When Scotland’s Ian Callum joined Jaguar as Design Director in 1999, he brought with him a simple notion: “Jaguars should be perceived as cool cars, and cool cars attract interesting, edgy people.” This was no modest boast as Callum knows from cool. He had previously designed such notable automotive paragons as the Ford Escort Cosworth, the Volvo C70, and the Aston Martin DB7, DB9, and (be still my heart) the Vanquish.
He set about transforming Jaguar’s image from that of a maker of elegant-but-rather-stodgy English forms to one of cutting edge beauty and power, and designs such as the XK, the XF, the XJ, and other concepts flowed from design studio to manufacturing floor to roads around the world, shaking up the notion of "Jaguarness" along the way. And then came the C-X16 concept, which aimed to recapture the glory of one of the all-time legendary sports cars and most iconic automotive designs: The Jaguar XK-E.
The XK-E (aka Jaguar E-Type) almost needs no introduction. Close your eyes and think “classic sports car” and chances are the XK-E was one of the two or three that popped into your head (along with a Porsche 911 and perhaps a Shelby Cobra or Ferrari GTO). It’s unquestionably one of the purest forms to ever define how we think of a sports car, and makes a strong argument for loveliest car of all time. During its fourteen-year manufacturing run from 1961-1975, the E-Type, both in Coupe and Roadster form, established itself as the car that for legions of aficionados would come to define the very essence of Jaguar. A hard act to follow indeed.
Ian Callum aimed to build on this legendary reputation and develop a pure two-seat heir to the XK-E’s esteemed history. And so when the C-X16 concept rolled out at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2011 (as a hybrid electric vehicle), with its classic long hood and short rear deck at once echoing the E-Type’s grand touring proportions while also being unmistakably modern. The raves and reviews were glowing.
And then the automotive world held its collective breath, because nothing this lovely and perfect ever translates into an actual production car. But when, at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2013, the F-Type Coupe was unveiled, it seemed Callum had actually pulled off the impossible: The new car arrived largely unchanged from the concept. (The Roadster version of the F-Type had been introduced earlier in that same year at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England.)
The car I spent a week with was a 2016 F-Type R Coupe AWD, the latest and lairiest version of the lineup. Painted in vibrant Italian Racing Red with all exterior bits blacked out courtesy of the optional “Black Pack,” the car’s interior was black on black with lovely red contrasting stitching throughout. It also came shod with 20” “Gyrodyne” alloy wheels, the look of which complimented the wheel arches beautifully.
(Thanks to my pals at Baron BMW for tossing me the keys for a week.)
Let’s get this out of the way up front: The F-Type R Coupe is thing of stunning beauty, proportion, and presence. An eternal design. Ian Callum nailed it. Nonpareil. It’s gorgeous from all angles but especially so from the rear. The design is timeless and emotional, a symphony of subtle angles and just-right proportions, and it’s certainly one of the loveliest car designs of the last decade. To my eye, it’s better looking than an Aston Vantage, and plays like a slightly shrunken Vanquish (surely not a coincidence). If this design doesn’t get Ian Callum knighted by the Queen, there is no justice.
It makes me happy, strangely comfortable, to know that major corporations in this world bring all their industrial might to bear to create something so mind-numbingly lovely and elegant, because they can and because they want their own name stamped onto the side of it. It’s almost irrelevant if it performs well as a runner…
…but run it does. Oh my.
Dreamy Wife and I picked up the car on a Saturday afternoon and did what any two enthusiastic sports car fans would do when tossed the keys to $110,000 car with someone else’s name on the title: We decided to take it to the grocery store. So I turned the key and a volcano erupted.
The F-Type R’s exhaust sounds like a Saturn V rocket with attitude issues. No one will ever be able to say they didn’t hear you coming, and in that sense the exhaust on this car qualifies as a safety device; as the motorcycle guys say, “loud pipes save lives.” (If that’s true, then the F-Type R Coupe is a rolling cure for cancer.) It’s the anti-Prius; if you can’t hear this thing coming or going, you need to get your cochlear implants adjusted. It’s the most carefully engineered symphonic explosion on any street-legal car I’ve ever heard, and the little button on the center console that toggles the exhaust baffles is the most juvenile guilty pleasure. Really, I just couldn’t help myself.
