Jaguar XKR Is Back With a Bite

March 13 (Bloomberg) — Some cars are meant to be outrageous, others utilitarian. This slouchy, swoopy coupe speaks to something else: sex. An unmistakable sensuality flows from the long hood through its thick, rounded haunches.


The supercharged Jaguar XKR coupe is the sexiest sub- $100,000 car on the road.


Not to get all breathless on you. It is entertaining, though, to watch people watching it as they might a provocative woman in a public space, out of the corner of their eyes. A few actually whisper.


There are no design gewgaws, either. No rear wings, crazy front fascias or silly ground effects. The XKR pulls it off like any classic beauty: with a beautiful face, graceful long lines, an irresistible mix of voluptuous curves and lean angles.


The meeker version, the XK, went on sale in the U.S. in 2006, a long-awaited (and much needed) full redesign, including a body made partly of lighter, stiffer aluminum.


No milquetoast itself, the new XK is also a beaut; yet many buyers knew to wait for the spicier “R” version. Jag’s director of design, Ian Callum, talks about car design in human terms; when I interviewed the lively Scot last year he described the exterior as a balancing act of tensed muscles and pliant flesh. “You see the tension building in the flanks,” he said, “as if it were about to jump forward.”


Mean-Looking Pipes


The racier XKR has 420 hp (120 more horses than the XK), and a more aggressively tuned suspension. Aesthetic enhancements include four mean-looking tailpipes, side vents accented in bright aluminum and new aluminum mesh grills — a vast improvement over the XK’s pedestrian oval face.


The price differential isn’t bad: The XKR coupe has an MSRP of $86,500, versus the XK’s $75,500. Both are available as convertibles, with the XKR version clocking in at $92,500. So sorry, though: The gorgeous lines just don’t translate as well on the convertible — it’s merely a flirt compared to the coupe’s status as all-out sexpot.


Considering Jag’s blue-blood English heritage, it seemed right to test it out where our own forbearers first landed: We begin our drive in Plymouth, Massachusetts, eventually making for the narrow two-lane roads around Cape Cod. As we pass through charming communities like Sandwich and Barnstable, I’m happy to keep the XKR under the speed limit, enjoying simply pacing nice clean lines on the roads.


Besides, those impressive horsepower numbers don’t quite translate into real-world G forces that punch you in the center of the chest. Leave the wrenching 0-to-60-in-two-heartbeats to other brands; the XKR gets to cruising speed plenty quick, yet isn’t defined by those numbers. It’s best thought of in terms of a grand touring car. (The XK, on the other hand, does feel underpowered.)


Great Steering


From the driver’s vantage point, steering may provide the XKR’s greatest thrill: The speed-sensitive, variable ratio rack- and-pinion steering is tremendously direct, with exceptional road-feel. Despite the car’s ample 108.3-inch wheelbase — after all, it’s officially a 2+2 with nominal back seats that might accommodate two Ewoks — it will make a full circle tightly and slots into tight spots exactly where you want it.


The engine note would disappoint thrill seekers, though, with more supercharger whine than feline growl. This Jag doesn’t cry out for high-speed antics. Tellingly it isn’t available with a manual transmission; the six-speed automatic can be controlled with paddles mounted to the steering wheel. A capable system, though I’d like to see it hold on to the redline a tad longer.


Mixed Bag


The interior is a mixed bag: Ours has light beige leather seats and a dark gray dash, with incongruous burl walnut inserts. I never quite decide whether I like it. But the leather-encased steering wheel is one of my favorite elements: It feels meaty and has a small “R” insignia at the bottom.


Temperature controls are separate from the recessed GPS navigation system for quick access and the overall look is uncluttered. The nav system itself gets middling marks — you can’t program a route while moving (irksome), yet it’s fairly simple to figure out. Some of the other details — the inside door handles for instance — look a bit cheap. Again, the show really is for the folks on the outside of the car.


And then there are the seats. Though I doubt they’re Callum’s fault, I’d like to have a word with him anyway. Maybe they were designed for Goldilocks; they sure as heck weren’t comfortable for my 6-foot frame, any more so than for my petite girlfriend. They seem stingy, as if someone had decided that nobody should have it too good for less than $100,000. I’ve sat on more agreeable high-school bleachers.


Nod and Wink


We get plenty of attention on our drive. Some cars seem to naturally irritate people (I always get cut off driving BMWs). The Jag, though, is an ostentatious people pleaser. We drive through a marathon just outside of Hyannis, and cops and pedestrians alike wave us through merrily, not seeming to mind the auto encroachment.


It is a glorious day motoring around the Cape with no traffic. The skies are clear, and the beaches brilliant and cold. Happily they look just fine from inside the XRK’s lovely carapace.


The Jaguar XKR Coupe at a Glance


Power: 4.2-liter, 90-degree V-8, with 420 horsepower, 413 pound-feet of torque.


Drive train: Six-speed automatic with sequential shift.


Speed: 0-60 mph in 4.9 seconds.


Price (as tested): $90,575.


Best Features: Bewitching looks, excellent steering.


Worst Features: Punishing seats; disappointing engine note.


Target Buyer: The sensualist who wants to drive a beautiful car — and get noticed.


(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)