2014 Jaguar F-Type first drive review

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What defines a sports car? Is it an arbitrary set of numbers--weight limits, 0-60 mph times, lateral g forces? Or is it something more emotional, something that can't easily be quantified?

I tend to think it's the latter, and the 2014 Jaguar F-Type presents a convincing case in support of that tendency.

Running strictly by the numbers, the F-Type falls a lot closer to the Grand Tourer class than it does to any classical (or even fairly modern) definition of a "sports car." But behind the wheel, the F-Type's spirit, the feeling it evokes in the driver, rails against classification with two-ton tourers.

Weighing in at 3,521 to 3,671 pounds, with a footprint that's 6 percent larger than the 2013 Porsche 911's, the F-Type is no minimalist enthusiast's machine. With up to 495 horsepower on tap--and 340 horsepower in its least-powerful form--it's also not a lesson in momentum maintenance and apex speeds.

But between the balanced street-tuned suspension, throaty exhaust notes, abundant torque, balanced chassis, and massive grip, the F-Type ultimately validates Jaguar's claims of a return to the sports car game--whatever the numbers say, whatever the time lapse since the last one.

The Entry Point To F-Type

There are three main flavors to the 2014 F-Type: the base model, named simply "F-Type," the F-Type S, and the F-Type V8 S. Between the three, the primary differences are engine output or type; optional equipment availability; and suspension configuration.

The base F-Type, starting at $69,000 (though it can quickly rise from there) sports a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine rated at 340 horsepower. Good for 5.1-second 0-60 mph runs and a top speed of 161 mph, the base F-Type comes standard with 18-inch wheels and cloth seats. It's the lightest of the group, weighing 3,521 pounds, but it misses out on the Adaptive Dynamic Suspension system, which improves not only ride quality, but handling, in the V6 S and V8 S, where it's standard.

The base F-Type also misses out on Jaguar's very well-tuned performance electronics system, available only on the S and V8 S. With a Configurable Dynamics option offering control over throttle and transmission response, steering weight, and suspension settings (for Adaptive Dynamics-equipped cars), the F-Type lets you tailor the car's driving feel to fit your uses.

Jaguar F-Type with heritage cars

Jaguar F-Type with heritage cars

Enlarge Photo

But what's it like behind the wheel? In base form, the F-Type is quick, but not particularly inspiring. The low-end torque is good, but, given the car's weight, not great. Once you muscle past the 3,500-rpm mark, however, things liven up greatly.

If you've opted for the two-mode exhaust system (our test car was fitted with it) the sound wakes up even more, right around the same transition point. Going from quiet and understated (if a bit pedestrian) the sound comes alive, giving even the base F-Type a pleasant bark, particularly on upshifts and downshifts.

When it's time to wipe away the perma-grin installed by straight-line pedal mashing and start turning corners, the F-Type is equally happy to oblige.

Well, mostly, anyway.

In base form the F-Type gets Continental ContiSportContact2 "max performance" summer tires. Those tires are good, but, ultimately, not great. Grip is fine, and the tires are communicative in the auditory sense, but there's little feedback returned through the wheel.

Part of the blame there lies with the Jaguar's steering, however. As a non-electric power steering setup, you might think there are no good excuses for less-than-awesome feel. You'd be right, but that doesn't mean that's what you get with the F-Type.

In fact, you get decidedly non-awesome, rather numb steering feel with the F-Type, particularly in base form. Part of the blame for this shortfall also undoubtedly lies in the F-Type's not-so-trim weight. Even approaching 50/50 weight distribution--with passengers, again--that means there's the better part of a ton over the front contact patches. Mid-engine and rear-engine cars (and light front engine cars) are often lauded for their steering feel--feel that is, in part, due to the relatively lightly loaded front axles, and, consequently, tires.

2014 Jaguar F-Type first drive

2014 Jaguar F-Type first drive

Enlarge Photo

It's not all bad news when it comes to steering, however; steering weight is good, and the variable ratio is quick and intuitive--the cars reactions are nearly as quick as the driver's. The inherent balance of the F-Type, from its spring and damper rates to its near 50/50 weight balance (again, with passengers), the F-Type is well-poised. It's just a bit less communicative about what's going on with the front end than we'd like to see in a sports car.

The Mid-Point Of F-Type

Stepping up to the middle of the F-Type range, you have the $81,000 F-Type S. Not to be confused with the F-Type V8 S, the F-Type S is powered by essentially the same 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 engine, just in a higher state of tune, the (V-6) S is good for 380 horsepower and 4.8-second 0-60 mph runs.

Best of all, the extra power and torque in V6 S trim relieves the car of its sub-3,500-rpm dead spot and gives it a lively, quick feeling in all conditions. The bark, too, is sharper.

Uncork the F-Type V6 S in Dynamic Mode with the "googly eyes" dual-mode exhaust button switched on, and I challenge you not to smile. Most will break out in giggles.

In F-Type V6 S form, Pirelli PZero tires on larger 19-inch wheels take over grip duty--and the improvement is immediately noticeable. Steering communication is more abundant thanks to less sidewall flex, though, overall, feedback remains muted.

But the chassis itself appreciates the extra grip and readily puts it to use. The communication lacking through the steering wheel is made up for by the input coming back through the seat and pedals; in cornering, the balance of the car is easily discernible. Power out of a corner and you'll sense the impending tail-out attitude just before it happens; hammer the brakes and the car dives just enough, maintaining stability while slowing with force.

The Adaptive Dynamics suspension system takes much of the credit here, too, offering up to 500 adjustments per second to adapt to the driver's inputs and the road itself. Modern adaptive damper systems have come a long, long way from their rather recent origins, and the F-Type's system is among the most seamless.

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