Roaring cat


In the early 1970s, I backpacked my way around the world and spent a few days in the unlikely city of Beirut, Lebanon, just before that lovely seaside capital was wracked by horrible internecine violence. In addition to the high-rise hotels (later to become snipers’ nests) and the European-style sidewalk caf�s (soon reduced to burned-out shells), I remember a city choked with western luxury goods, from the latest watches and cameras to the sleekest new cars.

The city was full of Jaguars, particularly the svelte and stylish 3.8S. These Jaguar sedans (the British call them "saloons") were rolling sculpture, with lovely wooden dashboards, leather seats, overdrive, carved-from-solid radiator grilles and spiky wire wheels. I wanted to be a Beirut playboy with one of those cars!

Jaguar’s fortunes declined with Beirut’s. The cars I saw became bullet-pocked barricades for the street wars, and the company itself began to produce still-stylish but famously unreliable cars. Some of the famous British car jokes adhere to Jaguars of the 1970s: "Q: How do you make an XJ6 go faster? A: Attach it to a tow rope."

Fast-forward to 1990, when Ford buys Jaguar for £1.5 billion, part of a flurry of purchases of independent British companies that includes Aston Martin Lagonda and Land Rover. There’s no question that the acquisition is good for Jag, because owner satisfaction immediately rockets skyward with the first Ford-produced models.

The S-Type itself dates back to 1963 as a variant of the 3.8S and 4.2 with independent rear suspension. It did little but confuse the public back then, because Jaguar had too many cars on the market simultaneously.

The 2003 S-Type is something entirely different, and a worthy heir of the Beirut playboy’s ride. The S combines British and American engineering, having been designed at Jaguar’s Whitley Engineering Centre in the company’s traditional home of Coventry, England. But it also benefits from Ford’s reliability know-how.

The S-Type borrows many styling cues from the original cars, in particular the oval grille and the general look of the front end. Although some have derided it as "a Taurus under the skin" (the platform is actually Lincoln LS), its look does evoke the company’s rich history. That said, the interior isn’t quite up to a Jaguar standard, lacking the gentleman’s club feel of the earlier cars. The interior wood is birds-eye maple, though it looks fake! And my wife complained about the lack of heated seats: "A must for any luxury car," she says.

Another Jaguar tradition, the 4.2-liter engine, is available in the higher-priced trims. My test car had the 3-liter V-6, which produces 240 horsepower. I found the combination of V-6 and (very good) five-speed manual transmission quite adequate for a car of this size and weight, but if power has gotten to your head there are also 300- and 390-horsepower (supercharged) 4.2 and 4.2R models. Standard on the 4.2 models is a new six-speed automatic transmission.

A 4.2R will set you back more than $60,000 fully optioned, compared to the base car’s much more reasonable $41,000. Another reason to go with the 3.0 is 18/26 mpg fuel economy.

The S-Type is a very good-handling car, fun in what the British call "the swoopy bits." I much enjoyed its performance on windy roads, though its engine song isn’t quite as "rorty" (another Britishism) as those old cats.

An S-Type innovation that I hope catches on is the tiny and elegant chromed parking brake, which is simply pushed forward for release, backward for engage. It works wonderfully, and I for one say it’s time to say goodbye to the space-consuming levers of old.