Curbside Classic: 2000-2008 Jaguar S-Type – A Modern Classic

“It’s JUST A FORD!” they wailed. Ford assumed control of Jaguar in 1989 and there were dire pronouncements that Jags would devolve into Tauruses with leather seats and a thin schmear of burl walnut. While some cross pollination with Dearborn was inevitable, the pundits were a mile off. Rather than corrupting Jaguar, the Ford partnership kept the marque from going the way of Alvis, Triumph, Riley, Wolseley and so many others. 

Prior to the S-Type’s debut Jaguar offered only the XJ sedan and the achingly pretty XK coupe and convertible. Gaining market share was critical to Jag’s survival strategy, but a two car product line was not going to carve out a big slice of the pie. Especially when the European and Japanese competition was very, very good and getting better with each successive model year. 

Jaguar had been planning a counteroffensive in the form of a middleweight BMW 5-Series size car since well before the Ford takeover. But, development and production costs of a new vehicle tally the sort of figure you might mistake for the GDP of New Zealand; Jag didn’t have the cash until Ford stepped in. 

Among the first fruits of this international partnership was a new rear wheel drive platform that would be used by both manufacturers. The so-called DEW Platform would underpin the Jaguar S-Type as well as the Lincoln LS and other vehicles. Thus, the S-Type has direct genetic links to other Ford products but it is emphatically not a Taurus! 

The wrapper came off the S-type (factory code name X200) at the 1998 British International Motor Show in Birmingham, England. For the first time in nearly 30 years Jaguar had a second sedan in the lineup.  

The new, smaller Jag showed the influence of company founder and styling guru Sir William Lyons, who had died in 1986. It strongly evoked the original S-Type and MKII of the 1960’s with a feline silhouette and distinctive, pouting, oval grille. 

I can’t help but wonder if the late Geoff Lawson, Jaguar’s then head of styling, was trying to channel Sir William’s unerring feel for timeless style as he and the design team brought the S-Type to fruition?  In a period review MotorTrend said “If our experience in Los Angeles is at all representative, no one mistakes the S-Type for anything but a Jaguar.”  Doubtless that was welcome news at the factory, confirmation that they’d succeeded styling not a car, but a Jaguar.     

Under the scalloped bonnet you’d find either a 240 bhp 3.0 liter V6, which actually was a Ford engine, though refined by Jaguar with cylinder heads and an intake system of their own design. However, the 4.0 liter V8 from the XJ and XK could be specified by those who wanted pace to match the grace. 

The 8 cylinder was a thoroughbred Jaguar engine, no kin whatsoever to Ford V8’s (a slightly detuned version of this engine was used in the Lincoln LS). The AJ, for “Advanced Jaguar” V8 was a choice item; a compact, all alloy, 32 valve unit, thoroughly modern in every way. Under wide open throttle the AJ delivered it’s 281 bhp with a delicious snarl. 

When MotorTrend tested a 2000 S-Type V8 it romped to 60 in 7.0 seconds, the six pot trailed by half a tick or so. That six, incidentally, will wind out to 7000 RPM (By comparison, ye olde long stroke, 4.2 Litre, XK inline six was redlined at 4500 rpm!). Variable valve timing and intake wizardry meant that 90% of the engine’s torque was available from 2500 rpm. 

Whatever engine you chose, power was sent to the rear wheels through a five speed automatic transmission. Gears were selected through Jag’s J-Gate shifter. Easily one of the most polarizing features of the car. Most reviewers panned it. This writer feels that it’s elegant in appearance and intuitive in operation. 

It was a given that the S-Type would be specced with disc brakes and fully independent suspension. Of course, by the turn of the last century those features were much more common than when Jaguar pioneered them in the 1960’s. 

Suspension components were tuned specifically for the S-Type, chassis engineers spent a lot of time and effort getting the car’s “rolling feel” just right. An optional Sport Package brought adaptive shocks with firm and soft settings controlled by Jaguar’s Computer Active Technology Suspension, or CATS. Road testers noted that the ride was poised, creamy and controlled. More importantly, the consensus was that the S-Type felt like its own machine and not a Lincoln LS. 

Interior ambiance was perhaps not quite up to the usual Jaguar standard. There were lashings of genuine birdseye maple and leather upholstery. But the clubroom feel associated with the marque was diluted with concessions to the organic styling trends of the late 1990’s. Particularly strange was the large, smiley face center stack wherein the stereo, climate control and navigation systems lived. 

