by John Rettie

A new cat prowls the highway.

Base Price $43,080
As Tested $52,080

What makes a Jag a Jag? That was the key question facing British designers as they penned the first totally new Jaguar sedan in more than 30 years. The company resurrected an old nameplate from the mid-1960s for this car and took many styling cues from the original S-Type and Mark II. That's not to say the car is a retro design; it is a thoroughly modern, sleek-looking luxury car with heritage.

Walkaround

The S-Type is the third car in Jaguar's current lineup. A 2000 model, the Jaguar S-Type went on sale in May, but wasn't expected to be widely available until June. It joins the XJ8 and XK8 as Jaguar's smaller car, though it will end up being the middle of the range in a few years when a baby Jag joins the brood. The S-Type is aimed at the BMW 5-Series. It is a little bigger and heavier than the German car but sells for slightly less money. Jaguar's S-Type is powered by a choice of a new 3.0-liter V6 producing 240 horsepower or a 4.0-liter V8 producing 281 horsepower.

The only way to differentiate the two models is by the small "3.0" or "4.0" badges on the rear trunk lid and by the number of spokes in the alloy wheels -- the 3.0-liter model has eight spokes while the 4.0-liter has 10 spokes. The S-Type 3.0 starts at $43,080 with a long list of standard features. Options include power memory seats, moonroof, premium stereo system, sport package and a weather package. An optional communications system includes voice activation for the radio and telephone along with a navigation system. None of them are necessary as even the basic model includes all the features one expects in a luxury car. The S-Type 4.0 starts at $48,850. In addition to the bigger engine and different wheels, the 4.0 model includes a power/memory package that costs $1900 for the 3.0 model.

The rear-wheel-drive S-Type sports an all-new platform with independent suspension all-round. Traction control is standard and an optional computer-controlled adaptive damping ride and handling control system, appropriately called Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS), switches the shock absorbers between soft and firm based on road conditions and vehicle dynamics. Another system, Dynamic Stability Control, or DSC, links the brakes, steering and traction control system to help control vehicle movement that could lead to oversteer (skidding of the rear wheels). This optional system helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle in slippery conditions.

Although the S-Type looks much smaller than its bigger brother, it is actually very close in exterior and interior dimensions to the XJ8. It is about 6 inches shorter overall but the same width. Inside there is a tad more room in some areas, such as rear seat legroom, than there is in the regular XJ8. The S-Type is not really a small car by any stretch of the imagination.

It is fairly common knowledge that the S-Type platform has been developed in conjunction with the upcoming Lincoln LS model. Because of this, cynics might say the Jag is nothing more than a tarted up Lincoln, but in reality the two cars look and feel very different. At the front, there's no mistaking the S-Type as anything other than a Jag. It has two large and two small headlamps along with an oval radiator grille that sticks prominently forward such that its lower edge is right at the front of the bumper. From the rear the S-Type has a nicely crouched stance -- as though the cat is about to pounce. It has trademark triangular-shaped taillights.

The Inside Story

Jaguars have always had a unique smell -- something to do with the leather no doubt. If you've enjoyed this aroma you'll be disappointed, as the S-Type doesn't smell different from any other new luxury car. Nonetheless, it does have a unique character inside that largely separates it from its closest competitors. It starts with the dashboard that stretches across the width of the car rather than wrapping the driver in a cockpit-type environment. The lower center of the dash is arranged in a distinctive semi-circular panel; it is a bold design element that draws mixed reactions -- some love it, others don't.

This panel, which is finished in a smooth glossy metallic-looking finish, contains the automatic climate controls, sound system and optional navigational system display. The instrument pod contains just a fuel gauge and water temperature gauge besides the speedometer and tachometer. All told it is a pleasant design, but not as exotic as Jaguars of the past.

Jaguar interiors are known for their exquisite wood and leather and the S-Type delivers in this area. However, instead of using walnut, the veneers are crafted from maple that produces a much smoother look. Unfortunately, Jaguar did such a good job with it that, in some ways, it looks less like real wood than plastic imitation wood. Rest assured, it's real. Connolly leather is used on the surfaces of all seats and door panels. The steering wheel is made in a combination of matching wood and leather.

There is a decent amount of space for rear-seat passengers. Legroom is on par with other similar sized cars and is actually better than in the standard wheelbase XJ sedan. Trunk space is only average due to the curvy rear end. What's more Jaguar engineers have reverted to swan-neck hinges that intrude in the cargo space so that the trunk lid will pop up when opened. Apparently, owners of the XJ8 with the less intrusive four-link hinges complained about the lack of this pop-up feature. For greater trunk storage, the rear seats can be folded down in a 60/40 split.

Ride & Drive

We had the opportunity to try out both 3.0 and a 4.0 S-Type Jaguars. The 3.0-liter V6 engine was smooth and delivered adequate power, but it doesn't really qualify as a performance sedan. (Jaguar sells this version in Europe with a manual transmission, but the company does not plan to offer this in the US due to lack of demand: BMW offers a manual version of the 5-series in the US but only one in eight buyers opt for it.)

The 4.0-liter V8 engine offered far more spirited performance. The V8 engine has enough low-end torque to deliver brisk acceleration. Jaguar says the car will accelerate form 0 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, which is quite quick, though not quite as rapid as the BMW 540i.

The unique-to-Jaguar J-gate shifter has been retained in an all-new 5-speed automatic transmission. This lets the driver move the shift lever into a second gate where it can be shifted manually from gear to gear. It's not quite the same as a manual transmission, but it does give a sporting driver more control when driving briskly.

A drive along a twisty mountain road was delightful. The steering proved to be very precise. The steering provided good feel at speed, yet it remained light to the touch around town and in parking lots.

Handling is firm without being too harsh. Jaguar's S-Type is not as stiff as the BMW 540i. It is the type of car that inspires confidence for those who enjoy driving without being a chore for those who do not.

Final Word

If sensuous looks are important, if being fun to drive is a priority, if arriving at a destination in a stylish luxury car is desirable, then the Jaguar S-Type more than fits the bill. It might not be the "ultimate driving machine" but it delivers plenty of performance and handling, especially with the V8 engine.

The Jaguar S-Type is one of the prettiest cars on the road -- along with its stable mates, the XJ8 sedan and the XK8 sports car. And there's no mistaking the unique leaping Jaguar on the prominent grille.

Jaguar has succeeded. The new S-Type is, indeed, a Jag.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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