First Fang

01 JAGUAR XE SV PROJECT 8

BY DAN PROSSER

Track-honed four-door goes like a scalded cat

BY DAN PROSSER

ALMOST A YEAR has passed since Jaguar first showed its steroidal-arched warrior at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Since then it’s set what Jaguar says is a four-door sedan lap record at the Nurburgring. But now, at last, we get to drive it at the brilliant Portimao racetrack in Portugal and on the twisty roads in the surrounding hills.

The Project 8 looks right at home at a racetrack. Those flared arches with semi-pornographic cutouts, jutting front splitter and tall rear wing all scream motorsport. The Verbier Silver assigned to track duties is about racy as the Project 8 will get. It’s equipped with the optional $17,960 Pack, which junks the rear bench for a half cage and adds fixedcarbon buckets with four-point harnesses, saving 12kg. First up, though, Valencia Orange Project 8 I’ll be testing on a very wet road, incidentally.

This car is not equipped with the Pack, but even without it this Project 8 looks too track-focused to possibly work on the road. But Jaguar’s hardcore passenger car works surprisingly well away from the track.

With springs that are four-and-ahalf-times stiffer than those fitted to a conventional XE the ride is, of course, tight and firm, but not too unyielding. There’s enough compliance and bump absorption to deal with most road surfaces and while it’s far from cushy, it’s not uncomfortable, either. Even when the test route turns onto an ancient back lane, the Project 8 hums along with impressive composure.

The damping really is exceptional. It skilfully prevents a firm ride from ever becoming overbearing. At no point does the car threaten to leap into the scenery. That’s the first surprise. The second is how well mannered it is in these wet conditions. A number of high-performance cars would be close to undriveable in this rain on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, as fitted here, but the Project 8 makes them work.

There is good turn-in bite and very stable, consistent cornering grip, which means you don’t feel at all nervous leaning on the chassis in corners. Traction is very strong, too, thanks to the clever all-wheel drive system, and those spring rates guarantee a very stable platform, a level of body control no other super-sedan can match, and astonishingly sharp steering response.

There’s no tougher test of a track-focused car than a wet, bumpy back road, but the Project 8 gives you the confidence to press on. It’s all by design. “We wanted to build a car that was approachable and friendly to drive at speed,” says vehicle dynamics manager David Pook, “not something that tried to bite you.”

That’s why they settled on all-wheel drive. Jaguar has fitted its biggest and most powerful engine into its smallest and lightest car and Pook wasn’t interested in building a wheelspin machine. This car is the latest limitededition trinket from Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO), the division responsible for hi-po SVR-branded Range Rovers, F-Types and specials like the 2014 F-Type Project 7.

No more than 300 Project 8s will be built, all in left-hand drive. It shares its body, front doors and roof with all other XEs (a carbon-fibre bonnet saves 3kg), but the Project 8 is so comprehensively re-engineered that it’s really an XE in name only.

Tracks that are wider by 24mm at the front and 73mm at the rear and only the lower suspension arms are carried over. Everything else is bespoke. Even the headlights were relocated, dragged forward by 14mm (with the bodywork around them) to make space for 20-inch Cup 2 tyres.

“If we didn’t get the Cup 2 tyres to fit there wouldn’t have been a Project 8,” says Pook. “They were the only tyres that would have worked on this car.”

Squeezing the 5.0-litre supercharged V8 into the engine bay was less of a struggle, but SVO had to develop new billet engine mounts to stop the 400kg hulk from writhing around. The engine develops 442kW and 700Nm, delivered via an eight-speed auto transmission, and Jaguar quotes a 0-100km/h time of 3.7sec and a 322km/h top speed.

There are carbon-ceramic brakes with 400mm discs on the front, forged wheels, the differential in the rear axle is electronically controlled so it can open fully into a bend to reduce understeer and lock on exit to give maximum traction, the dampers are adaptive, ride height is adjustable for road or track, and the front splitter and rear wing, at full extension, generate 122kg of downforce at 300km/h.

PROJECT 8 ROCKETS TO THE NEXT CORNER WITH EYE-WIDENING FEROCITY

This might well be the most comprehensively re-engineered four-door performance car of all time. “We built a car that all of us at SVO wanted to drive,” says Pook.

Time for the Verbier Silver car. The track is bone dry now and within two corners it’s clear that no other super-sedan is this aggressive. It’s more akin to a Porsche 911 GT3 RS or a BMW M4 GTS. It just happens to have four doors.

