Overall rating: 5/5
Bonkers fast and still as sideways as you like, but now the Jaguar F-Type can be had with no roof and a four-wheel drive safety net.
In the Metal:
If it has its engine turned on, you will hear the F-Type V8 R long before you see it. Few modern cars are quite so boisterously loud and, while maintaining a low profile has its advantages at times, we wouldn't have it any other way. Jaguar's supercharged V8 may be thoroughly up to date, but it growls, gurgles and snarls like a classic Cobra's. And that's just at idle.
For the first time, you can have the full-fat 550hp V8 R version as a convertible - previously it was only available as a coupe and the convertible 'made do' with a 'mere' 510hp. It also now comes with a new Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS) setup, as do all F-Types. Jaguar claims that, for the first time, electrically boosted steering is actually able to offer better feel and response than a hydraulic system.
That would be reason enough to come and drive this 2016 model year car, but there's a bigger elephant in the engineering room. Distinguished only by a subtle badge and the tiniest increase in width of the bonnet's power bulge, this F-Type can now be specified with all-wheel drive, also available as an option on the V6 and V6S. It gives Jaguar the weaponry to go chasing sales in snow-states and Alpine areas, giving the four-wheel drive Porsche 911 a potential run for its money. Will it fundamentally alter the character of the F-Type, a character that we already love so much? We'll get to that in a moment.
The entire front end of the car is essentially new - the engine sits 10mm higher to make room for front driveshafts and is now slightly canted to one side. The front suspension, identical in layout, is also new to allow for the weight and height change. Actually, there's not much of a weight penalty for going AWD - just 80kg, and it alters the weight distribution by a mere 1.2 per cent.
Of course, on the outside you never notice any of this. You'll have to be a crashing motoring bore (yes, that's my hand up...) to spot the subtle change in the bonnet profile. Inside, the only change is the (praise be!) chucking out of the old, dreadful infotainment system and the parachuting in of the new InControl setup - fully smartphone friendly of course - which has big, attractive new graphics rather reminiscent of a Nokia Lumia phone.
The F-Type is still, as you might expect, distractingly gorgeous. Not, perhaps, as pretty as the Coupé, but then that's like saying Emily Blunt is mildly less attractive than Scarlett Johansson. Both are staggeringly pretty.
There's no other way to describe how the V8 R reacts when you step on the throttle - it's explosive. Utterly bombastic. Noisy. Fabulous. Fruity. Down the near-kilometre-long pit straight of the Estoril race track, the R was just brushing the hem of 260km/h before the braking point for Turn One - and that is with your cowardly correspondent at the wheel. It sounds amazing and it goes even better, truly a modern-day AC Cobra - with the chance of fiery death greatly reduced.
Of course, the rear-drive R is a sideways, smoking lunatic - able to light up its rear tyres like a Top Fuel dragster intent on creating a Pirelli bonfire. You'd expect then this all-wheel drive version would be tamed, cowed, suppressed.
Er, not quite.
The F-Type does understeer on the way into a corner when you push it a little too hard, but a quick tip of the throttle pedal, which pushes it into impressive neutrality, can easily dial that out. Push harder and you'd expect a four-wheel drive car to nudge wide again but nope, the R slips neatly and swiftly into oversteer, just as the rear-wheel drive version does. The difference is that it's easier and less terrifying to gather it all up and get it in a straight line again. The front wheels will generally only accept up to 50 per cent of the engine's power, but the new Intelligent Driveline Dynamics system (a network of computer controllers that talks to and between the steering, throttle, stability control and differentials) helps to parcel out the grunt in precise increments, ensuring that the F-Type stays rear-drive as much as possible. The clutch that controls the power flow can open and shut in 150 milliseconds and if you can detect which wheels are being powered at any one time, you're a more sensitive driver than I am. Basically, while driving purists will argue for the primacy of the classic rear-drive layout, for idiots like me, with firsts of ham and feet of lead, the AWD system is a no-brainer - it still allows sideways play but gives you a traction safety net to help you straighten things out again.
It also should provide the F-Type with impressive all-weather, all-climate ability. Trying the system out on a wet handling circuit, with the Winter mode of the electronic control system switched on, even severe provocations failed to get more than a tiny squirt from the tail - the electronics were set to Close-Watch mode and were intent on keeping the car moving forwards, not sideways.
Now, what about the EPAS electric steering? Perhaps the best thing to say about it is that you would never know had you not been told. In development since 2008, it really does feel as good and as natural as the best hydraulic systems, with plenty of feedback and uncanny response.
Excellent too are the optional carbon ceramic brakes (distinguished by bright yellow brake callipers), which give the F-Type phenomenal stopping power. To be fair, the standard steel discs are hardly slacking on the job, but even at that terminal pit-straight speed I had braking room to spare with the carbon rotors.
What you get for your Money:
There's no two ways about it - F-Types are as expensive as all-get-out. Jaguar Ireland hasn't confirmed a final price for the new models, but expect the AWD option to set you back around €6,000 and the carbon brakes will be a similar, probably higher, price. Not cheap then but you are getting a car of astounding all-round capability.
I'm going to be pilloried for this by the hot-shoe wheel-smiths, but I think AWD is the making of the F-Type R. OK, so it adds weight and takes away maybe a smidgen of the sideways-nutter-ness, but these are outweighed, for me, by the huge increase in all-year, all-weather versatility. It turns the R from a lairy modern-day TVR into a proper Porsche 911 Turbo rival - staggeringly quick and noisy, but capable and secure too. I'd probably still have the Coupé, both for the styling and the extra practicality, but this new R Convertible is about as good as roadster motoring gets.