It was actually quite hard to identify precisely the most annoying aspect of the Jaguar XKR-S GT when it was unveiled a while back. Was it the silly name, or the bodykit daubed in the mind of a seven-year-old child, or the laughable predicted price?
Or was it just a general feeling that Jaguar had overstepped the mark and really shouldn't be engaged in this kind of activity because, well, spoilers and winglets are a little undignified.
I don't know - this just struck me as a move too far. In a world of £100K 991 GT3s, how the hell is a £135K XK supposed to avoid being laughed at?
Yesterday, I was made to eat my inner cynicism. Oulton Park was a streaming river for part of the day and then dry for the last few hours. I hammered a pre-production GT around the place with very few interludes and it was eye-opening.
For starters, the £37,000 premium over a normal RS buys you many unseen modifications. Yes, all that bodywork and aerofoil action, and the underfloor aero bring a vast (claimed) 145kg of downforce at 186mph. But the important thing here is the chassis. That's where I started to like the GT, I like the fact that rather than give it 800hp, they've gone to town on the bits that actually change the driving experience.
At the front axle there's a 52mm track increase allowing a whopping 255-section front tyre. The only carry-over component on the axle assembly is the upper arm, the rest is new or taken from the F-Type. Spring rate is up 68 per cent and the dampers are completely re-calibrated. At the rear the spring rate increase is less severe, 22 percent, but again much of the metalwork is new, as is all the bushing, and the electronic locking diff has been programmed to be tighter because the front axle can now handle the extra push.
Both axles retain a main spring and a helper spring. The adaptive dampers are just that in normal mode, reacting to surface changes, but in dynamic mode the car becomes passive. You kind of need that predictability to do 7min 40sec around the 'ring. That's quite fast for a big old boat.
Inside you get snazzy bucket seats, badges and a half cage. The rest is normal XK, which is starting to look a little dated.
In the wet, on its standard Pirelli Corsa tyres, the GT is a handful. Or is Oulton Park a handful? Maybe it's a combination of the two. The place was so slippery yesterday morning that you had to go looking for grip in odd areas, but you did this with a much, much better sense of connection to the car than any fast Jag I've driven before. The steering is F-Type derived and a real improvement. The noise is fantastic, much ruder than the generic AMG V8 woofle.
As the track dried, we could push a little harder. In dynamic mode this car is a complete weapon. You can grab it by the scruff in a way you can't any other fast Jag - the chassis wants to be pushed to the point that it slithers around. Turn-in is very positive but not too aggressive, and the grip really builds down the side of the car. I know these Pirelli Corsas are sticky things, but they seem to work especially well on this car. Perhaps it's just that I've never felt a Jag corner like this one can?
Where it counts
You'd expect a set of 398mm front ceramics to do a reasonable job - no surprises that they do. Every fast Jag should have them. They take time to warm through, but then you just smash the pedal and let the recalibrated ABS do the hard work.
There is one component that they couldn't do much about, and that's the gearbox. It's an old six-speed ZF unit, and it will blip on downshifts, but it's definitely the weak link here. Upshifts have a slight slur and seem slow compared to other stuff operating at this price range, but it should be added that the 'box will accept a request to change down, memorise it, and then take the gear when the engine speed will allow it. That makes it far less frustrating on track.
Like you, I was a little disappointed that there wasn't some more power for this conversion, but around Oulton not once did I think I needed more thrust. Strangely, it now feels like the 550hp motor finally has a chassis that can handle it.
Ready to pounce
I really wish Jaguar could have fitted a steering wheel more in keeping with the personality of the car and it is fair to say that not everyone will enjoy the bodykit, but the GT is a great foretaste of what's to come from Jaguar. This is car plucked from the production line and re-jigged for an enthusiast audience. Imagine when they do that with the F-Type, or the F-Type Coupe that they're not going to make? Allegedly.
Underneath all of this, the core character of the XK hasn't been too disrupted. The ride quality is good, the car is just as easy to live with as a cooking RS. I like that. Jaguar doesn't need to be making a GT3 RS rival - mostly because history shows that people who do tend to end up looking silly. But people like me need reminding that not everyone wants a Porsche GT3, and anyone who fancies going very fast on track in a Jaguar will have a stunning time in this car. For trips to the 'ring it would be sensational.
Yes, the price is a little silly. But only 10 are coming to the UK, and I think they will all find homes.
The Jaguar skunk works era has begun. I think we're all going to enjoy what happens next. I think we did 60 flat-out laps and it felt fresh as a daisy. I should have been less cynical.