By Jim Bray
History, tradition, innovation. Three words that apply not only to the Indianapolis 500, the greatest spectacle in racing, but also to the British brand Jaguar, whose history includes plenty of racing as well as such fantastic designs as the historic E Type sports car that was arguably the most beautiful vehicle ever made till then - and long after then.
Click on the image to the right to open a slideshow of the Jaguar and Indy.
And though it appears Jaguar never actually competed in the iconic Indy 500, Jaguar Racing did contest the Indy road course from 2000 - 2004. That was during its Formula 1 days, when the company was owned by Ford (who bought the team from another legend: Sir Jackie Stewart, who has competed in the 500) and before it evolved into team Red Bull. But for a few years, it was Jaguar. That's my hook and I'm sticking with it!
According to the often reliable Wikipedia, there was no specifically Jaguar engineering involved in those F1 teams, but the brand did compete under its name and, to me, that's no worse in the grand scheme of things than IndyCar's current (and former) Chevrolet engines, which actually come from the British company Ilmor, which also competed in the series earlier as (and was owned by) Mercedes-Benz.
However you slice it, and whether you talk about the 2.5 mile oval or the 2.6 mile road course that also occupies the huge facility in Speedway, Indiana, there's a lot of tradition there. And what better way to honour such tradition than to take one of Jaguar's current offerings to the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the end of May?
Since I've been following the Indy 500 - and the up and down fortunes of Jaguar - since I was a nipper, I jumped at the opportunity. Fortunately, Jaguar Land Rover Canada and the team at BHG Media Fleet were quick to get involved as well, and I want to thank them for allowing me to use a beautiful, white XF S for the purpose. I only wish there'd been more opportunity to exploit the sport sedan's sport sedan capabilities on the trip, but it was accomplished entirely on straight and flat roads ranging from country back roads to Interstates.
Oh well, I did manage to carve a few apexes via on and off ramps and the like, enough to opine that were the Jag driven in a more "enthusiast-friendly" environment it would have broadened my smile even more than it did. And even on such sedate streets, the Sport mode still felt best as long as the asphalt was reasonable.
I flew into Toronto accompanied by my good friend Blair, a former journalist who is even more of a racing nut than I am. We grabbed the keys to the XF S and headed down the execrable highway 401, aiming the Jag for the international border at Windsor/Detroit. BHG/Jaguar had supplied us with a letter in case the border folks wondered what two Alberta ne'er′-do-wells were doing crossing in an Ontario-registered Jag, but as it turned out, once they found out what we were doing the border guys (both ways) were more interested in talking about the car - and cars - than in hassling us.
The trip to Indianapolis was uneventful and pretty boring, though the Jaguar certainly did its best to make it more pleasant. It's not only a sports sedan, but a luxury sports sedan, so while we didn't have much "sport" in the drive, we surely were comfortable and taken care of very well.
The 2016 XF is the second generation of the rejuvenated Jaguar's XF lineup. In the marketplace, it competes head to head with the likes of the Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E Class, BMW 5 series, Lexus GS, etc. I haven't driven all of those competitors, but when it comes to offering a lovely, comfortable interior and reasonable to operate interfaces, I daresay it can compete well with any of them.
Jaguar says this generation of the luxury sedan delivers lighter weight, a "coupe-like profile," more interior space and a new InControl Touch Pro infotainment system. It features an aluminum-intensive architecture the company says contributes to a weight savings of 120 kg compared to the outgoing XF. And as we all know, lightness means litheness - all other things being equal.
The XF is available with either a 340 hp or 380 hp supercharged V6, each engine mated to an eight speed automatic transmission with paddles. Canadian consumers can get the XF only in all-wheel drive, as opposed to rear wheel drive, and as the owner of an Audi quattro, I'm okay with that. I figure the XF would have stuck to curves like a train on rails if there had been any curves on our journey for it to stick to.
Jaguar Canada's sample XF S had the 380 horse engine, and in my admittedly limited experience tromping the gas pedal between radar traps, the 380 horses and 332 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500 rpm are more than adequate. Torque, by the way, is the same with each engine choice.
The nearly 50:50 weight distribution is nearly ideal and the XF's suspension features double wishbones up front and an Integral Link rear; the whole shebang is tuned for "exceptional ride comfort, handling and refinement." Needless to say, the big cat felt as cat-like as it could under the circumstances. I imagine the 20 inch Labyrinth twin five spoke wheels ($700) didn't hurt, either.
