What It’s Like To Drive The Infamous Jaguar XJ220
Photography by Jayson Fong
I would like to give special thanks to Don Law Racing for this opportunity.
It’s a shame that the Jaguar XJ220 is so often remembered for the wrong reasons. Once the world’s fastest car, and before that a concept that drew crowds by the tens of thousands to its unveiling before numerous appearances on magazine and newspaper front pages, it is one of the world’s prime examples of potentially the right product at the wrong time. We all know the V12-to-V6 story (why people complained about more power and less weight is hard to grasp beyond the “It could have had a V12!” argument), but what is it like to actually be in the driver’s seat? Last week we spent some time with the engineers and designers behind the infamous supercar, and now we take one for a test drive.
With the tapping of rain against the window getting louder and the puddles outside taking over more and more territory from the dry patches, the weather wasn’t really what I had envisioned as “ideal” when I was told that I’d have the opportunity to take full control of the XJ220. Nonetheless, as I swung myself into chassis 004 (one of Jaguar’s early prototypes) and shut the long door, I became instantly cocooned in the cabin, in a deceivingly low driving position with a steeply raked panoramic windscreen to see out of. However, despite this encapsulation, the cabin proved to be more than roomy enough with plenty of shoulder space, a deep footwell to fit the full height of those who might ordinarily struggle to squeeze into cars like these, and to literally top it off, a glass roof bringing in lots of light. Or would if it weren’t raining.
Beyond the space, one of the first things that struck me is how analogue the interior felt compared to the space-age exterior design that implied the car would be outfitted with as much computer-assisted technology as possible. However, the reality is quite different than that, as I found myself surrounded by gauges for everything from boost to gearbox oil temperature, and of course, an analogue clock. With all controls and readouts facing me, a tingle shot down my spine before I even thought about putting the car in gear.
Taking the XJ220 out onto the road, the expectation of it being a big car—one that’s both wide and long—is realized in every movement of the non-power-assisted steering wheel. Despite this though, the Jag still managed to negotiate the country roads we took with ease. Mindful that power like this mixed with wet roads can lead to some unpleasant situations, I gently brought the twin-turbo V6 up to speed. It soon became clear that it wanted much more though. Going up a gear, the shift lever notches into place with just enough firmness, while the engagement of the meaty clutch communicates clearly whether or not you’ve gotten it right. It’s all very deliberate and reassuring in its analog nature.
With a nice straight line stretch leading to a series of curves in the distance, the spooling turbos provide an addictive sensation of endless torque that will keep on pulling as long as you can find the road space, but in the effort to keep things sensible, I let off, and the world outside slowly lost its blur as the engine slowed the car back down to normality. Entering the corners, it quickly became clear that the Jag is more comfortable and somehow more agile at speed, and on the exit it came out balanced, flat, and with a surprising amount of grip thanks in part to the new Bridgestones. That said, I was wary the entire time of the mischievous angles the rear-wheel drive car would happily show me if I were to give it too much gas around the apex. Behind me me, the V6 made itself audibly known, though was more akin to a purr than a bark. Although maybe not as inspiring as a V8 or V12, it’s still difficult not to smile and feel satisfied as the revs build and the turbos forcefully consume air. Also, a V6 derived from a Group B car and fitted with two turbos is quite special in its own right, right?
With the controversy that surrounded their limited production, an aura of mystery still surrounds the XJ220, and I can’t help but feel that perhaps this is why the value of the big Jag has seen steady increase over the years. For me though, despite the less than ideal conditions, I’m just glad to have had an opportunity to find out for myself what it’s like to ride with the big cat.