The last time Jaguar shipped a British sports car to America, its customers could sing along with Terry Jacks' "Seasons of the Sun" over the sonorous hiss of the in-dash eight track. That the E-Type had been dubbed "the most beautiful car ever made" by Enzo Ferrari was old news at that point; marred by smog and bumper rules, combined with a rising sense among owners that maybe British cars weren't of the best quality, Jaguar shuffled the E-Type out of production in 1974.
Nearly four decades later — after spells in government-sponsored torpor, Thatcher-era privatization, ill-suited servitude under Ford and finally a period of grace this century thanks to the ownership of an Indian industrial magnate — Jaguar returns to the sports-car business with the 2014 F-Type. And as epic as the E-Type remains, the successor leaves the shadow of its forebear with a quickness.
Jaguar itself ranks as a bantamweight among European luxury car builders, and to justify the F-Type's existence the car has to address a bevy of competitors. Base models with the 3-liter supercharged V-6 tuned to 340 hp start at $69,895, sparring with the BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster. There's a mid-level F-Type S with 380 hp from the V-6 and other performance changes that leaps in price to $81,895. And the top of the range sits the $92,895 F-Type V-8, with 495 hp from the 5-liter supercharged unit under the one-piece bonnet and an assignment from headquarters to dogfight the Porsche 911 and Audi R8 — names I thought I'd misheard in my jet-lagged stupor.
While the pressure to create a retrofutuistic E-Type ran strong within Jaguar, designer Ian Callum and team rightly resisted, crafting a modern car that's more aggressive and angular. For our drive of the F-Type around Pamplona, Spain, Jaguar brought not just a pristine E-Type but two of its racing predecessors, the C-Type and D-Type, and sitting amongst them, the F-Type looked like a bodybuilder who had taken a wrong turn into a jockeys' convention. Even with an all-aluminum frame, the F-Type sports 500 lbs. on the last-generation E-Type.
On the roads of Spain, under the watchful eyes of the guarda civil trafico, the F-Type proved eager enough, and that despite decades of building soft-riding sedans Jaguar engineers could tune a firm chassis. Unlike other modern Jaguars, the F-Type's interior tends to European austerity rather than wood and flash, with the bit of whimsy provided by vents that rise from the center of the dash. We could only sample roadster versions, but none showed signs of cowl shake or other lack of rigidity; if anything, the typical Jaguar owner will find it too tight over less-than-perfect roads. All that stiffness, and the stylish lack of overhangs beyond the wheels does come with a price — namely little space beyond the optional performance seats smartly borrowed from the XJR-S. The trunk's rated volume comes in at 7 cubic feet, part of which has been sculpted in service of the motorized top and suspension, leaving the unofficial estimation at "buy your groceries after you drop the bags at the beach house."
The first day of driving the Eaton-supercharged V-6s around the Navarra mountains revealed them willing to hustle. Unlike nearly all new cars, Jaguar stuck with hydraulic steering rather than the electronic units that are often to driving what Casio is to symphony orchestras, letting the driver feel more of the road as it happens. The 8-speed ZF automatic handles manual shifting via paddles without complaint, although it did keep the base V-6 stirred several hundred revs higher than expected. (One pre-production V-6 on our drive performed its own historical homage to the E-Type and self-destructed.) The F-Type has no racing heritage, yet the 380-hp S version — with its larger 19-inch wheels, bigger brakes and a limited-slip differential among other upgrades — hustled the F1-level track with sufficient verve to suggest a second career in weekend motorsports.
And yet, in the sleepless hours after the first day, that mention of the Porsche 911 echoed. It's one thing to be as enthusiastic as Jaguar brand chief Adrian Hallmark, who's fond of saying that "Jaguar without a sports car is as incomplete as Ferrari without a sports car." The V-6 F-Type makes for a more sober alternative to the Z4 and other toy roadsters — but the 911 ranks as the most balanced sports car on the road today. Even at a 25 percent discount to the Porsche's sticker price, ranking the F-Type as its peer came off as the blather of businessmen.
Then came the drive of the V-8, and I learned the literal translation of "me gusta."
Over roads with more curves than Christina Hendricks at the Guggenheim, the F-Type never felt less than composed and confident. The V-8 brings along an electric limited-slip differential, even larger brakes, 20-inch wheels with Pirelli P-Zero rubber and software that lets the hardware rock. Try as I might, I couldn't upset the F-Type — if I understeered into a corner, the accelerator brought the tail around promptly; if I was oversteering, the brakes took the assignment without drama, over and over again, and if I needed the Heimlich maneuver, the V-8 could punch me in the gut. At 4.2 seconds to 60 mph, the Jaguar F-Type runs bumper-to-bumper with the Porsche 911 S Cabriolet models in a straight line; I suspect practiced hands could wheel a faster track time out of Stuttgart's champion, but to anyone who doesn't own a racing helmet, the differences will be matters of taste rather than statistics.
Here's where I should remind you that even ten years into this second millennium Jaguar trails the reliability rankings and resale value of its German peers, and where common sense says I should suggest that the V-6 will be more than enough car for anyone who can spring for it. But life's obligations melt away when you have a Jaguar F-Type in the sunshine with its top folded, calling you to have some joy, have some fun.
2014 JAGUAR F-TYPE SPECIFICATIONS
Two-door, two-seat roadster/coupe
3.0-liter supercharged V-6 in normal and S-level; 5-liter supercharged V-8
340 hp base; 380 hp (S); 495 hp (V-8)
332 ft.-lbs. base; 339 (S); 460 (V-8)
20 mpg city/28 mpg highway; 19/27 (S); 16/23 (V-8)
6.4 tons CO2/year (V6)
$69,895 — $92,895
A true sports roadster with modern Jaguar styling
Pack light — and save up for the V-8