It's the biggest test for the new Jaguar F-type: is it better than the Porsche 911 and Audi R8. To find out, CAR lined up an F-type V8 S against a 911 Carrera S Cabriolet and an R8 V8 Spyder. Read on for the definitive £90k drop-top sports car verdict.
What are the first impressions of the F-type?
The Jaguar F-type V8 S is a roadster on steroids, the engine and gearbox up front, the pair throwing caution to the wind and sending 488bhp and 460lb ft through the rear wheels alone. In the dry the F-type dances; in the wet it’s a handful. Think of it as a soft-top Nissan GT-R without four-wheel drive, a resurrection of the super-raw TVR Griffith, a Mustang GT500 with British papers. The Jag is all muscle and its on-road manners are accordingly butch, aggressive and unrestrained.
With the drivetrain in the no-holds-barred position and the exhaust in Hyde Park Corner mode, our white wedge makes sheep scarper and corbies take flight. Under trailing throttle, the 5.0 V8 blat-blats and misfires and burps like an over-eager drag racer. Every one of us climbs from the snug cockpit with bulging eyes and a slightly mad grin. And then we get back in again.
Is the Porsche 911 too sanitised in comparison?
After 50 years, the 911 feels more like a long-time friend than a recent acquaintance, and the rear-engined icon only takes a couple of miles to cast its spell over you again. The electrically assisted power steering still feels light and brisk even though it’s been taught several new tricks such as autonomous camber compensation and cornering stability control. The water-cooled 3.8-litre flat-six talks with the same snarly chainsaw twang we remember from its air-cooled 2.2-litre great grandfather. The rear-engined, rear-drive layout is still a master of traction, putting 395bhp and 324lb ft to a damp surface with ease, but the light front end is now better tied down than ever before. In wintry Wales, under washed-out skies and on polished, windswept blacktop, the 911 is a trusty companion: never too benign to bore you, never too lairy to frighten you witless either.
Could the Audi R8 be the dark horse of this test?
Here’s a twist: the mid-engined Audi R8 – the supercar from the brand that just loves to understeer – feels more alive than the 911, more playful, despite being four-wheel drive and despite fielding similar performance at 424bhp and 317lb ft. The steering is a quick, precise and communicative delight. The chassis blends a compliant ride and superglue roadholding with reassuring stability and a clear rear-wheel drive balance. Yes, the R8 is a six-year-old car now, but the latest updates – including a proper dual-clutch gearbox to replace the clunky old automated manual – reignite our love affair with it. The R8 is sensational. The only downside is cost: at £100k the 4.2-litre V8 Spyder costs a massive £20k more than the Jag; it even makes the £90k 911 Cabrio appear good value.
Back in the Jag – what's life like inside?
It’s nice to climb into the cosy cocoon that is the F-type cabin, even for those of us who are taller than most. You sit on well-shaped, fully adjustable power-operated seats. Your left hand will likely come to rest on the centre console, occasionally toying with the tactile transmission lever, flicking it through the S gate. Your right hand brushes the Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel that wears two shift paddles coated with bronze plastic foil. Your eyes scan the two round instruments, the message board between them and the sat-nav monitor to the right. The two pedals are conveniently spaced, visibility is okay despite the tall beltline and the caving-in A-posts, and the ergonomics don’t require the mindset of a mechanical engineer.
Calibrate engine, transmission, steering, dampers and exhaust to either Dynamic or Normal modes (the car will remember your preferences, even if you switch the engine off), choose between traction-control modes On, Track and Off. There’s even a winter setting geared for low-friction surfaces that executes gearshifts at a more leisurely pace. Not for us, not today, thanks.
Time to give the F-type V8 S the beans…
Push on down a tricky road in the F-type and the sensations instantly come streaming back: you’re in no doubt that you’re sitting right back towards the rear axle of a car with quite a short wheelbase, the steering is eyes-on-stalks quick and feelsome, the front end super-eager to turn in, the rear super-fast to follow it and the electronically controlled limited-slip diff keen to lock and introduce sir to his good friend opposite lock. The F-type never feels like it’s fighting the surface and never feels overly firm, but it does interact heavily with it, relaying the textures and cambers and imperfections its tyres are tracking over; all the while you’re reacting, making little corrections to the steering, a constant stream of give-and-take communication.
With oodles of torque you can dawdle along in seventh gear at 2000rpm and the F-type’s 5.0-litre V8 still won’t feel underpowered, but good god when you drop some cogs and floor the throttle, this thing comes alive. It is outrageously quick, the engine dominating the experience, thrusting you along on thick wodges of torque almost regardless of rpm. We turned the traction control off on an open road garnished with two or three hairpins, but then we duly switched back to Track mode again, and when the rain started to fall all guardian angels were hastily recalled. While older Jags would virtually drift on the spot, the properly educated F-type hangs on for far longer. When it does eventually let go, it needs quite a bit of exercising space.