Damn you, flat lands! Please, please, Jaguar, send a press car to Alberta, where we have some real driving roads! But I digress…
The new XF doesn't look hugely different from the model it replaces, and that's okay. There are subtle changes on the outside (I never saw the old interior so can't comment on that) and they work. Oh, I miss the look of classic Jags such as the older XJ's, but made peace with the new design direction after a couple of weeks in a new XJ last year. Besides, the XF is more handsome than the old S Type, with its toilet seat front grille, that it replaced, and comes off as handsome and classy - dare I say "posh?" - and more modern at the same time.
The new wheelbase is longer, but the car is a bit shorter and lower - the stuff of sports sedan dreams - and the extra wheelbase means more room inside for people. The front end of the car is more vertical than before, with a shorter front overhang (wish I could say the same about myself!) and new rear quarter windows (since there are two, shouldn't they be "half windows"?). The rear end looks reminiscent of the F-Type and, since that's one of the best looking cars on the planet right now, that is certainly not a bad thing.
On the other hand, perhaps the styling break from the past helps differentiate the company from its old reputation (shared by so many British cars of the era) as being somewhat less than reliable. However you slice it, the only thing that could have improved this car's appearance would be for it to be in British Racing Green.
The XF's interior is really nice. When you approach the car with the key fob on you, the doors unlock (locking them via the door-mounted sensors isn't as easy, though) and when you slide your posterior into position and fire up the start/stop button the round gear selector thingy rises up from the centre console and the air vents rotate into position. It's very cool. Form, not substance, perhaps, but great form.
The layered dashboard features Jaguar's signature "Riva Hoop," which extends right across the front below the windshield and out onto the doors, surrounding you like a pair of welcoming arms. Jaguar's sample came with the optional 12.3 inch full-TFT instrument cluster (it's actually an LCD screen that looks like a conventional instrument panel (it's also customizable) and is very cool. The car also boasted four-zone climate control and wonderfully comfortable leather seats that kept us snug and happy during our long drives.
The extended wheelbase means the folks swallowed up in the Jag's abdomen sit farther away from the rear wheels, but not at the expense of rear seat head and legroom, of which there's plenty. The rear bench also splits/folds 40/20/40, and Jag's sample also had the optional power trunk. The trunk itself is nice and deep, with a good-sized opening, though the sample didn't come with a luggage net and we would have missed that if there had been any serious corner carving on our cruise.
The new InControl Protect + Connect Pack (an $1,150 option) adds the type of multimedia and connectivity choices one would expect from a car in this class today. It's a tad slow to work, but not annoyingly so, and in the sample it was paired with a lovely Meridian audio system and SD card-based navigation system (the nav system is a $600 option).
It took us a bit to get onto programming the nav system, but once it swallowed our inputs it was a delight to use on our journey into parts never before visited. Heck, it not only gave me the current speed limits, translated into kilometres per hour, it also duplicated the appropriate big green overhead signs on the freeway, greying out the choices it wanted me to avoid and pointing out clearly the ones it wanted me to take. It very handily and efficiently got us around rush hour traffic and some construction, too.
Indianapolis seems to be a more North American car-type of place, perhaps not surprisingly, and the XF S got more than its share of stares. We arrived in town the afternoon before race day, and the first indication we had that we were driving something special was the hoteliers' telling us, tongues firmly in cheeks, that they offered valet parking and we should surrender the keys to the car. This was despite the big, half empty parking lot outside…
That night, Blair and I drove up to Speedway via the trucking company lot where we'd arranged to catch the race shuttle the next day. We parked on Main Street ($20 US, please) and sallied forth to take in the sights and sounds of this Mecca of the racing world. There are some IndyCar-involved companies there - Dallara, Ed Carpenter and A.J. Foyt Racing among them - but they were closed for private functions. There was still some action, however, and a pair of two seater IndyCars was driving around the public streets giving lucky folks rides in the same way (but a lot slower!) that Mario Andretti ferried Lady Gaga around the big oval during the parade laps before the 500. As for the legendary Andretti, how could a lady or anyone else not be gaga under such circumstances? I heard afterward that the 1969 Indy 500 winner had that two seater up to 206 mph during his laps, and he did pass some back markers in front of us just before the race.
On race day, we sat in an unexpected traffic jam just trying to access the shuttle site, thanks to a major SNAFU with the shuttle providers who had underestimated the traffic despite having sold the tickets in advance. Nice place to sit while in traffic, the Jag was, though. But we had to park off site, then stand in line for about an hour as we snaked slowly toward the buses. Still, it was probably better than trying to park near the Speedway itself because traffic there was even worse.
But we arrived eventually, dropped off across from the main entrance to the Speedway - about a 45 minute walk to our seats in the bleachers of Turn Four (the main entrance is between Turns 1 and 2). And there we sat in the hot late May sunshine with 350,000 of our newest and closest friends, for the duration of the 100th running of the classic race. It was something else!