The adaptive dampers remain basically unchanged between Comfort and Dynamic modes, but in Track they switch to a more aggressive map and there’s less roll, less vertical movement and even tauter responses. On sticky track-biased tyres, the Project 8 has enormous grip; you choose your turn-in speed and trust the front axle to find a way through the corner.

The steering is intuitive and precise, the body stays almost entirely flat and the car is perfectly balanced through the apex. In fourth-gear corners it sweeps from entry to apex in the subtlest four-wheel drift, like an old racing car. It’s the sweetest sensation.

Exiting a corner, there’s no power oversteer. If you unsettle the car on the way in and stand abruptly on the throttle pedal, you can make it drift, but it doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t slide very willingly even in Track mode, which favours the rear axle right up until it starts to lose traction.

The Project 8 slingshots out of bends with no loss of forward momentum, rocketing towards the next corner with eye-widening ferocity. The big carbon stoppers never fade, and with the four-point harness pinning you into the wrap-around seat, you feel everything.

Track driving is torture for most road cars but the Project 8 is built for it. The engine has almost as much character as it does power, and while the auto gearbox isn’t the quickest or most responsive, it does its job well.

What’s most important about the Project 8 is that it is absorbing, rewarding, and huge fun to drive. When diehard car guys are left to get on with it, the results speak for themselves.

The NEMESIS

M4 GTS 3.0-litre twin-turbo l6, RWD, 368kW/600Nm, 0-100km/h 3.8sec 1510kg, $294,715

It isn’t cheap, only 25 came to Australia (plus 10 DTMs) and you can’t buy one new. With more power and a 27kg diet, the roll-cage equipped BMW M4 GTS isn’t perfect, but it’s very fast.

02 ASTON MARTIN DB11

Gets Anglo-German V8, but it’s no AMG GT R

THERE’S AN OLD SAYING: it’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with it that counts. It’s not always used in reference to cars, but it’s very applicable to the Aston Martin DB11 V8. It’s Aston’s first model to use an engine from its technical partnership with Mercedes-AMG, and the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 from the AMG GT sits under that aluminium clamshell bonnet.

Given their layout similarities, you could be forgiven for thinking of the DB11 V8 as an Anglo AMG GT, but the two are very different in character. Part of the reason is that Aston hasn’t just plonked the engine in, connected the wires and gone to the pub. It’s adapted the M178 to wet-sump lubrication, changed the engine mounts, developed bespoke intake and exhaust systems and recalibrated the ECU software.

The result is a slightly softer, more rounded engine character. Under full throttle there’s a deep roar, but it lacks the hard-edged bark of the AMG and overrun theatrics are toned down slightly. It’s more vocal than the V12, which is in line with Aston’s intention for the DB11 V8 to be more sporting without losing its gentrification.

The 375kW/675Nm V8 gives plenty away to the 447kW/700Nm V12, but a 115kg weight loss means there is little to choose between the two in raw pace. Aston claims the V12 is just 0.1sec quicker to 100km/h (3.9sec vs 4.0sec), though it manages an extra 22km/h at the top end (322km/h vs 300km/h).

On the road it would take a back-toback test to split them, for after taking a moment to wake the turbos, the V8 hits massively hard in the mid-range and revs cleanly to 7000rpm.

Another key difference between Aston and AMG is the former’s use of an eight-speed automatic rather than adopting the GT’s seven-speed dualclutch. Whatever it loses in shift speed (not much) is more than compensated for in smoothness, with the occasional lurch on tip-in its only real vice. The paddles are beautiful, too; cool to touch, long enough to prevent their fixed location being an issue and very satisfying in their long-throw action.

Aston used the change in engine configuration to, in its words, “explore the more dynamic side of the DB11’s character”. The 115kg diet helps, which also slightly alters the front-to-rear weight distribution from 51:49 to 49:51.

Most of the chassis has come in for attention, including revisions to the springs, dampers, anti-roll bars, bushings, geometry and ESP, though the wheels and tyres remain the same as the V12’s.

AFTER WAKING UP THE TURBOS, THE V8 HITS MASSIVELY HARD IN THE MID-RANGE AND REVS CLEANLY TO 7000RPM

Essentially, the two cars handle quite similarly, though the V8 is definitely the most extroverted of the pair. Whether because of tyre condition, chassis setup or power delivery – likely a combination of all three – the V8 is much happier to lose traction than its bigger brother. It’s still a big, heavy car with a setup biased towards grand touring ability rather than outright dynamic precision, but its more exuberant handling does make it the more fun car to punt hard.

The steering is a highlight, but its balance is also impressive for such a big car; trail the brakes on corner entry and the rear will gently slide to help point the nose.

