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XKR-S: 550-horsepower Jaguar a defining statement

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XKR-S: 550-horsepower Jaguar a defining statement

Sold in coupe and convertible body styles, the 2012 Jaguar XKR-S starts at $133,875 and $138,875, respectively.

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POSTED June 20, 2012 7:54 p.m.

I thought my eyeglasses were going to blow off at 160 mph, but I kept my foot to the floor and headed toward 170 mph before I had to lift and begin braking.

It would have been worth it to lose the glasses even at the risk of creating FOD. That's foreign object damage, in the pilot lingo at Naval Air Facility El Centro.

I was among the auto journalists for the global launch of the Jaguar XKR-S coupe and convertible. The English carmaker was based at the Hotel del Coronado to host writers and dealers for this limited-edition car that was, essentially, sold out for 2012. The 2013 models go on sale this fall, and the XKR-S models will have just a three-year run, with a total of 500 cars built through 2014 — 300 coupes and 200 convertibles — for the U.S. market.

The 550-horsepower XKR-S is a defining statement. It's not so wild and crazy as it could be, but it has masterful in-house engineering that surely grants it recognition as a "supercar." With 502 foot-pounds of torque and six-speed, paddle-shift automatic transmission, Jaguar says it will launch to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. It has a top speed of 186 mph.

The British brand appears to have some deep-pocket support from Indian owner Tata Motors. At least Tata has a hands-off approach to Jaguar, and its lineup is as fresh and strong as it ever has been, company employees say. Adding to the lineup will be a two-seat convertible (with a proper manual transmission) coming out next year (with a coupe version not out of the question).

The drive route was a nearly 300-mile round trip east from San Diego to NAF El Centro, where we made speed runs. The "track" was on 5,280 feet of the main 9,500-foot concrete runway, which is 200 feet wide. In that mile, the supercharged Jag can reach 170 mph — which also happens to be the liftoff speed for an F-18, our presenters said.

At the car's top speed of 186 mph, it takes one second to cover the length of one football field. By the time the driver lifts off the throttle to engage braking, the car has passed one football field.

Things happen fast at 170 mph. To make it drivable at racetrack speeds, nearly every piece of a stock XKR was touched or reinvented to create "a much more sporting direction for a GT car," said Andy Lowis, 34, an engineer and sports car project leader. The XKR-S would have a duality of purpose, he said, but nothing disruptive to a good driving experience.

The company has had a test center at the Nurburgring in Germany since 2003, and it was ground zero for XKR-S proving. The coupe will rip through the 14-mile "Green Hell" (North Loop) in a respectable 7.5 seconds. "If it works well on the Nurburgring, it will work anywhere," Lowis said.

On the way to making its most powerful production Jaguar, much attention was given to aerodynamics. Overall lift was reduced by 26 percent. Those big-cheek cutouts at the leading edge of the front fenders may look like brake-cooling vents, but they are for stability. At 170 mph, I was praising those engineers for the extra down force — and also for the disc brakes, 15 inches in the front and 14 inches in the rear.

There is a "sport" mode, which heightens performance and opens a bypass valve in the exhaust for reduced back pressure and an exhaust note that is animal. The steering is a standout feature — light to the touch but refined and consistent to the millimeter input.

The ride height is lowered by about 0.39 inch. Spring rates were tightened by 28 percent front, 32 percent rear. And a partnership with Bilstein produced unique shock absorbers for reduced pitch and roll and increased body control. Jaguar's TracDSC (stability control software) was revised and retuned for reduced brake intervention and more drift on corner exit. "It allows an experienced driver to explore the outer envelope of vehicle performance," Lowis said.

Most grand-touring cars with this much power distribute through all-wheel drive. Jaguar puts all the punch to the rear and uses electromechanical devices to keep the tires in contact with pavement. The active differential can go from open to locked and anywhere in between to monitor the handling behavior of the car. "It's subtle intervention," Lowis said. "The driver won't know it's happening."

Pirelli whipped up special compounding for its PZero tires (255/35 ZR20 at the front and 295/30 ZR20 at the rear), and lightweight wheels save a few pounds.

Pricing for the 2012 coupe starts at $133,875, including the freight charge from Coventry, England. The convertible starts at $138,875. There is no gas guzzler tax. Six paint colors are available, including British racing green, French racing blue, a gorgeous red, white and black.

The interior is richly appointed with leather just about everywhere. The convertible top cycles in 18 seconds (and at speeds to 15 mph), and the soft-top is so well-insulated that the cabin is as quiet as a hardtop. And the convertible has almost 3 inches more rear headroom than the coupe.

There seem to be no heinous ergonomic issues with placement of controls or activation. But the shift dial that rises from the center console after the engine is started is out-of-place British theater. When grabbing this Growler by the scruff, it would be reassuring to have the bolt-action engagement of an old-fashioned gearshift lever.

The fuel economy of 15 mpg city, 22 highway may not overwhelm, but after 300 miles and two speed runs, I returned to the hotel with 103 miles of fuel remaining and an average mpg of 14.2. That's not a bad day for driving to the track and back home.

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