In the wet, you can make the eight-speed F-type slide easily in fourth gear where the seven-speed 911 – with its massive rear-engined traction advantage and 136lb ft torque deficit – will still be putting its power down cleanly in second. And here’s the thing: even if you’re not a keen driver, even if you’re happy to pootle about and let everyone jealously eye your beautiful new F-type, from time to time you will feel the rear end twitch and see the traction control lights flash and it’ll probably give you a good old scare.
So the naturally unbalanced 911 is actually tamer than the Jag?
The same driver in a rear-wheel-drive 911 Carrera S probably wouldn’t even be able to tell if it were four-wheel drive or not, let alone feel the rear end moving around. This lies at the crux of the debate. The edgy tugs, deflections and idiosyncrasies that you’d feel from the front end of older 911s have been muted, creating more stability, yes, but less interactivity too. The electrically assisted steering is quick and responsive and accurate, but the feedback is stark and mono, and for a model that’s partly famous for its fabulous steering feel, well, that’s just a bit of a shock. Then there’s the seven-speed manual gearbox, which is neither as quick as the Jag and R8’s autos, nor as slick as the six-speeder in baby brother Cayman.
The 911 rides very well, though, and the brakes are excellent, its engine exceptional. It sounds raucous and alive, revs to the heavens then revs some more and – being naturally aspirated – responds to the subtlest adjustments of your right foot. It all combines to create a car that’s devastatingly effective from A-to-B, but one that lacks the engagement that’s so readily served up by rivals. In fact, you almost need inclement weather to tap into the 911, to appreciate the depths of its talents and usability, to revel in how early you can get back on the throttle during – not after – a corner and squeeze out every last bhp.
But the lingering doubts remain over that question of driver involvement. It’s still a relatively new car, the 911 Carrera S, yet it’s got a real fight on its hands with the ageing Audi R8, let alone the brand new F-type.
How does the R8 Spyder match up?
Climb into the R8 and you can see the laughter lines: the cabin is wide but short of legroom, the dash looks dated, the latest driver assistance systems are conspicuous by their absence. And yet… The R8 flows down the road with a mix of composure, compliance and interactivity and it’s easy to overlook that it’s a little heavier than the F-type and some 220kg heavier than the 911. The steering is nicely weighted and beautifully feelsome, the nose zings into corners with a startling absence of inertia, and the four-wheel-drive chassis is a masterpiece, feeling both planted and playful. Accelerate very early in a fast corner and you’ll feel the front tyres starting to take some of the strain off the rears, but it’s subtle and, if anything, adds to the thrill of driving the R8. Other four-wheel-drive systems can detract from the fun in such circumstances. The R8 manages to be at least as engaging as the F-type on a dry road, while feeling even more secure and more fun than a 911 when the roads are slick and the rain is still falling. A supercar that’s a genuine four-seasons choice? No question.
Tell me about the Audi R8's new transmission…
We used to love the R8 for its clickety-clack manual gearbox, but that was partly because the old R-tronic auto suffered such hiccoughs. The new dual-clutch S-tronic is far better and, for me, superior even to the tactile manual. Yes, it will occasionally pre-select the wrong ratio and it changes down too early and hangs on to gears for too long in Sport, but stick it in manual and use the paddles and there’s little to grumble about, save for the shifts being perhaps too seamless and lacking in drama.
You can get your R8 with a V10, but that hikes the price even further away from top-of-the-range F-type and, to be honest, you won’t feel much poorer with the 4.2-litre V8 fitted to our test car. It’s bound to be one of the last of its kind: high-revving, normally aspirated, tuned for emotion rather than efficiency. Its likely replacement, a twin-turbo with cylinder deactivation, may be more frugal, but we bet it won’t be as vocal nor as intense as this. You need to really rev the V8 to get the best from it, but do that and everything comes together, the steering, brakes, suspension and engine working in harmony to deliver a drive that’ll have you pre-planning your Sundays for years to come.
Three keys, three cars, three choices. Which one would I take home? If cost was no object, I’d pick the R8. If I could have one built to order and someone else paid the lease rate, I’d plump for the 911 with dual-clutch PDK gearbox. But if it was my own money and this was to be my only motor, it would have to be the F-type. It’s the right choice for someone who has the body of a giant, the heart of a chicken and the mind of a child. The Jaguar is not only the newest car on the block, it’s also the most pragmatic option, sporting the biggest boot (though a mere 196 litres) and the least offensive price tag. Its supercharged V8 is a true gem, the new eight-speeder guarantees even more joyful paddleshifts, the chassis wears the Entertainment Guild’s seal of approval.
True, the handling is a bit rough around the edges, the roadholding is of the tear-away kind, and more often than not it takes a dozen bytes to coax all 460lb ft into traction. But deep within this Jaguar is another old-fashioned driver’s car – just like the E-type it’s supposed to remind us of.