Motoring: The fast show

The verdict: State-of-the-art XKR or slinky old E-Type? Eight readers test two generations of the Jaguar. By Michael Booth
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Back in 1961 the only airbags available were

those produced by schoolboys with empty crisp

packets; engine management was via your right foot; and exhaust emissions were only of concern to potential suicides. Even in 1972, when the E-Type shown on the next page was made, crash protection was little more than a laminated windscreen.

So, to take a 25-year-old car and pit it, point for point, against its modern counterpart would be, well, pointless. Don't even think of this as a direct comparison, more a mutually complimentary appreciation. Predictably, the 1998 Jaguar XKR, our first test car, is quicker, smoother, quieter, cleaner and safer than grandfather E-Type. The new XKR is essentially a souped-up version of the XK8, introduced in 1996. The "souping" comes courtesy of an Eaton M112 supercharger, which raises power by 28 per cent to a whopping 370bhp (a Mondeo has 89bhp, to give you some idea). I haven't a clue how a supercharger works, but I do know that it gives this sleek projectile absurd, back-snapping acceleration of the sort I've only ever previously seen in cartoons. It is fantastically exhilarating and I have decided that when I'm prime minister all cars shall have a supercharger.

The more obvious signs that this concerto of curves is worth pounds 10,000 more than the standard version (pounds 60,005 in total) include a mesh grill, more purposeful wheels and boy-racer bonnet louvres to cool the supercharger. To make the handling more sporty, Jaguar has stiffened the suspension, which means that you can now detect sleeping policemen. Just. But the XKR still rides more spongily than some saloons, and rolls round corners more than a real sports car strictly should.

But what the XKR loses in terms of razor-sharp handling, brakes and steering, it gains in comfort and ease of use. With the superb auto box (courtesy of Mercedes), and cocooned in wood and leather, you sometimes feel like you could drive the XKR with your arms folded, and let's be honest, 80 per cent of the time that's how most of us drive anyway.

But what about the other 20 per cent? Those occasions when you want to drive purely for the pleasure of it? Enter the fabulous phallus on the next page. In its day the V12 E-Type was also deemed one of the most refined high-speed tourers available, and it targeted an almost identical demographic to the XKR. Today the E-Type still has a surprise up its wheel arch: of the two, it is by far the most enjoyable to drive. Size has a great deal to do with that. Even in bloated V12 guise this is still a slender machine (earlier Es are leaner and yet more beautiful). Visibility is superb in the lithe E-Type, too. Our testers were entirely unfazed by that preposterous bonnet, largely because you can see all of it from the driver's seat (and it's a view that never ceases to inspire). The XKR, on the other hand, isn't easy to see out of in any direction. The rear-view mirror blocks your forward vision, you can forget about seeing anything out of the small rear window and its high waist compounds the claustrophobia.

Though our testers were of wildly diverse ages and sizes, all felt instantly at ease behind the E-Type's wheel and all raved about its relaxing, creamy power. It's also worth noting that there is none of the XKR's supposedly "traditional" wooden veneer in the E-Type, the driving position is more comfortable, and back-seat passengers, though squashed, don't complain half as much as those in the XKR.

And then we come to the indefinable: style. The XKR is gorgeous from almost every angle (except for the long boot, designed to accommodate two sets of golf clubs). The humpbacked 4+4 E-Type, being a development of a two-seater, is more of a compromise. But it's the older car that has the presence. On the day we were testing it we found ourselves in among the London to Brighton vintage car run, and we stole the show.

A good E-Type should also cost you less to run than an XKR. Insurance will be cheaper, so will most spares, and if it goes wrong (which admittedly will happen more often than with a new car) any competent mechanic will be able to fix it. The XKR's terrifying complexity means DIY maintenance is out of the question - I couldn't even find the battery to give a stranded motorist a jump-start, which was most embarrassing. And what nightmares await owners in 10 years' time when the electric seats, air conditioning and CD all begin to fail? As for fuel economy, both cars will struggle to top 20mpg, and both cost around pounds 40 to fill up.

Our immaculate E-Type, which had done 25,000 miles, was leant to us by The E-Type Centre (01827 373247) and is currently on offer for pounds 28,950. Around pounds 20,000 will buy you a less original fixed-head V12; around pounds 12,000 is the entry level for an MOT'd six-cylinder car (convertibles command roughly a 50 per cent premium). The older six-cylinder cars are purer of design, less cosseting and generally, thanks to their age, more fragile, which makes the V12 the car to plump for if you want to drive your E-Type every day. And if my brief dalliance is anything to go by, driving it every day will be hard to resist

Nicola Cunnane, 37, housewife, from Cutthorpe, Derbyshire. Currently drives a Subaru 1-Series

Although initially Nicola found the lack of a gearstick disconcerting, she soon settled in behind the wheel of the Jag: "Oh, this is very good! I always thought Jaguars were old men's cars. This is real fun to play in though I'm not sure you desperately need all this power, but it's nice to have it for overtaking safely. You easily find yourself doing 70mph, but it's totally comfortable, terrifically easy to drive - I thought it would be quite frightening but it's not."