The model evolved throughout its production run. A facelift for 2003 brought a number of refinements, inside and out. The rear of the car was restyled to be less tapering and the passenger compartment was improved functionally and aesthetically. 

The big U shaped center stack gave way to a more traditional layout and the dash received more wood veneer.  Powertrain choices would expand to offer a supercharged version of the 32 valve V8, good to power the S-Type to 60 in 5.3 seconds. Non US buyers would even have the option of a 2.7 litre diesel engine and manual transmission. 

Viewed purely in cold metrics S-Type performance generally fell mid-pack with their competition. But that misses the point of the car. It was meant to cosset the driver and help one escape the pressures of daily life, not dance around the Nürburgring. It’s telling that Jaguar resurrected the S-Type moniker, for the original S-Type always was a luxury car first, unlike the raucous MKII to which it was kin. 

Spending time with an S-Type V6 today reveals a car of competence and refinement, if not excitement. The owner of the pictured 2002 example tossed me the keys saying “I’m not enamored of it. It’s a mid size Jag for old ladies who look through the steering wheel and figure a smaller car reduces the amount of reportable parking lot incidents.”   

The owner’s criticisms are harsh, but he’s got a terrible speed problem, pleasant drawing room cars are not his thing. The Jag was a recent purchase, primarily for his wife to waft around Palm Springs.  

On the move the Jag’s suspension was unflappable, the car slipping glassily over the pavement. Make no mistake though, the chassis is not anesthetized, it talks to the driver and passengers, albeit politely. Engine noise is subdued and very refined. 

Give it some throttle and the tach needle whizzes ‘round the dial with verve, though the seat of your pants won’t feel much happening until it’s north of three and half grand. Selecting Sport Mode will sharpen up the suspension. If you feel the need, use the J-gate to manually control the 5 speed automatic transmission. It probably won’t improve your track times, but it’s very satisfying to run the shifter through the gears. 

With fine quality silver paint, pale parchment hides and deeply tinted glass this swoopy Britisher fits into the California desert landscape as naturally as a cactus blossom. A benefit of the wood and leather steering wheel is less propensity to burn your hands, according to the owners. 

Front seat comfort is excellent, with both driver and passenger enjoying a good range of adjustments. A dainty ashtray on the front armrest seems very retrograde today. The roofline encroaches slightly into one’s line of sight through the windshield, at least if you’re over 6’ tall. But the switchgear feels delightfully precise.  

An efficient climate control system kept 115 degree heat at bay and the engine temperature gauge never crept out of the safe zone. The Jag seemed as faithful as Jeeves for an afternoon’s thrift shopping in Palm Springs; that is until it developed an intermittent power loss. 

The owner is a mechanic of no mean ability, he reckons it’s a tired fuel pump or a bit of sludge fowling the variable valve timing system. Apparently the V6’s have narrow oil passages, making it important to adhere to the manufacturers suggested service intervals. It’s worth noting that the car sat unused for a considerable amount of time before purchase. Recommissioning any car can awaken mechanical poltergeists. 

The S-Type line was discontinued in 2007 to make way for XF. The XF eschewed tradition, it’s a modernist’s luxury sports sedan of impeccable breeding, but with less personality than its predecessors. The S-Type on the other hand made no bones about having links to Jag’s glory days. It and the smaller X-type can be said to be the last new Jaguar four doors of the old tradition (in spite of the Ford connection). Their bodylines, interior styling and even ride and handling balance were all in the mold of Sir William Lyons. It’s true that the XJ sedan stuck with a traditional body style and clubroom cabin ambience until 2009, but it was a continuation of an established model, one whose first generation debuted in 1969.

Of course, public taste and design language evolve, but a Jaguar must kindle a spark of desire, it must feel like something out of the ordinary. In short, it must combine “Grace, Space and Pace” in a car that appeals to readers of Burke’s Peerage as much as those who peruse racing forms. The S-Type fulfills that role nicely with its unmistakable styling and excellent ride/handling balance. 

Overlooked and often underpriced even in today’s strong used car market an S-Type is a compelling, individualistic, buy. Put one in your driveway and you can feel like a member of the aristocracy even if you just lost your last 5 Quid on the ponies.