MOTOR MOUTH: Swallowing the landscape

MOTOR MOUTH: Swallowing the landscape - Some things in life are wretchedly disappointing. Coffee, they always say, smells much better than it tastes. So true. Many works of art disappoint, looking better in reproduction than on dingy gallery walls. Life i

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Some things in life are wretchedly disappointing. Coffee, they always say, smells much better than it tastes. So true. Many works of art disappoint, looking better in reproduction than on dingy gallery walls. Life itself, as poete maudit Jules Laforgue noted, is 'so everyday'. The E-Type lives in this mutable world.

To many, the 1961 Jaguar is the most beautiful car ever made, a feral sculpture of speed and sex that would be hilariously inept were it not so sensuously elegant and refined. And then last year I drove one. You can forget all that slicing the air like a blade, powering-up a snarling race-tuned engine to the edge of a giddy climax before interrupting the crisis with a snick-snick-snick of perfectly meshed gears as you brake hard and turn in with metaphor-testing precision.

Well, I'm sorry, but to say that an E-Type really feels like a truck does not flatter the current generation of 7.5-tonners. A Jaguar E-Type feels old, stupid, crude and cumbersome.

By contrast, its successor, the XK8, is none of those things, the more so in its supercharged R mutation which, in case I forget to mention it later, sucks in the horizon like a secret Los Alamos astrophysics experiment gone badly wrong. As a dynamic proposition, the XKR is close to perfect, unless your dynamic requirements include mass transit, shipping of bulky goods or a large pet. It has enormous power delivered with insistent decorum until there is just the merest hint of sexual ferocity.

Its behaviour around corners is precise, safe and predictable, amazingly so for such a large car. Twenty-inch diameter wheels house racing-style cross-drilled discs, nestling in specialist calipers, with 'Jaguar' picked out in red to semanticise stopping power and to annoy poor people. These brakes work so capillary-bustingly well it's as if someone threw an emergency switch and halted the inhalation of landscape referred to above. In all the outlaws of motion, the XKR boggles. Yet it fails to be the complete cynosure of desire that is the lumbering E-Type.

It cannot be the body. The XK has one of the most gorgeous shapes that has ever gone into mass-production: no-one has written about the appearance of the better Jaguars without exploiting erotic and zoological metaphors and I won't be the first. Artistically speaking, the XK is engorged, but controlled; wild, but disciplined. It bulges scientifically, it yearns and strains with discipline. The radii suggest strength and power, the explicit orifices hint at sensuality. Maybe, to some eyes, it is not quite so right as the Aston-Martin DB7 it so closely resembles, but that is a nuance of proportion soon fixed by the enormous wheels.

Maybe it is the interior that disappoints. It is a very fine and private place, although - being cramped - none do there I think embrace, despite the helpful incentive of an unobtrusive classic fly-off handbrake hidden by the side of the driver's seat. The XKR has rock-solid, but sublime, seats by German specialist Recaro, whose inflexible hardness mocks all conventional definitions of comfort. These are adjustable in every way imaginable. No problem there.

The dashboard is perhaps a source of my regulated passion. Much of it is a large blank plank, the results of what architects call Sloap (space left over after planning). This, so the late Geoff Lawson told me, was the consequence of a failed attempt to get an integrated mobile phone integrated at birth.

It is not that I want to see an internal E-Type retrospective with tumblers, flickers, engine-turned metal and so on, but I do just wish Jaguar would identify and isolate its supplier of high-gloss charcoal stained wood and have him taken out. Taken out in the other sense should be the few remaining bits of Ford switchgear. You could say the XKR's interior lacks romance. But that's like judging Kelmscott Manor for its dynamic properties.

As the driver, I would criticise the XKR for its iffy visibility, but on the move for nothing else. Its eager speed makes a nonsense of even tortuous urban journeys; you have got there before you think about the radio or buckle your belt. I have rarely driven a car that so excited a need to go somewhere (fast), to suck in those horizons.

Alas, I am always stuck in town. I'm sure that explains the ghost of disappointment. The E-Type disappoints when you use it, the XKR when you don't.

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