2006 Jaguar S-Type defines style

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Jaguar S-Type luxury sedan is like an aging Hollywood starlet. It's elegant and a strong performer, but it's struggling to snatch attention away from newer, glitzier competitors.

Indeed, last year's U.S. sales of 8,897 S-Types were the lowest since the car debuted as a 1999 model. The lagging sales come as Jaguar, which is a unit of Ford Motor Co., is striving to become profitable.

To be sure, the classic S-Type "face" is still there -- an iconic and expressive, four-headlamp look topped off by the famous Jaguar "leaper" hood ornament. It's obvious, even to non-Jaguar fans, that this car is a Jag.

For 2006, there's added bling, as all S-Types have silver-colored wire mesh in the grilles.

Strong power comes from V-6 and V-8 engines. One of the V-8 offerings is supercharged and for 2006 delivers a full 400 horsepower.

Brakes are new for 2006, as well, to provide better pedal feel for the driver and shorter stopping distances.

But the S-Type interior packaging feels a bit too cozy. Heck, the 2007 Toyota Camry's interior feels airier than that of the S-Type. Both are classified by the government as midsize cars.

And the S-Type hasn't exactly kept up over the years with new features found in other luxury cars. There's no all-wheel drive, for example, though it's available on many other luxury cars. And the navigation screen seems small.

Sirius satellite radio is put on the S-Type at the ports, not the factory, and in the test car looked like an aftermarket installation with antenna wiring sloppily unseating the rubber seal that surrounded the rear window.

Base pricing also is on the high side. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $45,995 for the base S-Type with 235-horsepower V6. Compare this with the $43,845 cost for a 2006 Lexus GS 300 with 245-horsepower V-6.

The test S-Type was the top-level R model with 400-horsepower, supercharged V-8 and a starting MSRP plus destination charge of $63,995. This compares with $84,895 for a 2006 BMW M5, but the M5 is garnering lots of buzz because it has a V-10 engine capable of 500 horsepower.

Shoppers are sure to notice that the S-Type is a trim, tidy package. There's not much of the car body in front that overhangs the wheels, and the sides of the car are streamlined and tailored.

Inside, the front center console isn't as wide as I'd like.

Three adults sit closely in the back seat but the middle person has to contend with a large hump in the floor of this rear-wheel-drive car.

Still, the S-Type's 14.1-cubic-foot trunk is a commendable size.

The car doesn't sit up from the pavement the way some newer models do, so passengers drop down to sit onto the leather-trimmed and well-cushioned seats.

As you might guess, drivers and passengers don't see up and over other vehicles in traffic, and I found myself at times unable to see beyond the tailgate of the pickup truck in front of me.

The S-Type does maneuver well in traffic. For 2003, Jaguar stiffened the bodyshell and updated the car's suspension to make the S-Type feel crisper in its handling -- more like a sport sedan, not a pampered luxury ride.

The S-Type R model goes a step farther, with a suspension tuned for a more pronounced sporty ride and sharper response. It's enough to make the S-Type R feel like a mountain goat on twisty, hilly roads.

Upsize, 18-inch sport tires are part of the package on the S-Type R but fill the car's interior with more road noise than I wanted. There's also a steady amount of road vibrations that come through to passengers in the performance R model.

I like how the big tires fill the wheel wells, though, and give the S-Type R an aggressive, ready-to-run appearance.

The base, 3-liter V-6 is plenty capable for the S-Type, but the V-8s give the car personality.

The naturally aspirated 4.2-liter AJ-V-8 develops 300 horsepower this year and 303 foot-pounds of torque at 4,100 rpm.

But the R with a supercharged version of the 4.2-liter AJ-V-8 delivers a real surge of power whenever the driver demands. Torque is a peak 413 foot-pounds at a lower, 3,500 rpm.

This all comes in a car that doesn't weigh 4,000 pounds. So it's not exaggerating to say that when the accelerator is slammed down, the S-Type R feels like a machine possessed.

No wonder Jaguar officials saw fit to update the brakes.

I just wish the Eaton roots-type supercharger on the test car's engine didn't have such a strange and annoying whine. It sounded like a vacuum cleaner with something stuck in it.

Virtually every model year of S-Type has been the subject of a safety recall, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The most recent: Fewer than 500 S-Types from the current model year were recalled last fall because of a faulty transmission plate guide that could have incorrectly shown the vehicle was shifted into "Park" when it wasn't. Earlier recalls have involved an electronic parking brake that could activate on its own when the car is being driven and misplaced brake fluid warning labels under the hood.

NHTSA also reports that the 2006 S-Type received four out of five stars for front-passenger protection in a side crash. Back-seat-passenger protection is rated at five stars. No frontal crash test ratings are available.

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