WHAT'S THE MOST beautiful road car ever built? Some would argue it’s the Bugatti Type 57 Atlantique of the mid-1930s, and others several Alfa Romeo 8C variants of a roughly similar vintage. There are those who’d cite any number of Aston Martins, both from the 1960s as well as the company’s current line-up, and I’d have to admit my own penchant for the 1968-76 Dino 206/246, a Ferrari in everything but name and one of the loveliest shapes ever to come of out the great Italian carrozzeria, Pininfarina.
But if you were to take a poll of petrol heads I reckon there’s one car that would easily trump them all: the Jaguar E-Type. I’m referring to the Series 1 convertible and coupe, which stole the Geneva motor show in 1961 and remained in production for the next six years – a machine so stunning that Enzo Ferrari is said to have to described it as “the most beautiful car ever made”, a rarity indeed from a man not usually given to lavish compliments, and especially about his competitors. The fact that its sublimely feminine form was fashioned in the alarmingly unlovely English city of Coventry is perhaps even more remarkable.
Design tweaks invariably compromised the Jag’s original purity of line and proportion in later versions, not least the ungainly and unnecessary 2+2 coupe of 1966. Yet the E-Type is cherished not only among millions of car fans, but also among a wider audience that regards it as a treasured symbol of 1960s Britain, alongside Sean Connery, The Beatles, miniskirts and Audrey Hepburn’s hairdo. Production ended in 1974, though such was the car’s iconic and inspirational status that every so often the world’s motoring press buzzed with rumours of a replacement. Indeed, as the decades came and went, and the rumours turned out to be no more than that, you might say that the “F-Type” (as everyone assumed it would be named) had become the monkey on Jaguar’s back.
And then in 2011 the company unveiled the C-X16, a hybrid two-seat coupe concept penned by its design supremo Ian Callum, which referenced the E-Type in looks, dimensions, layout and even details (the rear hatch, for example, was hinged at the side and not the top). It was long and low, with a slender waist at the doors, and full hips around the rear wheel arches. The tail was a touch of genius, exquisitely curved and with a knifesharp shard of lights at each edge. Although the gaping front intake was its least becoming aspect, this otherwise seriously spectacular car was a fully realised design, and thus clearly destined for a more glorious future than simply being wheeled out for the crowd to gawp at during motor shows.
No surprise, then, that one of the stars of the 2012 Paris auto salon was the Jaguar F-type roadster – finally in production just over half a century after the E-Type burst onto the scene – with a coupe scheduled to join it late last year. Visually the car is in almost every respect identical to the C-X16, though replacing the hybrid power units is a range of pure petrol engines, beginning with a supercharged 3-litre V6 producing 336bhp and ending with a 489bhp, 5-litre V8 (even more grunt is promised in ultrahot R, R-S and specially built ETO editions, and there’s also the high possibility of an entry-level version using Jaguar Land Rover’s new, in-house, 2-litre four-cylinder, which is due for launch in the XF saloon any day now).
Whichever motor is optioned, power is delivered to the rear wheels only via a Quickshift eight-speed autobox – with steeringwheel paddles augmenting the console-mounted selector stick – and the entire running gear (engine, transmission and suspension) can be set either to the more restrained Normal mode, or a considerably more head-banging Dynamic. There’s three-way variable traction control, too, which includes an “off” setting that’s strictly for the brave and/or foolhardy, and even the exhaust note can be tweaked to emit a raucous medley of blats and crackles on throttle-down upshifts – and send a shiver down the spine as it does so.
Being largely built of aluminium, the Jag certainly isn’t a heavyweight, though at a tad more than 1.6 tonnes for the V6 S test car it isn’t especially light either. Indeed, the brace of cars – both Porsches – that pose the greatest competition to the F-Type are considerably less corpulent: the 911 Carrera cabrio weighs in at around 1.45 tonnes, while the Boxster S is more than 100kg lighter still. Having said that, the V6 S gives little away in terms of performance, with 0-100km/h acceleration in 4.9 seconds and flat-out speed of 275 (the Carrera does 4.7 seconds and 288, and the Boxster 5.1 seconds and 278).
Inside the cabin and with the canvas top raised it’s snug and dark, an impression heightened by the low seat and my car’s largely black interior. The latter, however, is relieved by an aluminiumcoloured bar that extends down from the leading edge of the dashboard and around the console gear selector, and which on the passenger’s side also serves as a grab handle – a nicely old-fashioned touch. Granted there’s nothing especially eye-catching about the interior, but the ergonomics are intuitive, and cocooned in the comfy, supportive and perfectly placed seats while gripping the small, Alcantaraswathed steering wheel feels absolutely right – almost as if car and driver were indivisible. My only serious criticism concerns not the interior but the boot, which is so minuscule it’s almost laughable.
Once I get the car moving, though – and particularly after I’ve retracted the soft top and got the wind whipping about my hair – issues such as that are forgotten. Not that I wasn’t expecting it, but the F-Type turns out to be as rewarding to drive as it’s marvellous to look at (and I can’t help noticing how heads turn as the car rolls past, making noises as it does so that are every bit as attention-grabbing as its appearance).
The steering is fast, light and communicative, while handling combines superb balance with all of the desirable foibles of rearwheel drive. Feed in the power on bends and you can control it with the throttle, though the occasional twinge suggests it might just hang out the tail if you aren’t careful – and that’s with the traction control engaged.
I’ve seen the words “hot rod” trotted out several times to describe this Jag and they perfectly describe its wilder side. Thump the gas pedal and it leaps forward with a growl, its acceleration as fleet as any of its competitors’, if not quite in the supercar league.
Ride is way more cushioning than I’d expect in a proper sports car – in fact, set the dampers to Normal, slip the gear selector across from S to D and let the electronics do the shifting, and the F-Type morphs into a relaxed boulevardier on all but the roughest surfaces. Indeed, so compliant is the chassis that if the car had greater luggage capacity it could serve as a genuine grand tourer. In other words, it’s as impressive dynamically as any of its competitors, but the old-school formula of front engine and rear drive, lots of power and bags of noise endows it with a personality that’s both distinctive and utterly engaging.
Whether it’s the best sports car in its class is a moot point, for both the Porsches it’s up against pose formidable competition. Yet I doubt whether Jaguar or, indeed, anyone else could have come up with car that’s more desirable, more characterful and more sheer fun than the F-Type. It looks glorious, it drives like a dream and I want one. And I really can’t think of any higher praise than that.