We chose Turn Four on the advice of a writer whose experience there extends back decades, and other than at the start/finish line it's where I hoped to be anyway. Turn Four is traditionally where a lot of action happens, either passing for the lead heading toward the Start/Finish line's yard of bricks or overzealous drivers and/or broken cars sliding into the wall there. So doesn't it figure that the action this year was at the opposite end? Still, we were there at the Indy 500 and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
I thought the emotions of being there, on that special day, would leave me babbling or crying like a baby for the duration, but I lucked out. I did feel the emotions welling from deep inside at times - upon arrival at the gigantic facility (TV and photos don't do justice to the scale), when I got to my seat, during the classic IndyCar parade, "Back Home Again in Indiana," the National Anthem, the balloons, the flyover(s) but all was good and I didn't make a fool of myself. Well, not then…
And the race was great! Though we could only see one corner of it, there was a big screen TV across from us in the infield - though its 4x3 aspect ratio meant the 16x9 image ran off the sides (letterboxing, anyone?) - and the track announcers kept us mostly up to date, though the PA was shrill. We were rooting for pole sitter James Hinchcliffe, one of two Canadians in the race (Alex Tagliani started last as Canadians bookended the field).
But it was not to be. It ended up to be a fuel saving race - alas! - and Hinchcliffe and a few others in the leading pack had to stop for a fatal-to-their-chances splash and go in the final laps. The winner, rookie Alexander Rossi driving a Honda-powered entry for Bryan Herta and Michael Andretti, rolled the dice and bet that he had enough fuel - and he practically coasted to the checkered flag. He ran out on the slowdown lap and did coast to a stop practically in front of us so, ironically, the most action we got in front of us was the guy coasting to a stop after the race was over. It figured.
And while our chosen driver didn't win the 500, it's hard to argue that an American kid, a rookie, driving for famous IndyCar competitors and winning the 100th running of the classic race isn't a pretty neat story anyway.
Afterward, it took us another 45 minutes or so to get back close to where the shuttle was supposed to pick us up. We were faced with an even longer line than before the race because all three shuttle sites were picking up there, so that's where we spent the next three hours, the first two and a half of which had us unsure that we were even in the right line! It was a debacle and the organizers deserve to be pilloried - especially since we paid the better part of $40 CAD for the privilege. Next time I charter a helicopter!
That said, when we finally got back to the Jaguar, we got to travel back to the hotel in comfort and class - with an excellent climate control system that cooled us off nicely (well, physically; we were still pretty mad at the shuttle screw-up).
The day after the race we sallied forth back to Speedway to make our pilgrimage to the Indy museum and take the tour. It was great! The museum had a display honouring Roger Penske's 50th anniversary as a racing team owner, as well as an abundance of older IndyCars ranging from last year's Juan Pablo Montoya-driven winning car (for Penske, of course!) to the earliest days of the track - with quite a few non-Indy cars in the mix for good measure.
The tour was truncated thanks to photo sessions on track (how dare they?), but we got to visit the famous Pagoda and, unworthy as we were (and are!), we got our pictures taken standing on the winner's podium.
On the Tuesday after the race, we headed back across at the Ambassador Bridge at Windsor/Detroit to end our Indy 500 adventure as it should end: kicking memories of trip around in a local pub.
Even with the shuttle kerfuffle it was a great trip. I got to attend the Indy 500, which is as close to a bucket list thing as I'll admit to, and with a good friend. And we got to do in a world class sports sedan.
Now Indy is out of my system, and now that I've done it I can't see going back again. It was fantastic, but I had to wait till I got home to my PVR to actually see the race (ABC's coverage was okay but they totally missed the pre-race events thanks to their fixation on talking heads).
But I can sure see driving the Jaguar XF S. Despite the straight-and-flatness of the drive, I did love being at the helm of the car, which offers a world class drive - and it has the bonus feature that the most annoying nannies can be shut off, and they stawy off.
This a car I would consider owning if I had the money (base price is $72,900 and as-tested is $77,700). I'd probably configure it pretty much as it came, too, though I'd definitely scrap the $350 optional heated windshield that inflicts a wire mesh thing into the glass, diffusing lights at night in a most annoying manner - and once you've noticed it's there you always notice it, even during the day. I hated that.
As much as I loved the XF, however, it's still a tad larger a car than I like. Fortunately, Jaguar now makes the XE, a smaller sports sedan that goes head to head with cars like the Audi A4, BMW 3 series, Mercedes-Benz C class, Lexus IS, etc. etc. That's more like it!
Hopefully Jaguar will enter it at this year's Canadian Car of the Year TestFest in October. If it's as good as the XF, it should be a real contender in its class.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
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