I only know one word in Norwegian, and that word is stengt. It means ‘closed’. The reason I know this is because stengt, the monosyllabic, guttural little bugger, has just massacred a Big TopGear Road Trip in a single blow.
Words: Sam Philip
Photos: John Wycherley
This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of TopGear magazine
Ten minutes ago, all was sweetness and light as we merrily closed in on the Lysebotnveien, a physics-defying mountain road that has, in recent months, become something of a TG obsession. Somewhere outside Tonstad, as the snow by the roadside was piling deeper, photographer Wycherley politely asked whether I’d checked if the Lysebotn road was actually open, and I said don’t be daft, of course I checked, and anyhow, why on earth would a hairy mountain pass be closed in spring and… and then there was a long pause followed by some frantic fiddling with phones and a lot of swearing. A couple of minutes later, here it is in undeniable capitals. Lysebotnveien: STENGT. Thanks to Norway’s odd obsession with getting snowed on, the planned end point of our trip has been closed since October and isn’t due to open for another fortnight. Stengt!
This is what happens when you try to meet your heroes. The Lysebotn obsession started last year, with a YouTube clip of BASE jumpers throwing themselves wantonly from a kilometre-high, perfectly vertical Norwegian cliff. Just visible in the background was a sliver of road cut deep into the rock face, snaking back and forth to the cliff top. After literally some seconds of intensive research, we located the road on Google Maps, and it was even more astonishing than we’d hoped: 30 hairpins laced up the sheer side of a fjord, a clear contender for Greatest Road in the World. In one of those moments of lateral thinking for which we are renowned, we came up with a plan: wouldn’t it be a fine idea to drive a fast car, fast, on the Lysebotn road?
And then Jaguar launched the XKR-S – a turn-all-the-knobs-up-to-11 iteration of the already-lovely XKR – and the perfect road had its perfect car. It’s important not to dive into these things with overblown expectations. And so, through means of pleading and deception, I did obtain Jag’s very first XKR-S and set out in the direction of Norway, which is a very long way away from Fortress TopGear.
The XKR-S likes long ways. What a car this is. Despite packing 542bhp and a top speed of 186mph, it isn’t, as the marketing types claim, the fastest and most powerful Jaguar ever: 1991’s XJ220 boasted the same power output and could manage 217mph flat out. Nor is it, despite the name, a pared-down, roll-caged rival to Porsche’s 911 GT3 RS: there’s more leather in the XKR-S’s cabin than at a Hells Angel’s funeral, along with a pair of occasional rear seats and a decent-sized boot under the rear hatch.
Nonetheless, the XKR-S is a razor-edged thing. On the outside, the most obvious mods are the fixed carbon-fibre rear wing and the vertical vents on either side of the XKR-S’s gaping mouth. These don’t do much for the coupe’s svelte lines, but combine to reduce high-speed lift by 26 per cent. Bumping the 5.0-litre supercharged V8 from 510bhp – its output in the standard XKR – was a straightforward task, requiring nothing more than an engine remap and exhaust tweak, but the chassis was subjected to heftier revisions. The double-wishbone front suspension has been toughened up, increasing camber and castor stiffness, the springs are 26 per cent sharper all round, and lightweight 20in alloys reduce unsprung weight by five kilograms over the XKR. It all adds up to a 4.2-second 0-62mph time and, says Jaguar, a sub-eight-minute Nordschleife lap.
Never the types to sniff at extra power and focus and wings, we had a momentary worry that the XKR-S might be treading a slightly tricky path. The XKR has always steered clear of the track-focused, performance-car fist fight, instead carving out a niche as a super-fast grand tourer. With this talk of ‘Ring laps, might the sleek Jag have forgotten its USP?
Not to worry. Even in its new gym-honed guise, the XKR-S retains Jaguar’s trademark delicacy of ride. On Norway’s wide, sweeping roads, flashing past glittering pine forests and wide lakes with sunlight splintering off the water’s surface, the XKR-S was firm but never harsh, planted but pliable. Yes, it’s noticeably stiffer than the XKR, but never crunching or brittle. No company does damping better than Jaguar… and no company makes a better supercharged engine.
What a unit this big V8 is, capable of buttery relaxation or wild-eyed redline-chasing. In tandem with the six-speed ZF transmission, it’s a welcome riposte to anyone who thinks the conventional auto ‘box is dead: slick-shifting and anonymous when left to do its own thing, fast and direct when you override with the steering-wheel paddles.