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Future Classic Friday: Jaguar S-type

Published 01 December 2017

When Ford bought Jaguar in 1990, the company was in a bad place. It had a model range that consisted of two models: the XJ40 and the XJS. The former was selling reasonably well but had a reputation for poor quality, while the latter was extremely long-in-the-tooth.

In order to help Jaguar compete in the luxury market, Ford needed the brand to diversify. Job number one was to sharpen up quality, which happened towards the end of XJ40 production, while the next job was to replace the XJ40 with the X300 - a car that may have been based on the XJ40, but was much better made. Then came the XJS replacement, the X100 - or XK8 as it was better known.

But to really be taken seriously, Jaguar needed to reposition itself to compete with the premium German marques, by offering smaller cars that would appear on the same fleet user-chooser lists as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

Jaguar S-type (3)

The first of these would be the S-type, a car that recalled a name from the past and would go head-to-head with the Mercedes E-class and BMW 5-series. Work on the S-type began in 1994 and was expedited, with a view to it being in showrooms within the space of less than five years. In car development terms, that's quite a short time for a ground-up project.

In order to keep costs down and speed up its arrival, the S-type would share its platform with the new Lincoln LS, which Ford's US luxury brand was readying for launch at the same time, though there would be little in the way of styling overlap between the two cars. 

The S-type made its debut at the 1998 British Motor Show, at the same time as the equally retro Rover 75 - a move that drew instant comparisons between the two, even though the Jaguar was the bigger and more expensive of the two. 

While Jaguar was at pains to point out that the S-type was thoroughly modern, the company wasn't shy in using its original compact sports saloon, the Mk2, in promoting it. This wasn't, after all, new territory for Jaguar, and the round headlamps, oval grille and curved D-pillar gave more than a nod to Jaguars of the past. Besides, with such a rich heritage, there was no harm in exploiting it.

When it arrived in showrooms the following spring, the S-type was initially well received. It was complimented for its exceptional ride and handling, which many pundits didn't expect because of the American-influenced platform. It also came with a choice of punchy new V6 and established V8 powertrains, both of which delivered excellent performance and whisper-quiet high-speed refinement. 

Future Classic Jaguar S-type (2)

By far the biggest criticism was levelled at the car's interior - its overuse of light-coloured plastics, bland dash and weird-looking steering wheel weren't in keeping with what people had come to expect from Jaguar, and it took the company just two-and-a-half years to completely revise the fascia to replicate the look of the new, smaller X-type (whose cabin was allegedly quickly redesigned following the S-type's reception).

At the same time as the interior facelift, Jaguar revealed the supercharged S-type R, which had been rumoured to have been in development from launch. The 4.2-litre powerplant came with a Eaton supercharger and kicked out 400bhp, making it a real beast. 

In late 2004, the S-type received another facelift, this time with new rear lights and revised rear badging. The boot release was also moved away from the chrome trim, as a number of US buyers were mistaking the round button for an extra letter in the car's name and mispelling it 'Jag-o-uar'. True story - the author was told this by a Jaguar designer on the press launch. 

At the same time, the S-type was given a diesel engine for the first time, getting the PSA-Ford co-developed 2.7-litre V6; one of the first diesels to offer genuinely good refinement. Jaguar purists weren't happy, but it was soon jostling for position with the 3.0-litre V6 petrol in terms of being the brand's best seller. 

Jaguar S-type (2)

In many respects, time has been unkind to the S-type. While it was well received when new, it went out of fashion very quickly, its old-fashioned apperance and overt curvaceousness being seen as a pastiche of the fine Jaguars of old. It didn't help that the hosts of BBC's Top Gear described it as 'the weakest Jaguar ever' - a particularly harsh and unfair judgement, given the S-type's sales success, decent reliability and likeable driving characteristics.

At the moment, it's a car that remains relatively unfashionable. An anachronism among a sea of modern, lean, angular Jaguars that appeal to the mass market, but move further and further away from that traditional image. As a result, you can pick them up for pennies, with roadworthy examples available for under £500. Look out for sill rot, though, as the plastic covers can hide all manner of nasties.

But there is a huge financial gulf between the best and worst, though, and that's all the evidence you need that classic interest for the S-type is starting to pick up. Genuine enthusiasts are prepared to pay top money for the best, low mileage examples, with Jaguar specailists now actively seeking them. Buy a half-decent one now, before they get too expensive, and you'll get a luxurious, characterful sports saloon that's quite forwards in looking backwards.

Comments

   on 1 December 2017

Have a feeling that the S-type numbers are going significantly drop soon as serious rust problems are coming more widespread. I recently found this out as i bought a 2003 S-type sport 200 with 67k and full service history. upon removing trims found that the outer and part of the inner sill had rotted away. 5 weekends later it was rust free. They are deffinatey worth saving and spending a few grand on to put right. the S-type is a nice drive and has been quite reliable and can be serviced yourself quite easily.

jaguarR    on 3 December 2017

I ran a three litre petrol for more than 12 years. Fabulous car, quick, comfortable, and reasonable to service at one of the many independent specialists. High point was 'seeing off' a WRX on a Belgian motorway - it couldn't keep up. I sometimes wonder if I should have sold it. It was widely admired in stunning sea frost green (a light metallic colour).

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