The penalty for this extra dynamic ability is an added ride terseness. It’s still good, but doesn’t have the same plushness as the V12, frequently fidgeting over small road imperfections. It’s this penalty that leaves the V12 as our DB11 of choice, which feels to better fulfil the grand tourer brief.

Yes, it’s more than $60K dearer, but that’s hardly a deal breaker when you’re talking $400K. If you want a sporty V8 coupe, we’d suggest the Mercedes-AMG GT R or, if you want an Aston, a fully loaded new Vantage.

03 PORSCHE MISSION E CROSS TURISMO

Even this ‘nobbled’ show car goes like a cut cat

BY GEORG KACHER

WITH NEAR-PERFECT WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION – BETTER THAN ANY 911 – THE CAR FEELS PLANTED, AS IF ON A MAGNETIC FIELD

THREE MONTHS AFTER the Mission E Cross Turismo starred at the Geneva Motor Show, Porsche rolled out the concept car for MOTOR to test on real roads, in real traffic. However, we’re under strict instructions to go easy on this hand-built, multi-million dollar one-off. So, no sub-5.0sec 0-100km/h runs, no full-throttle hooliganism, and easy-does-it cornering in deference to the soft-compound 275/40 R20 off-road rubber.

The E Cross Turismo will be badged Taycan – which translates as a “lively young horse” – when it goes on sale in mid-2019 and over 100 prototypes are currently racking up test kays on all five continents. The chassis we’ll drive is close to final spec, explains Stefan Weckbach, head of Porsche’s global electrification program.

“One motor up front, one motor in the back, all-wheel drive, under-floor battery pack,” he smiles. Missing are air suspension, rear-wheel steering, and the sound generator that will mimic a switchable exhaust. “At this early stage in the development process we are, of course, not yet running on maximum power and torque,” Weckbach adds.

So, to protect pre-production components, first gear is bypassed and we’ll be in second at all times, and instead of the promised 440kW there is only around 330kW to play with.

You can search the E Cross in vain for a starter button, but given this is a cutting edge car there is a small on-off touch pad to the left of the steering column, which sets things in motion – or is that e-motion? And the transmission lever, labelled PRND, has now been moved to the two o’clock position behind the wheel.

That sounds pretty banal, but the driving menu can be spiced up by selecting one of five modes: Normal, Range, Sport, Sport Plus and Individual. Not yet confirmed are Eco, Wet and Off-Road settings. Normal is all about lift-off coasting, Sport and Sport Plus are self-explanatory. Range (reportedly to be around 500km) does its best to quash get-home anxiety, while Individual lets you tweak suspension, steering, stability control, drivetrain and soundtrack to your preference.

On the winding backroads in the hills above Malibu the electrically-assisted steering sets new standards in terms of weight, damping, precision, speed and turning circle. With a low centre of gravity – better than any 911 – and near-perfect weight distribution, the car feels firmly planted, as if on a magnetic field.

Torque vectoring is by all-wheel drive, brake actuation, and an optional electronically controlled rear side-toside diff lock. Stopping is controlled by a complex deceleration apparatus that combines conventional (or optional carbon ceramic) brakes with a singlespeed energy recuperation device, but don’t expect a fancy three-step, one-pedal system.

“One pedal is not our philosophy,” stresses Weckbach. “This is a proper sports car; its mission is untamed acceleration and instant torque, not lift-off braking.”

Speaking of untamed acceleration, flooring the throttle flattens every climb; it’s physical, immediate, and awe-inspiring and Porsche is claiming a 0-100km/h time of under 3.5sec.

But the driving public is still a long way from fully adjusting to E-cars and novice E-drivers will, no doubt, flinch when close to 1000Nm of torque gives them an almighty shove in the back.

Rushing from corner to corner, you can still hear the wind, the squealing tyres, the bee-bop of the Panameraderived suspension and occasionally grating brakes, but the batteries, transmissions and motors are all but noiseless. It’s a new driving world, but Weckbach reassures me that the future of Porsche will be familiar.

“A plug-in Porsche must drive and perform like a Porsche fitted with a combustion engine,” he stresses. “It must sustain long, flat-out autobahn stints without overheating. Repeatability is key when it comes to full-throttle acceleration. The main dynamic parameters have to remain through the entire battery charge span. Only when the warning light comes on, under certain conditions, performance may be compromised for range.”

That’s reassuring, and for one precious moment on a sunny California day, high-end BEVs like the Porsche E Cross Turismo, er Taycan, seem to have only virtues and no downsides.

