A classic returns — the Jaguar two-seater

PURE FANTASY: A 2014 Jaguar F-Type, a perfect day, Mt. Ranier in the background—all the ingredients for a perfect test drive.
PURE FANTASY: A 2014 Jaguar F-Type, a perfect day, Mt. Ranier in the background—all the ingredients for a perfect test drive.
JAGUAR

SEATTLE, Wash.—Driving a new Jaguar convertible on winding forest roads is an advertisement brought to life. It’s as if the Dos Equis gentleman explains, between beers, “I don’t always drive, but when I do, I drive Jaguars.”

With a frosty Mount Rainier visible through the pines and enough second-gear downshifts to send every rabbit to its burrow, I’m reenacting the short action film I saw the prior night, in which a handsome man whistles a 2014 Jaguar F-Type around Chile. He’s in a suit, his female passenger is a wreck, and on top of it all, her ex-husband is firing rounds out the sunroof of an old Cadillac. Minus the girl and guns, that’s pretty much the plot of my recent test drive in Seattle, where the national media tried Jaguar’s first new sports car in nearly four decades.

Jaguar hasn’t made a two-seat roadster since the E-Type ended production in 1974, and so the public relations staff have a remarkably easy job. They park a dozen F-Type roadsters outside a hotel and tell us to choose a color. My co-driver starts up a silver one and punches the throttle upon exit, replicating the self-absorbed hysteria that Justin Bieber and other wealthy playboys get drunk over, right until the moment they tint the windows and cover the whole car in chrome. That hasn’t yet happened to a new F-Type, as only about 500 have been sold since May, but the glossy city magazines trumpeting the “luxury lifestyle” will make sure it will. But with or without advertising, the F-Type is right on target. Because it’s gorgeous.

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What comes across as stubby and babyish in photos is altogether stunning in person. The F-Type is no cut-rate Jaguar. All of the cars I saw cost near $100,000, fully loaded with carbon fiber wheel inserts, leather trim on the windshield frames, riotous active exhausts that belong on the back of Harleys, and one-piece bucket seats. If anything, the F-Type makes the flagship XK convertible seem like a hand-me-down.

Wayne Burgess, the car’s lead designer, kept referencing the E-Type—easily the most beautiful car of the 1960s, if not ever—and it’s no stretch. The proportions are all intact: Long hood, short tail, a cockpit placed as far rearward as possible. Unlike the new Camaro and Mustang, there’s nothing overtly retro about the F-Type. (For good measure, there are a few electrical flukes. One car refused to shift out of park for several minutes, and then magically obliged after two restarts. Call it classic.)

Some new elements, like the center dual exhaust tips and the retractable spoiler, add race car flair to the exterior. Inside, fighter jet-style toggle switches and air louvers that rise up from the curved dash are a magic show. Burgess didn’t design a heavy retractable hardtop, which would have destroyed the F-Type’s lovely tapered rear. With the soft top raised, the F-Type is just as pretty.

Three models are available, and the best one isn’t the best. That’d be the $92,895 V8 S, which packs the same supercharged 5.0-liter V8 found in the XKR, albeit detuned from 510 horsepower to 495. As bloodthirsty and outrageously quick as it sounds (think 60 to 100 mph in a few blinks of an eye), it’s overshadowed by the midrange car’s supercharged 3.0-liter V-6. With 380 horsepower, the $81,895 F-Type S is better at everything but outright speed. This engine’s incredible pull at semi-legal speeds—not to mention its raspy, snarling exhaust note that makes you pull eyebrow grins like “The Rock”—makes it feel just as fast as the V8. Fuel economy also goes up to a respectable 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway versus the V-8’s 16/23.

When I sampled both cars on a track, the V8’s extra 100 pounds upset the chassis enough to make it feel ham-fisted and unwieldy, sort of like how WWE wrestlers act in the ring. It’s almost too much engine for this car. The V6 model, with its perfect 50-50 weight distribution, is the better choice for your own back road. So would the base 340-horsepower V6 model, which starts at $69,895, except that trim doesn’t come with the active exhaust. All cars come with a smooth 8-speed automatic and paddle shifters, and pedal down or driving around town, this transmission never disappoints.

It’s on the track, ironically, that Jaguar’s ad machine fails to render reality. You may have noticed Jaguar claiming victory over the Porsche 911 in a few print ads, and company reps wasted no time telling us the F-Type was built to beat the German sports car at its own game. But it does no such thing. First, the two-seat F-Type is closer, both in terms of size and available equipment, to the Porsche Boxster. Second, while Jaguar uses a traditional hydraulic steering rack for more road feel, the new Porsches connect to their drivers like an electrocardiogram monitor. They corner flatter, brake with more tenacity, and react to every command a half-tick sooner than the F-Type. Their electronics and customization options run circles around the F-Type, and they sound and accelerate just as fiercely.

Beating Porsche isn’t the point of a car like this. Indeed, the F-Type is a crisp-handling, very capable sports car, but it’s not race-bred. It’s warmer and immediately more desirable than anything from Germany, an aluminum sculpture of toned, naked muscle that can occasionally pound too hard when pushed to the limit. It’s more comfortable and decadent. Jaguar is still a low-volume company, so seeing an F-Type will be rare—a connoisseur’s choice, if you will. It’s not a Porsche, and that’s why it’s a Jaguar. That’s the tagline to remember.