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Jaguar F-type hangs tail on the track

2014 Jaguar F-type
From its unveiling last year, Jaguar's F-type was lauded for its beauty, but this kitty-cat can scratch, too. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

At full throttle, my foot trying to push the gas pedal through the floor, the 2014 Jaguar F-type squirmed down the straight, its tendency to rabbit left or right only held in check by some damn good traction control. This behavior was not a problem with the car, but with physics. Put 460 pound-feet of torque down on asphalt that last saw maintenance during the Reagan administration, and there are bound to be little brief moments when grip becomes uneven and tenuous.

But this F-type's technology let me get away with all kinds of misbehavior on short but fast cone courses.

Jaguar's pro driver had urged me to take the fast start, even though the run up to the first turn looked a bit short to me. Through the following set of tight turns marked out by a set of orange cones at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, I got the F-type's rear end to hang out again and again, with the traction control preventing a complete spinout in more than a couple of cases. That is the beauty of the F-type V8 S; it let me maneuver a tight course while maintaining high speeds, using a ridiculous amount of power in a relatively lightweight car.

Better yet, the F-type's technology and engineering made for a classic feel to the handling. Unlike some fast, modern, high-tech cars which regulate their handling so thoroughly that, if the rear were to slide out in a turn, an entire department of suspension engineers would be exiled to Siberia, the F-type felt designed to hang out all over the road. At the same time, the car's systems do an excellent job of keeping you out of the ditches.

2014 Jaguar F-type
The F-type leans just a little leaving the final turn on the cone course. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On the cone course I drove, it was far better than any amusement park ride.

Untested beauty
When Jaguar unveiled the all-new F-type at last year's Paris auto show, the car made its mark with a beautiful roadster design hearkening back to classic Jaguars. The models on display at the show endured enough camera flashes to illuminate the City of Light for a month.

Along with written descriptions of the F-type's design process using many flowery adjectives, Jaguar released spec sheets for the three versions of the F-type that would appear in showrooms. The top model, the F-type V8 S, boasted 495 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque from its supercharged 5-liter V-8 engine. Below that, the F-type S got a supercharged 3-liter V-6 good for 380 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque. The base F-type was also specified with a supercharged V-6, but it made only 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque.

While I loved the look of the new F-type, I didn't really have a hint of what it would be like to drive. A spec sheet can only tell you so much. My first clue to the car's actual performance came as I approached the course, where I could hear the powerfully aggressive exhaust note as drivers took off from the start line. I first thought these cars couldn't be stock, because I had never heard that kind of sound coming from a Jaguar. But no, I was assured that the exhaust note was intentional, that Jaguar engineers had spent significant time on the engine acoustics.

2014 Jaguar F-type
Unlike Jaguar's other models, which use a rotary drive selector, the F-type goes with a more traditional grip shifter. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Once I got into the driver's seat, another clue to the F-type's real character came with a glance at the shifter, which stands up like a proper hand grip, diverging from the rotary gear selectors in most new Jaguar models. Next to it sat a toggle switch, with a copper alloy look on the sides, that would put the car in Dynamic mode. That switch affects throttle, transmission, and steering. The copper alloy look was repeated in the car's engine start button and on the paddle shifters attached to the steering wheel.

Pro tips
The professional driver from Jaguar showed me which sport settings to engage, and we were off. He gave me helpful tips for the course, such as when to brake, but I can't say I mastered it. My few quick laps were spent reveling in the car's power and quick handling. When the course caught me too flat-footed, rather than gracefully hanging the tail out, the F-type's traction control slowed things down so I could regain my composure, making for a couple of slow turn exits.

The F-type comes with an eight speed automatic transmission, but this is no slushbox. Sourced from ZF Friedrichshafen, this transmission shifts like lightning, almost indistinguishable from a dual-clutch transmission. I mostly relied on its automatic sport mode, although I probably could have gotten better turn exits using the paddle shifters to keep it near the bottom gear.

2014 Jaguar F-type
Jaguar lined up a selection of F-type S and F-type V8 S models for my driving pleasure. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

During this event, part of Jaguar's Alive Driving Experience, I drove both the F-type V8 S and the F-type S, the latter with a V-6. Normally, I favor smaller engines for their economy and the fact that technologies such as direct injection and forced induction give them more than enough power for most cars. But I found the V8 S a more enjoyable car on this short track.

However, for a day-to-day car, something to use for the commute and weekend excursions, either V-6 version is likely to be quite enjoyable. The beauty of the ZF automatic transmission is that, while it can deliver fast-shifting performance on a track, it should also handle boring stop-and-go traffic with comfort. Given the F-type's sports car handling, a manual transmission option would have been nice, but Jaguar demographics might lead to few takers.

Navigation comes standard in all F-types, although I have not had an opportunity to use the system. Jaguar has not given many details about it, so it is likely similar to that used in its other models. Referring to the onscreen interface, CNET editor Antuan Goodwin wrote that "the system lags like an old butler" in his recent review of the Jaguar XJ, which doesn't bode well for the electronics package in the F-type.

2014 Jaguar F-type
The navigation system comes standard in the F-type, but we haven't been impressed by Jaguar's previous cabin electronics. Jaguar

On the plus side, Jaguar fits the F-type with a standard Meridian audio system, an audiophile marque. Or you can upgrade to an even more powerful Meridian system. An iPod interface and digital audio connections come standard.

CNET will evaluate the F-type's cabin electronics thoroughly in a full review of the car coming later.

Porsche fighter
During an introductory talk about the F-type before my drive time, a Jaguar spokesperson said this model was intended to go up against the Porsche 911 and Cayman. I expect the Porsche models would beat the F-type in track performance, but whoever got to drive the F-type would be having a lot more fun in any match-up.

What Jaguar has managed with the F-type is to accentuate many of the attributes that make a sports car enjoyable to drive. Similar to the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ, but catering to a higher-end clientele, the F-type's handling makes for continuous fun while cornering. The exhaust note is so aggressive that Harley riders might even pull over to let it pass. And the V8 S version, with its 4.2-second zero-to-60-mph time, works like a supercharger on adrenaline. And while the eight-speed automatic gets the job done, a manual option might have really tipped the scales for the 2014 Jaguar F-type.

 

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