04 MERCEDES-AMG E63

Slightly less ballistic base’ model fills range gap

BY SCOTT NEWMAN

MERCEDES’ MISSION TO offer a car for every possible taste continues apace. At last count, its local offering consisted of 117 variants, not including its commercial division (X-Class, vans). Accordingly, Mercedes has deemed the gap between the $159,611 E43 and $239,611 E63 S too large and so has introduced the $209,611 base’ E63.

The move breaks Mercedes Benz Australia’ recent habit of only importing the higher-spec AMG S’ models, its rationale being that most customers choose the fully loaded variants anyway. Nonetheless, it’ decided there’ enough buyers out there who want the regular E63, so what can they look forward to?

The most obvious difference is a decrease of 30kW/100Nm from the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 compared to the S, however it still has 420kW/750Nm to play with, enough to shift its 1875kg bulk (5kg less than the S) to 100km/h in a claimed 3.5sec.

An interesting quirk is that the power’ gauge on the digital instrument display shows 430kW under full acceleration, so perhaps AMG has thrown an extra 10kW in for free?

Regardless, the unrelenting acceleration of this beast is verging on lunacy, its nine closely stacked ratios devoured with barely diminished ferocity. Peel your head off the headrest and you’ notice the crisper, sharper soundtrack of the M177 4.0-litre in E63 tune. It’ an angry noise, though part of me misses the dirtier, grumblier tone of the old twin-turbo 5.5-litre.

Anyone used to previous E63s simply won’ be able to believe the traction generated by this new model. All-wheel drive has made wheelspin a relic of yesteryear, though it hasn’ dulled the dynamics of Merc’ super sedan.

It’ at its best on more open, flowing roads, where its point-to-point pace is just ridiculous. In tighter turns its weight and relatively soft setup – even in Sport there’ a degree of floatiness, which is an observation not a criticism in a car like this – comes to the fore, but the E63 also displays an unexpected agility.

Loosening the rear with trail-braking would only exacerbate traction issues in previous rear-drive E63s, but rear-biased all-wheel drive allows the throttle to be floored incredibly early, slingshotting the car out of bends with a hint of oversteer. The steering lacks a little precision and there’ the occasional hint of very mild torque steer, but the E63 can be driven harder than most owners will ever imagine.

Not for terribly long for us, though. After a relatively short spell of admittedly hard driving, a temperaturerelated warning appeared on the dash, that disappeared after being parked for a few minutes. The stock E63 also has smaller front rotors than the S (360mm vs 390mm) and they can feel the strain under sustained heavy braking.

Mercedes says anyone keen on using an E63 for extended hard driving or racetrack use should buy the S, leaving the standard variant for those who want to go very quickly in comfort.

Thankfully, this is a role it performs exceptionally. The interior is top-notch and the ride marginally softer than the S; it’ still firm, but sharp bumps don’ thud through the bodyshell the way they do in the more focused version. It stays closer to traditional super sedan values than the four-door supercar S.

Mercedes expects the majority of customers to choose the higher-spec model, purely because buyers in this bracket want the ultimate, but for the type of driving these cars typically do, the regular E63 is arguably the more appropriate choice.

Still, I guess that shows the wisdom in Mercedes’ approach: whatever your taste, it’ got the car for you.

REAR-BIASED ALL-WHEEL DRIVE ALLOWS THE THROTTLE TO BE FLOORED INCREDIBLY EARLY

05 JAGUAR I-PACE

More car-like than a Tesla, and no slouch off-road

BY MATT PRIOR

IS THE I-PACE an SUV, a sedan, a coupe or a sports car? According to Ian Callum, Jaguar’s design director, “It doesn’t matter.” He’s probably right. Even to expert eyes the lines between different types of car are blurring, so imagine how confusing it is to those who actually spend money on them.

All they need to know about the I-Pace is that it’s a 294kW, $119K-plus, battery electric vehicle (BEV) with a 480km range, and it joins Tesla and a host of plug-in hybrids as the posh electric vehicle of choice.

Jaguar designed and specified two motors, the same at each end of the car. There are more than 10 patents on its permanent magnet motor, which has the DC-AC inverter attached to it because AC cabling needs to be as short as possible to be efficient.

Using two motors enabled Jaguar to put the wheels where it wanted. With only one axle driven, the rear wheels would have had to be further forward in the body if the car was going to drive halfway normally. Suspension is double wishbones up front and an integral link at the rear, with coil springs and passive or adaptive dampers, or air springs with adaptive dampers. The I-Pace has all-wheel drive and 50/50 weight distribution.

The I-Pace is more car-like than a Tesla – it has a key, start button, and a handbrake on the dash, although you’ll probably never use it. Push D and pull away using the ‘creep’ function, or use the throttle. It’s smooth and quiet. Perfect for the next-gen Jag XJ…

Throttle sensitivity can be turned up or down and you can change how much regenerative braking you get.

