Motoramic

Pushing the 2015 Jaguar F-Type R on track — until it pushes back

Motoramic

The Jaguar F-Type Coupe is the most gorgeous rolling machine currently built, according to me. And since its arrival, the question has been how the littlest Jag measured against Porsche's best — even though it slots somewhere between the 911 Carrera and the Boxster/Cayman. To make the racing portion of its case, Jaguar invited me to a racetrack outside Barcelona stocked with prototypes of the hottest variation yet, the 542-hp F-Type R Coupe.

All of the test cars I drove earlier this month were prototypes built in October 2013, still undergoing test-mule software tweaks. The R Coupe weighs 33 pounds less than the 488-hp V-8 S convertible, has a structure that is some 80 percent more resistant to bending than the open F (making it the most rigid Jag ever) and a notably stiffer suspension. Everything on these not-quite-final cars was damned solid.

How would this new roofed beast go on a fairly technical track? At these power/torque ratings, I needed to play with the onboard systems quickly to find the right calibration. When I accelerated between hard weight-shifting curves, the throttle required a light touch. And get the line just a bit wrong and the revving anchor up front could send the nose pushing through the turn. On the flip side, the potential for subsequent power oversteer through Pirelli P Zeros never disappears.

For closed track conditions, Jaguar has more work to do making the chassis sing in harmony with the R's engine. The stability control's work with the electronic active differential and brake torque vectoring needs more software refinements; I missed the benefits of a top-notch mechanical differential, though Jaguar insists they're there.

The deployable rear spoiler preserves the coupe’s lines while helping the rear tires hold grip. Of course, one of the great benefits of massive power and torque through a tail that can get light on its toes is easy burnouts even without the help of the Launch function. And the Pirellis, like many Italians, love to smoke. (The optional panoramic glass roof makes it easier to enjoy the show.)

The F-Type R's optional ceramic brake discs – 15.7-inch front with six-piston calipers and 15.0-inch rear with four-pot units – are a must-have on this particular trim; whatever helps reel in the beast is highly desirable. And the R Coupe felt decidedly more nimble with the lighter Storm 20-inch wheels required to accommodate the discs. Everything on the track went much better for me with all these strategic changes at the four corners. (And yes, maybe the first four laps with the R coupe sans special wheels/brakes had gotten the wiggles out of my system on a track I hadn’t driven before.)

Most of what I felt during the sessions was really as good as many of us have wanted this car to be. But it’s those obligations — to be genteel with the throttle, to really nail every line through curves — that left me feeling the F-Type R Coupe is best as an on-road sports car rather than an on-track Thrashzilla. The overall balance of this maximum F is a bit unforgiving should some semi-pro like myself get it slightly wrong. Porsches of this current generation are every bit as quick or quicker, and they are thrillingly forgiving and progressive. Hesitating to switch to Track settings on the stability control in ideal conditions, or trailing off throttle for too long because of a tangible sense of fast diminishing lateral grip, speaks to me more of a car greater on the road than of a great track car.

The eight-speed Quickshift auto gearbox via the paddles at the steering wheel does an impeccable job doling out the performance and the sound through the four-tip sport exhaust. On many cars I agree with most automakers that manual transmissions have no role anymore. But some Porsches, and certainly this smallest and peppiest Jaguar, go beautifully with a great manual six-speed. The base F-Types and the V-6 S trims would represent the company well to the 30 percent or so of customers in some markets who would jump for one. The official line: “Within the next two years an announcement will be made.”

North America gets the full line of F-Type Coupe trims starting on April 28. The base 335-hp F with roof is priced at $65,000, the 375-hp F-Type S at $77,000, and this R trim at $99,000. The two 3.0-liter six-cylinders already cut to 60 mph from a stop in under 5.0 seconds, while the R with supercharged 5.0-liter V8 – top speed 186 mph – should do it under hard testing in 3.5 seconds or I’ll go buy a hat and eat it.

No, the Jaguar F-Type R Coupe is not a Porsche, or an Aston Martin or a Corvette Stingray. It is somewhere right in the middle of that heady mix, making it an intense and unique breed of cat.

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