Those first few miles, when everything is new and vying for your attention, they are some of my favourite miles in any car. The richness of the experience as you try to take it all in is almost overwhelming. The ride that’s firmer than you were expecting as you potter through a village. The switches and paddles that are curiously rubbery to the touch as you adjust the heating and play with the gearbox. The blaring exhaust note that has something of the sharp-edged hollowness of a modern Ferrari as you accelerate down onto a dual carriageway. These sensations all come tumbling out at you, filling up the newly created folder marked ‘F-type’ in the hard-drive of your mind.
Of course, you absorb it all even more greedily when you’ve been anticipating the moment for as long as this. Remember the first F-type concept that got everyone salivating, the one with the wraparound windscreen? That was 13 years ago, which is a hell of a gestation period by anyone’s reckoning. The only thing likely to be greeted with greater national expectation and curiosity this year is a small bundle of noise that will be christened Windsor (and sadly, I don’t mean Ford is bringing out a new small-block V8).
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Anyway, as we head across to North Wales, the F-type’s cabin definitely feels like a special place to be. You sit higher than you might think, and yet you feel snug thanks to the high shoulder-line of the doors, and the big central tunnel with its flying buttress of a grab handle sweeping out from the dash. I like the small copper-coloured (‘Ignis’ on the Jag colour chart) highlights too, drawing your eyes magpie-like to the paddles and starter button. I can also confidently say, having tried a wide range of heated seats, that the Jaguar’s buckets are the hottest around – level three is only to be tried by those with an asbestos arse. The sole disappointment in the cabin is that the steering wheel, while a nice size and shape, has a bit of BMW Syndrome about it, with a slightly chunky, padded feel in your hands.
Look in the rear-view mirror as you hit 62mph and you’ll see the rear wing rise up out of the bootlid, with the famous silver leaper gleaming in the sunshine. And just beyond that is the distinctive snout of a 911. While the latest generation of rear-engined Porsche might not be our favourite in the 50-year lineage, it is undoubtedly the current dynamic benchmark that the Jaguar must square up to. On price the Jag is the cheaper by some £14,000, although this heavily accessorised V6 S and sparsely sprinkled Carrera Cabriolet are just £5k apart.
In terms of grunt the 911 is also playing catch up, its 3.4-litre flat-six some 30bhp down on the F-type’s 375bhp 3-litre motor, while the V6’s supercharger means the gulf between the torque figures is even wider – 339lb ft playing 288lb ft. The 911 does counter these deficits with a healthy 164kg weight advantage, however. Whatever either company might say, these two are undoubtedly rivals.
We pull in at the services on the A5 to fuel up and swap cars, and Metcalfe gets out of the 911 looking strangely like a posh burglar, with a mysterious duffel bag over his shoulder and an unflattering black beanie on his head. Tanks brimmed, we set off again (the Jag coming to life with a little too much theatrical fanfare) and this time I find myself staring at the F-type’s two huge exhausts as we continue west, cutting across country towards Bala. Judging by the stares of other road users, Jaguar has done a very good job with the styling, and I like the hint of XJ13 about the tail. Life is a little dull inside the 911 after the spangly Jag, but the solidity of its construction and the positivity of its controls still feels a notch above, like you’ve bought a hardback rather than a paperback.
After stopping for some photographs on a dramatic section of road that clings to the side of a snowy valley and then topping up the tanks again in Bala, we head for the B4391, where I manage to turf Metcalfe and his swag out of the Jag again so that I can have a go on a proper piece of road. This is where we get to find out if the F-type really is the sports car we’ve been promised or if the 911 romps off into the distance. The first thing you notice is the steering, which is quite light but also very quick and direct, just like a 458’s or an F12’s. This would be suicide if the rest of the car couldn’t keep up, but the chassis responds to any inputs with alacrity, feeling taut and agile. The whole car feels very accurate and the result is that you have a huge amount of confidence on turn-in to corners.
There’s a clatter of metal as we hammer across a cattle grid but the suspension remains unflustered – there’s no wallow, just tight control. This is good. I’ve pushed the lever across so that the eight-speed ZF auto is locked in manual mode (it felt better using the paddles on the motorway too, as ‘Drive’ seemed to induce too much hunting up and down the ’box) and begun batting up and down the ratios with the little paddles attached to the wheel.
It feels almost like sprint gearing, so you work the ’box hard, but the response to each flick of a finger is good and there’s a lovely parp on every committed upshift, a bit like a louder version of the ones you get with a VW DSG in similar circumstances. The actual power delivery is incredibly linear and effective, but with little change in the engine note it can feel slightly utilitarian at times. As Harry says later, though, it feels naturally aspirated in its throttle response and the combination of broad torque, an octet of gears and surprising traction means that it punches out of corners almost as keenly as it dives into them. I really hadn’t expected the F-type to be this responsive.