Ian Ward, 28, web-page designer, from Loughborough, Leicestershire. Currently drives a Nissan Micra

"This is really for middle-aged wealthy types isn't it, not scratty proles like me," was Ian's initial judgement. "This is a totally different class from anything I've driven before, it's ridiculously nice to drive and it feels much smaller than I'd expected, very solid and safe. It's very quiet even at 70mph, I don't think it would be very wise me having a car that can go fast - how much would it cost if you damaged it? If I parked it outside my house there'd be nothing left in the morning, and I'm not too sure about the plasticky veneer."

Rachel Clarke, 33, GP and Chris Rollason, 33, medical student, both from Thrussington, Leicestershire.

Rachel drives a VW Golf, Chris drives a Citroen AX

"I have a large boxer dog so I don't think the white leather would be so great," said Rachel. "And I often have to visit quite rough areas for house calls and this is a bit showy - I'd feel I had to dress up to go out in it. It is lovely to drive though, very manoeuvrable, fast and responsive. It's very stable and quiet."

"I think if I saw one of these I'd think the owner was an arrogant so and so," commented Chris, but that didn't stop him from completely falling in love with the Jag. "Jesus! This is impressive, so effortless. What a fantastic car. If I could get a chauffeur's job driving one of these I'd give up medicine tomorrow."

Sharan Norman, 51, dental practice manager, from Leicester. Currently drives a VW Polo

"It really is lovely to handle, I could be tempted to sell my house to buy one of these," beamed Sharan. "It's absolutely gorgeous too, but I think knowing Jaguar is owned by Ford doesn't give the name quite the ring it had. This would be practical for me because I travel long distances and like a powerful car - I could get quite carried away in this. It feels fantastic, the steering is nice and light. I would feel extremely good driving this around. It's wonderful isn't it?"

Krishna Patel, 37, housewife, from New Malden, Kingston upon Thames. Currently drives a Mercedes C180

"It's absolutely lovely to drive," said Krishna. "It handles so smoothly. But it wouldn't be practical round here because the roads are so busy, this needs to stretch its legs on motorways or country roads. It would be nice to be seen in something as magical as this though, this is a car for driving around just so people can clock it." Krishna was concerned about petrol consumption and how the suspension would cope with sleeping policemen (it doesn't), "but it doesn't feel like you're driving an old car. They don't make cars like this any more."

Coral Mobbs, 65, a medical laboratory scientific officer from Middleton-on-Sea, West Sussex. Currently drives a Toyota MR2

"Classics are far more interesting than modern cars, there's more romance," said Coral, a sports-car fan who has driven an AC Cobra and a Porsche on the track. "I'm not sure it would be practical but the acceleration is very responsive, there's lots of feel through the wheel and the visibility is good - I thought the bonnet would be a problem but it isn't - but the brakes aren't exactly sharp. The Cobra was very heavy to drive, but this is light, I feel in control. This really is lovely isn't it?"

Rhett Wood, 22, works in PR, from Battersea, London. Currently carless

"It's amazing," said Rhett when she first saw the E-Type, and her enthusiasm grew behind the wheel. "It's like that bit in Thelma and Louise where she makes love to Brad Pitt and it feels like it's the first time she's made love. I could drive it all day, it's the car equivalent of a really smart dress you'd wear to the Oscars ceremony. It sounds really purry, really different from new cars. It doesn't feel old though, it's easily controllable, I'd prefer to have a car that looked like this than one that always started first time."

Geoff and Shirley Viney, both 61 and retired, from Saltdean, East Sussex. Currently drive a Triumph Stag, MGB, Vauxhall Astra and Jaguar XJ6

"I feel completely at home in this," said Geoff. "It's comfortable, easy to drive, not frightening like you'd think it might be. The suspension is so good too - with my MG you feel every matchstick on the road. The engine is magnificent, and that's a lovely view down the bonnet, you really feel part of this car."

"Geoff loves this sort of car," agreed Shirley. "He likes posing! This has got more room than our MG and I think it would be quite practical for us because it's got all that space in the back for taking luggage. It's definitely very swish."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.