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Test Drive: 2012 Jaguar XKR-S Convertible

 

I love it when cars provide their own superlatives, because it makes my job a lot easier and usually more enjoyable.

The Jaguar XKR-S is the most powerful production car the automaker has ever made.

To repeat: ever.

Considering the company has a history that spans nine decades and has included several of the world’s fastest cars of their time, that’s a lot more impressive than if, say, Smart made the same claim.

The supercharged 5.0-liter V8 that powers both the XKR-S coupe and convertible produces 550 horsepower; a 40 hp jump over the version of it found in the now pathetically inadequate 510 hp XKR, and 8 hp more than the twin-turbocharged V6 in the 217 mph XJ220 of 1992 could muster.

The XKR-S can’t go that fast, its top speed is electronically limited to 186 mph, but Jaguar contends that even the convertible can hit that mark with the roof open. I can’t say that I had the opportunity to find out if that’s true, but after a quick spin in the coupe and a week with the convertible, it’s not that important. The XKR-S is an example of that increasingly rare breed of sports car that satisfies at any speed, including when it’s stationary.

Jaguar reworked the body to improve aerodynamics and increase downforce. Twin vertical nacelles at the front of the car appear to be brake cooling ducts, but direct oncoming air around the sides of the car, while a big carbon fiber wing out back pushes hard on the rear wheels. It’s difficult to imagine that the latter is very effective in the buffeted air created by top down motoring, but that doesn’t matter because it looks fantastic.

The XKR-S is a big bruiser of a sports car, with a voice to match. The soothing, geologic rumble rising to the fever pitch of a Red Bull Air Race plane on its way to the deck when you put the hammer  down. Forget the sun beaming down and the wind in your hair, amplification of this soundtrack is why you choose the convertible.

And the tradeoffs are minimal when you do. The aluminum XK was designed from the start to be a drop top --which is why coupe owners are saddled with the same tiny and useless rear seats -- and is stiffer than one has a right to be. Even with the firmed-up suspension on the XKR-S, you’ll suffer no shakes, rattles and very little body roll. That said, it is fitting that the hardtop can be ordered in a shade of French Racing Blue that looks a lot like a Viagra pill. This car is the Rock of Gibraltar on four wheels.

More than a springs and shocks job, the XKR-S gets a reengineered suspension geometry to tame its newfound prowess, an updated adaptive damping system and quicker steering. Magically, the XKR-S gives up little or no ride comfort in the transformation. The XKR-S is a legitimately hardcore track car, but even though I’m fully aware of that fact, it could fool me. I would think that at this point in the development of the automobile that suspension tuning has become a science, not an art, but Jaguar still has it on everyone else.

That’s not to say the XKR-S is a sophisticate. Stomp on the throttle in the middle of a turn and, even with the traction control all the way on, the tires will spin and the rear of the car attempt to swap ends with the front. It is brutal in the best of ways. But keep that in mind, and the red mist in check, and it is a terribly satisfying car to drive quickly, exceptionally responsive for its size and much more fling-able than anything else on the wrong side of two tons where it lives. A manual transmission option would be nice, but that’s never going to happen and the six-speed automatic with paddle shifters somehow seems appropriate.

That’s in part because the XKR-S retains all of the luxurious accommodations on hand in the rest of the XK lineup, plus heavily bolstered racing seats that manage to be as comfy as a reading chair. This car’s lineage may stretch back seven years, but the interior remains a delight. There is leather everywhere, including the windshield header, sun visors and on top of the doors exactly where you would rest your arm on a warm summer night. I never expected to find inner peace on I-684 in Westchester, New York, but it turns out Nirvana is less than an hour drive from Manhattan. Who knew?

Sure, the slow and clunky entertainment and navigation system dates to the Age of Exploration and has graphics on its touch screen display that appear to have been designed specifically to distract, but the Bowers and Wilkins audio system that it controls is more than up to snuff for a car with a sticker price of $138,875, if you bother to turn it on. I did so for testing purposes only.

Expensive? You betcha. But for what it’s worth, save for some optional cosmetic enhancements, the XKR-S comes fully loaded and provides at least one more superlative: most favorite car.

At least for me.

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2012 Jaguar XKR-S Convertible

Base Price: $138,875

As tested: $140,825

Type: 4-passenger, 2-door convertible

Engine: 5.0-liter supercharged V8

Power: 550 hp, 502 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 15 city/22 hwy