to 60 in 5.3 seconds, and it certainly feels quick. It sounds great, too, with enough of the supercharger whine to quicken the pulse.

Despite the Jag's impressive horsepower figure, competitors are almost as fast for much less base-price dough. BMW's 550i gets to 60 in 5.5 seconds for $4,800 less. The Mercedes-Benz E500 gets there in 5.9 seconds for $4,155 less. And, Audi's A6—equipped with its own 4.2-liter V8—is the slowest at 6 seconds, but for a significant $9,560 difference.

Brutal as such comparisons may be, the power underhood is the Jag's main draw. That's because the ride doesn't meet the class standard for sport or comfort. Steering, meanwhile, is well weighted but can't compare to the exacting precision of competitors, especially BMW. Braking performance is brilliant, though abrupt at lower speeds. All in all, it's not that driving the S-Type lacks verve; quite the opposite, in fact. But the car is merely proficient when it should stand out, especially given the superior price.

ROYAL LOOKS.

From the outside, the S-Type looks as distinguished and attractive as royal scion and British heartthrob Prince William. The grille is gorgeous and appropriately restrained in an age of gaudy maws. The front lamps are beautiful, as well, even after all these years. The high arch where the cabin meets the trunk looks fabulous and reminds me of the upright dandy Eustace Tilly, of New Yorker fame. (Many Jaguar customers will know who I'm talking about. Everybody else, read on.)

The interior is another story. The tragically clunky and—worse yet—cheap dash distracts from beautiful detailing that ought to take center stage. The double-stitched leather that runs around the center console and up the center display is Yves St. Laurent-fine. The low-slung leather seats are buttery and oh-so-comfortable. As you should expect, lumbar support is ample.

Nevertheless, the center console is a mess. A habitually auto-oblivious friend of mine instinctively put her finger on the interior's problem. Slipping into the front passenger's seat she blurted out, "It looks like a Taurus in here!" I'd been struggling to come up with the right analogy, but Buick interiors have gotten too nice.

Big buttons like those you'll find inside may be handy for octogenarian occupants, but are utterly misaligned with the jeunesse dorée parading in Jaguar's current ad campaign. The navigation system, meanwhile, is touch-sensitive, a major plus. But the screen's resolution is very low and the graphics plain and, well, a little ugly. That might be a minor matter of opinion, but it certainly looks less polished than the slick interfaces inside Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. Finally, the Sirius Satellite (SIRI) radio is haphazardly and shoddily set into the center console, as if it were a total afterthought.

BUY IT OR BAG IT?

The S-Type R is two cats in one package. On the one hand, the R trim inspires the driving experience, the cabin comforts as it should, and the looks connect elegantly with a glorious past. On the other, it just doesn't have enough game underhood and dash-wise to give Audi, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz the run for their money that such a venerable nameplate should.

Be that as it may, there still are a few good reasons to drive off with this Jaguar. If the styling moves you enough to overlook some of the interior missteps, you'll likely travel many happy miles in the S-Type. Legacy customers most likely won't be disappointed, either. And finally, given the downturn in sales, there's a strong case to be made that driving a Jaguar of any type these days is an exercise in exclusivity, for haughty reasons or otherwise.

If none of those justifications apply, the turn of phrase often omitted from modern Pericles quotations is—I'm sad to report—most likely true: "And honor rejoices the heart of age and helplessness."

To learn more about the S-Type R, click here.


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