After a run up and down the road, we swap driver’s seats and set off again. Calm and measured is how the Porsche feels after the Jaguar. In the F-type you seem to make one initial dart into a corner with the steering and then concentrate on driving through with the rear wheels. But the 911 asks you to pour it into corners, applying lock, leaning on the nose and feeling for grip all the way up to the apex, before using the characteristic rear-engined traction to shove you out the other side, unwinding the steering lock as you go. It’s a very different process.
Similarly, the gearboxes are worlds apart. Where the Jaguar never seemed to drop below third, this seven-speed manual 911 has a second gear that will reach 80mph, so you definitely have to change down to second as you approach anything resembling a tight corner if you don’t want to bog down. What’s more, I frequently found myself shifting up 1500rpm before the limiter in the F-type, while the 911’s engine has me hanging on until it’s soaring towards its red line in order to extract its performance. Not that this is a chore, however, because as we’ve said before, the ‘base’ Carrera’s 3.4 really is a stunning collection of valves and pistons. It’s almost like a mini-GT3 engine, picking up after 5000rpm and then hardening its note as it ascends all the way towards 8000rpm.
Overall, this first duel has revealed that there is a shade more mechanical feel to the Porsche but you definitely have to work harder for your thrills, and tellingly, there was nothing I could do to shake Harry in the Jaguar behind. It has also shown just what different dynamic characters the two cars have, with the F-type offering a classic front-engine rear-drive balance with added edge and the 911 serving up its own unique and absorbing brand of rear-engined weight transfer. Puzzlingly, it’s not entirely clear which of them is more fun at the moment, but the F-type is more than keeping the 911 honest.
‘What’s impressed me most,’ says Harry, ‘is that neither of these cars feels compromised by the lack of a roof. We’ve been belting up and down here and not once have I felt the need for more chassis stiffness.’
He’s right. Put the roof up in either car (something you can do while trickling along at 30mph, which is always fun) and you forget that you’re in a drop-top, which is remarkable. The rest of the afternoon and evening is spent with roofs down, though, so Dean and his Nikon can make the most of the beautiful sunlight. Then, just as Snowdon is turning orange, Stephen Dobie turns up to take over from Harry, who mutters something cryptic about a late-night appointment at the bank and Jags always having made good getaway cars.
That night we decide that there is really only one way to settle the test. So, the following morning we head out of Betws-y-Coed and along the A5 towards the evo Triangle. On cold tyres and with the air temperature only just in positive figures, the Jaguar’s tail is happy to step well out of line through the first couple of tight corners, if you’ve slackened the DSC to its nicely judged ‘track mode’ or switched it off altogether. It’s fun and the quick steering makes it easy to catch and hold, with the car still driving forwards using its mechanical limited-slip differential to good effect, but you need to be on your toes.
The roads of the Triangle are better-sighted and faster than anything else in the area, which is what makes them so brilliant. There’s a section quite early on in the westerly leg that is open and uphill. From a distance it almost looks like the road sweeps round in one big left-hander, but it’s actually two separate corners. Slap-bang in the middle of the second one is an unsettling dip that arrives just when the car is fully loaded. It’s top of third gear in the V6 S, and as you turn in with that quick steering, it’s hard to judge whether you’ve got the line just right as it twitches into the bend. Then comes the dip, and your body presses down into the seat as the road drops away then rises up to meet you, but the Jag deals with it with aplomb. The resilience of the suspension keeps it beautifully under control through the compression and as you come up out the other side, with the now-unweighted car still turning, you can keep confidently on the throttle and enjoy the flash of oversteer as the rear wheels spin up.
It’s a deeply impressive display of damping and one that the 911 can’t quite match when I go back through the corner 15 minutes later. But what the Porsche does do better is inspire confidence through faster corners. With such alert steering, it takes courage to really lean on the front end of the Jaguar and you find that you need to do a lot of steering with the throttle from quite early in the corner as a result. By comparison, you can work all four tyres on the 911 in a much more progressive way, leaning into the suspension’s travel and tackling the road with a greater fluidity than in the F-type. Added to this is the fact that you seem to sit low down in the 911’s chassis, whereas you feel perched on top of the Jag’s.
Parked up in our usual spot near the top of the Triangle mid-morning, it feels like an age since those first few miles the day before, and in some ways I don’t feel any closer to choosing between the two cars. Sitting in the sunlight, roof down, the Jaguar is hard to resist on looks alone; there are just so many good angles on it. Stephen, Harry and I all agree that we’re not entirely comfortable with the image of the 911 Cabrio, although it tends to look better in a darker colour. Conversely, I suspect some people will take one look at the F-type’s laughably tiny boot (particularly if you’ve got a space-saver in there) and instantly plump for the Porsche on useability alone.