On the higher setting there’s so much regenerative braking that Jaguar reckons you can dispense with 98 per cent of actual brake use, and you quickly get used to doing that. It’s why the brakes can be small. Throttle response is about halfway between how razor sharp it could be, and what we’re used to from petrol-powered from zero rpm and the motors spin to 13,000rpm (with a single-speed 9:1 reduction gear), so overtaking urge is brilliant and as you ask more of the chassis it shuffles power – up to half of all available – to any wheel it wants.

The I-Pace we drove had the air spring/adaptive damper setup and it’s not too shabby off-road, either. We crossed a river (it can wade in water up to 500mm deep), and climbed a steep gravel hill. Here electric AWD systems have huge potential because they can stop and go at will and put as much or little torque as they want to any wheel.

DON’T FOR A MINUTE THINK THE I-PACE IS SLOW. PEAK TORQUE IS AVAILABLE FROM ZERO RPM AND THE MOTORS SPIN TO 13,000RPM

On the track, trailing the brakes (actually the brakes and front motor) means the car rotates nicely into a corner. Then when you get back on the power, it’s metered out pleasingly. Weight (2208kg) keeps it from being a real driver’s car, but it’s impressive. cars, so you don’t bunny hop along.

In normal driving, the rear motor does the accelerating so there’s no steering corruption or front-wheel scrabble, and the front one does the regeneration under deceleration because that’s where the weight shifts.

It soon becomes a doddle to drive using only one pedal, all the way to a stop. That encourages you to drive smoothly and efficiently, but don’t for a minute think the I-Pace is slow.

Peak torque of 680Nm is available It’s very quiet, but you can turn up the enhanced ‘whoosh’ noise it makes under acceleration. Ride quality is a drawback, though. There’s great weight distribution and a low centre of mass, but weight is the perennial EV problem. The low centre of gravity means roll control is good, but you’re aware of body movements. Elsewhere, though, I-Pace is seriously refined and relaxed.

There’s not much else to dislike and if a BEV fits your lifestyle, you’re looking at the best of them.

06 LEXUS LS500 F SPORT

Luxe, tech-filled limo ushers in new twin-turbo V6

BY TRENT GUNCO

BUYING INTO THE LIMO class is like going to your high-school reunion. Except, the former is a purchase that success in life affords you, while the latter seems to be an event to showcase what you can now afford. It’s all about making a bold statement.

The fifth-generation Lexus LS certainly does that. Toyota’s luxury offshoot has been a pioneer of bold design for some time now, and the $190,500 LS500 F Sport lives up to the billing. Yet, behind the oversized spindle grille is a first for Lexus and its sedan range – a turbo-petrol V6.

The unit is the V35A-FTS 3.5-litre twin-turbo six with 310kW and 600Nm, which is kept cool via two intercoolers. Gone is the hybrid 5.0-litre V8, yet the new undersquare, 60-degree V6 has enough grunt to get the 2245kg limo to 100km/h in five seconds.

However, it never really feels as fast as the badge alludes and the muted V6 soundtrack gives off, ahem, Camry vibes... Peak power is developed at 6000rpm, so it needs some revs to really get up and go. Although, there is a swell of torque down low (16004800rpm) and the boosted six has a tractable, linear demeanour.

It’s all about staid motoring; 600Nm certainly facilitates that. So does the 10-speed torque-converter auto (shared with the LC500). You can shift with the paddles, but it’s generally best left to its own devices.

Built on the new GA-L rear-drive platform, the F Sport gains rear-wheel steering and adaptive air suspension. The LS manages fore and aft pitch unbelievably well, so much so that you might not notice you’ve driven over a speed bump. It settles impeccably and manages body roll impressively. Sharp imperfections can catch the suspension out, though. The run-flat tyres and 20-inch wheels don’t help.

The F Sport can never really escape its size, even with rear steering, and the traction/stability controls are overzealous. The Sport modes ramp things up, but it never feels performance orientated. It’s a cruiser.

Despite ergonomic flaws, tight rear headroom and ‘that’ trackpad, the cabin is an utterly opulent affair. It’s a design delight with plush materials and a symphonic 23-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system. Opt for the Sports Luxury variant and you get 22-way adjustable power rear seats with seven massage programs. Brilliant.

A performance car the LS500 is not. The F Sport designation is really just a design-driven spec level that offers sporting pretence to a package that succeeds in style and luxury. It’s also an interesting alternative to the Germans. Oh, and there are certainly worse ways to make an entrance.