road test: 1987 Jaguar XJ-S

XJS 5There’s nothing quite like a Jaguar XJ-S. It’s a remarkable car, as anyone who’s driven a good example will testify, combining superlative smoothness and comfort with deep driving pleasure. Few cars are more cosseting, some are faster and/or better handling, but nothing compares with the combination of both that the XJ-S offers, along with its unique sense of occasion – not even Jaguar’s magnificent modern offerings.

There are various reasons for this, not least the car’s remarkably stiff bodyshell, superb aerodynamics (courtesy of Malcolm Sayer, of D-type and E-type fame, and before that an aircraft-industry aerodynamicist), complex rubber mounted front and rear subframes and of course the sublime Jaguar double wishbone front and rear suspension. Across so many levels, the XJ-S was – and is still – a brilliantly engineered car, and on the road it sure as hell shows.

The XJ-S can flail along a country road at crazy speeds whilst all the time remaining utterly composed, securely planted and giving a feeling of total reassurance no matter how tight the bend is. It’s this ability, allied to that unique magic-carpet ride (only an XJ6 Series III betters it) and sumptuous leather seats, that makes it so exceptional to be in and drive. The grip from its 235/70 15 Pirelli P600 tyres is prodigious, and the precisely judged geometry of the suspension ensures that each of the four wheels stays planted regardless of what the others are being called upon to do. The centre of gravity, lower than almost any other road car new or old, helps too, as do the aerodynamics. Above 60MPH the rear buttresses begin managing the airflow and whole car hunkers down, so much so that it feels far more stable at 100MPH than it does at 50. The steering is excellent, a lot heavier than earlier, over-light Jaguars and yet plenty accurate enough to steer the car very precisely.

The rolling chassis of this car is so good that it almost doesn’t matter what engine it’s got inside. Of course, the 5.3 litre V12 is magnificent, being (for my money) one of the greatest engines of the twentieth century in terms of silkiness and linearity of its power delivery. And it has an awful lot of power to deliver. But the lowly 3.6 AJ6 in-line six cylinder is an unexpected treat. The early ones were a little rough but Jaguar had becalmed them after a year or two of production and mated to the manual 5-speeed Getrag gearbox, it’s a very swift car to drive – almost as fast as the V12 auto up to 100MPH or so. The 3.6 auto is a little slower, but far smoother and deliciously effortless – it seems to sweeten the engine and makes for a sublimely relaxing yet enjoyably swift driving experience. The later 4.0 version adds a tiny bit of torque, but seems to lose a degree of the 3.6’s rev-happy sweetness, sadly. They’re nice to drive, but different to the 3.6, not better. The final run-out AJ16 4.0 is better, smoothing things out and adding a good few horsepower, making a lovely package, if still not quite so sweet as the 5.3 or 3.6.

The XJ-S is further bolstered by a brilliant set of brakes. These are also its bugbear as the ABS system was complex on some model years and hard to service; the rear inboard disc brakes also had a habit of seizing on, too. But properly serviced and working, they’re an amazing set of stoppers, giving a totally secure braking experience, with massive retardation available, flattered by the superb suspension which keeps the car arrow-straight however inopportune your application of the anchors is…

Start with its sublime comfort, add the gorgeous ride, a punchy and smooth engine (whatever its displacement), peerless suspension, excellent balance and a low centre of gravity, then factor in those brilliant brakes, structural integrity and intelligent aerodynamics – and you have a car of epic ability. It can cover long loping trans-continental journeys like no other – nothing made at the time compared with the XJ-S, while modern supercars are louder, fussier and less sylph-like on the road. The styling is still a matter of taste and its build left (and leaves) something to be desired (no matter what year you’re talking about), but anyone who’s ever piloted a good example across country will never forget its peerless ability. Only the fact that it wasn’t the original, beautiful E-type (nor was it ever meant to be) precludes this classic Jaguar from being sainted.

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