And then you put the car into gear and things really get interesting. The F-Type R Coupe is powered by a 5-liter supercharged V8 engine that makes 550-hp at 6500 rpm with 502 lb-ft of torque, driving all four wheels through its 8-speed ZF transmission. While it weighs a whopping 3800 lbs, it’s packaged as tightly as Serena Williams, all sinew and muscle and rippling purpose: Form following function following form. Buyer beware; it’s easy for this beast to get out of hand. The R Coupe has battle axe acceleration; anything more than even a moment’s worth of half-throttle on the streets is irresponsible and dangerous. The supercharger does its thing without hesitation, and the annoying whine that otherwise might be present is drowned out by the exhaust theatrics. It’s a terrifying hoot that demands you pay the hell attention. You can lose this car in a moment, even with electronic nannies keeping watch. If you’re the type to stab at an accelerator in a “hey, lookie what I can do!” moment of immaturity and inattention, I implore you to buy the smaller engined F-Type. Those models go plenty fast. Your loved ones will thank me.
After we dropped off the groceries at home (pro tip: If you take an F-Type to the store choose plastic over paper, because paper bags won’t fit standing up.), we took the car out to some lovely (and largely empty) country roads, and where I know of a few stretches where the brave can open up such a car. At full throttle, the acceleration is almost gravity-defying, the exhaust at full chat sounding like a naval fusillade. As Dreamy Wife put it: “Sweetie, you said you wouldn’t scare me. You’re scaring me.” The car is stable and planted at speed, though the spoiler that extends at 70mph (and rather charmingly proceeds to black half the already sparse rear view) seems overmatched, especially under heavy braking where the rear of the car squirms in an altogether confidence-uninspiring way.
The R Coupe's handling is largely neutral, a testament to the AWD system always on guard to keep the tail-happy bias of this much power in check. (And while I haven't had a chance to drive the car's RWD immediate predecessor, I have no doubt about the reports that tail-wagging joy could quickly turn into a massive insurance claim with just the slightest moment of inattention.) Steering is nicely weighted, especially at speed, though to my taste it's a bit muted and indistinct. It's exacerbated at slow speeds by the steering rack's need to move the massive rubber on which the car is perched; trying to get all this power down requires massive shoes (255/35s in front, snowplow-sized 295/30s in back). But paired with an electronically adjustable suspension (just go ahead and leave it on Dynamic Mode), the overall feel is communicative and reassuring.
The cockpit of the R Coupe is a lovely place to spend time, full of theatre (the motorized, disappearing dash vents for example) and comfort (the buckets are perfectly padded and shapely). The materials, though, are a bit of an odd mix. While the leather and stitching befit a Range Rover, some value-accounting shows through in other areas. To wit: The turn-signal blinkers sound like they were borrowed from a mid-1980’s Chrysler Lebaron; the button for the otherwise lovely leather-covered glove box looks like a bare quartz watch battery; and the hinged plastic cover for the cup holders would be down-grade on an entry-level Kia. These nits certainly don’t ruin the experience but they seem strangely out of place in a car of this stature and price-point.
The interior electronics are where the car really shows its parts-bin warts. The touch-screen infotainment system shows finger smudges that would make an ID thief giddy, and the system responds to inputs with the expediency of a bored civil servant. No shiny, intuitive, millisecond-response times here. Push a button, wait a few beats, and hope for the best. Not good. Even the parking sensors get into the game. They behave like the slow kid in class who is last to notice something obvious, then persists in shouting to everyone who will listen long after the moment in question is past. Maybe I’m just too accustomed to the modern wonder of the contemporary on-board systems from the German big three but if this is the best Jaguar/Land Rover can do, the English need to up their game.
Quibbling about such trifles in a car with such presence, power, and beauty seems almost rude. The F-Type is the rare car that I would covet and adore if it only sat in my garage and never ran. One night I woke up for a sip of water, but found myself walking downstairs, turning on the garage lights, and staring at the Jag. At 2:00am. Just stared at it, the car sitting there glinting in the overhead lights, an inanimate object infused by shape and form and substance with something akin to animal presence. I don’t often imagine cars sleeping, but the contrast of the drama and symphony of the sleek Jag in movement with the car sitting quietly under fluorescent lights in my garage made it easy to imagine an immensely tight and complicated system that sometimes just needed a bit of rest.
This F-Type R Coupe is surely one of the most beautiful cars on the market today. And for that, we all owe Jaguar (and Ian Callum) thanks.