MOTORING / The fattest cat of them all: Who will pay pounds 500,000 for Jaguar's outrageous XJ220 supercar? asks Roger Bell

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JAGUAR attracted the press publicity it sought from the launch of its XJ220, but not in the intended way. An engine-damaging gearchange by an errant journalist stole the show from the world's fastest, most expensive production car. 'The man from the Guardian wrecks a pounds 415,000 Jaguar,' screamed the sanctimonious Daily Mail.

The hapless hack might have been saved from such notoriety had Jaguar's marketing people revealed what the tabloid press wanted. Names. Names of the 350 buyers ready and able to pay nearly pounds 500,000, UK taxes included, for the world's most outrageous car. Better still, the names of those who could no longer afford to pay.

Jaguar, soul of discretion, was not saying. Could confidentiality be a smokescreen, perhaps, for the wholesale defection of depositors? Not so, according to Bill Donnelly, sales manager for Jaguarsport, the jointly owned Jaguar/TWR company that makes the XJ220. Some cash-strapped depositors have sold, even abandoned, their place in the queue. But most, chosen before the recession from 1,500 applicants, are still in the game and playing by the rules - two down payments of pounds 50,000, the balance on delivery.

Four royals (none British) and several pop- stars apparently figure on a list dominated by people who, Jaguar insists, are not household names. Any speculators left in the hunt have good reason to count their losses and opt out, contract or not. Talk of pounds 1m values by the turn of the century now seems wildly optimistic. The XJ220 is tipped by some experts to depreciate by as much as 40 per cent - pounds 166,000 - on delivery. Lost interest on capital alone would amount to, say, pounds 40,000 a year.

Then there is the question of insurance, costing anything from pounds 2,000 annually (for a static museum-piece) to not-at-any-price (boy racer, London pad). Tyres? Up to pounds 850 each. Servicing? For UK owners, only at Jaguarsport's Bloxham-based manufacturing plant, roughly in the middle of England. What could be more convenient? Certainly not a puncture, as the car carries no spare wheel.

The first dozen or so of the cars earmarked for the UK have already been delivered. The other 235 will be spread around 32 foreign markets. The United States is not one of them. Although the XJ220 meets all European safety and emission regulations, it does not comply with America's even stricter laws.

There is magnificence in the XJ220's absurdity. A car capable of over three-and-a-half miles a minute (but not of carrying a suitcase) has no more relevance to motoring in the Nineties than a coach-and-four. However, its killjoy critics, who see only an affront to society, a villain of the environment, miss the point. This is not so much transport as engineering art, automotive history. As a beat-that design statement, Jaguar's aluminium supercar is no more extravagant than an executive jet or a luxury cruiser - and less polluting. Flat out, the miles per gallon of the twin-turbo V6 engine, said to develop over 540hp (as much as six 1.6 Ford Escorts), are down to single figures. At a pottering 75mph, it does a respectable 27mpg.

At the press launch, staged at the Salzburgring track in Austria, racing drivers John Nielsen and Kenneth Acheson demonstrated how cornering and braking grip make the XJ220 ultra safe in responsible hands. You have to experience the muscle-wrenching G- forces involved to appreciate them. The nerve of even the most reckless driver would give way long before the big cat's tyres relinquished their grip. What is more, the faster it goes, the harder it can corner. Under-floor air ducts help to suck the car on to the road, increasing adhesion with a down-force of up to 600lb.

Formidable performance (rest to 100mph in eight seconds) demands mighty brakes. The XJ220 has them, though they are not fitted with an anti-lock system. There is really no need. Unlike some raw, aggressive rivals - the Lamborghini Diablo, for instance - the XJ220 is not physically taxing to drive. Its unassisted steering is reasonably light, its short-throw gear-change easy to operate provided the stubby lever is attacked with the jabs of a boxer. The clutch is friendly and fluid, the brakes strong - though heavy and rumbling.

Dynamically, the XJ220 exceeds expectations. Aurally, though, it falls well short of them. Behind your back, visible through a glass canopy, is a relatively small 3.5-litre engine, energised by pressing a red-glow button. The clunks and rattles it makes when idling are about as stimulating as a cement mixer's clatter. Although the disagreeable hammering gives way to a hard-edged bellow at speed, Jaguar's V6 does not sound as exciting as a 12- cylinder Ferrari. It is, however, docile as a kitten when ambling in traffic.

The original XJ220 prototype, displayed at the NEC motor show in 1988, was powered by an enlarged version of Jaguar's V12, driving all four wheels. Of that car, only the voluptuous in-house styling remains. To pare weight, complexity and cost, the length was reduced and the 4X4 transmission and heavy 12-cylinder engine ditched. In came a race-bred lightweight V6 and conventional rear-wheel drive.

At Salzburg, Nielsen - a Le Mans 24-hour winner for Jaguar - advised us not to punish the engine. 'This is not a racing car,' he said. 'It is just a very fast and docile road car.'

Jaguar asserts that the XJ220's performance, especially its top speed (nearer 220mph on a level road than the 212mph recorded on Italy's banked Nardo track), beats that of any rival. Not that it has many. Ferrari's defunct F40, a brutal driving machine once valued at pounds 1m, nudges the 200mph barrier but it is not a civilised road car like the Jaguar. The pounds 150,000 Diablo of troubled Lamborghini is closer dynamically with a top speed of 202mph, but is hopelessly impractical.

Reviving a classic name from the past, the Bugatti EB110 has what the Jaguar lacks: 12 cylinders and a glorious wail. Its 3.5-litre twin- turbo engine is said to develop 550hp, and match the Jaguar for all-out speed. But who will pay pounds 225,000 for this ugly, slab-sided monster? The Milton-Keynes developed Yamaha OX99-11, boasting a de-tuned grand prix V12 engine, a central driving position and a price tag of over pounds 500,000, is even uglier.

The most expensive - and probably the best - of the last-fling supercars is the BMW-powered McLaren F1, designed and made by the racing-car team that has garnered several world championships. Despite its name, the F1 is anything but a road-going racer. It is all the better for being smaller, more compact than its obese rivals, and cleverer by far in concept, packaging and detail. As in the Yamaha, the driver sits centrally, passengers either side, ahead of a 6-litre, 550hp V12 engine. Top speed is unknown, but it is unlikely to fall short of the Jaguar's 212mph. If McLaren succeeds in selling all 300 projected F1s at pounds 640,000 apiece, it will be looking at a turnover of over pounds 200m. An ambitious target indeed.-

(Photograph omitted)