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Like Being Strapped to a Rocket: Racing Jags

Posted on March 7, 2013 at 12:30 AM

“Serendipity means a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it.” -- Wikipedia


I had a serendipitous moment at CES this year. I was in Meridian Audio’s suite in the Venetian Towers when I started asking them about car audio. They were quick to tell me that they had inked a deal with Jaguar – note: every time you see the word “Jaguar” in this blog, I would appreciate it if you would mentally pronounce it “Jag-you-ehr” in the most British, stiff-upper-lip manner you can muster -- and were very proud of the audio system the Meridian team had developed on the auto side. I pointed out who amazingly generous Bang & Olufsen was, literally giving me the keys to a $300,000 Aston Martin DBS for the weekend, and that if they wanted to give me a Jag, I’d love to hear the sound system.


We shared a brief chuckle over this, one of those knowing, private, inside joke laughs where we were all thinking how ridiculous such an idea was, but then Meridian’s terrific PR gal, Sue Toscano, and Greg Barbone decided to step up and actually get me that ride in the Jag.


Turns out that this year Jaguar has been touring the company with Jaguar ALIVE Driving Experience events, and one was happening just a (not-so-very) short 3.5 hour drive from my home in Charlotte.  A couple of e-mails later, and Dana and I had secured a VIP invitation to the event which we attended this past Sunday. One of the great things about this was that I got to share it with Dana. Usually these kinds of things happen out of state, or at a tradeshow, or somehow my friend Dan ends up getting the invite, but this was finally one that Dana got to literally come along for the ride on, and it was great to be able to have an experience we could talk about together.


Before attending, I had some preconceptions about Jaguar. One, I didn’t really associate them with “quality.” I thought that owning a Jag meant being on a close, likely frenemy, relationship with your mechanic. Second, I thought they were more form over function and that they were luxury and comfort first, performance and sports car maybe third or fourth. Third, I thought that owning a Jag meant a starting buy-in of around $70,000. Turns out I was totally wrong on all counts.


The event was held at the zMAX Dragway, part of the massive Charlotte Motor Speedway complex which, as the name would imply, is basically a race track. So #Winning.


They had a large hospitality tent set up and when we walked inside we were greeted by a check-in area:



And then we were both issued wrist bands and badges:



They had some light snacks (vegetables, lemonade, petite-fours, some cheeses) and an area set up where you could linger and check out several different models – XF, XJ and XK – while you were waiting for your driving experience session to begin. (I must say, as a non-car person, the Jaguar nomenclature is all a bit confusing to me, so if I get a model wrong, well, suck it.) It was great because you could jump in to any one of the cars, spin the knobs, adjust the seats, get a feel for the fit-and-finish of the car without someone hovering over you judging whether you were actually able to afford a six-figure auto or not.



Amongst the cars was the brand new F-Type which is gorgeous. This car screams SEX and PERFORMANCE and FUN and had a great design, with beautiful lines and curves.



If you were to give me a Jag, this is the one that I would want, please. British racing green, if you don't mind. And with the upgraded Meridian sound system, natch.


In the corner of the showroom area was this display:



So I gravitated over to the XJ. The Meridian-Jaguar pairing is really a perfect marriage or two very like-minded companies. First, they are going to share the same British sensibilities and both brands cater to the high-end, luxury, performance market.


When I got into the car, the presenter, J W Anderson, asked those of us in the car if anyone had heard of Meridian. After two no’s I’m all, “Uh, yeah. I totally know them. I know them *really* well.” I could tell he was a bit stunned by my knowledge and enthusiasm for the brand, and after explaining who I was – in a manner WAY less douchey than the, “Do you know who I am?!?” that you’re probably all imagining – it turned out that J W ran a local high-end installation company in Charlotte, The Integrated Home, and he was a Meridian dealer and he was familiar with my writing. So, clearly, we got on famously.



J W gave me a great overview of the sound system, walking me through the different features and the tech that sets the Meridian system apart from other high-end vehicles. The XJ we sat in had the “ultimate” speaker trim, featuring 20 drivers, 825 watts of power, and lots of Meridian “secret sauce” to squeeze all of the sweet, gooey sonic goodness from your music.

 



Some of the Meridian tech includes the company’s highly-regarded Trifield surround mode which creates a more three-dimensional sound field from a stereo source, powerful DSP to correct for the less than perfect acoustical environment in the cabin and to manage crossovers for each speaker and to compensate for volume level due to increased cabin noise.



J W played some cuts with the Meridian Trifield processing turned on and off, and the difference was dramatic. When Trifield was engaged, the audio was “raised” up and spread evenly across the windscreen, providing a far better “band in front” soundstage with vocals centered right below the rear view mirror. With the processing turned off, the audio collapsed down into the doors. Strings and vocals were full of detail without being bright or shrill even at loud volumes. Bass was tight and detailed, without being boomy or flabby, something I tested on our road drive with my classic “I’m driving a high-end luxury sports vehicle” test track:



When you are driving a $90,000 car with sweet audio pouring in from leather cocoon that surrounds you, I promise you are indeed bringing your sexy back.


The car has a load of tech, including rear LCD monitors for the back passengers, and a removable touchscreen controller for the rear-seaters to operate the system.



Along with music, the in-dash DVD drive can play movies, and features a full-blown navigation system:



I didn’t use the navigation too much, but it was DEFINITELY a huge step over the nav system in the Aston Martin which was just slightly more usable than trying to read a map that had been crumpled up in to a fist-sized ball.


First up was our road drive, and we were led outside where a caravan of 12 XJs awaited us. Here’s me and my $90,000 XJ. So, you know, pretty much just a regular day in my life…


 


They led us on a leisurely 20 minute drive around the streets where we could get a feel for the car and the passenger could play with the electronics. Halfway out we switched, so I immediately started “playing.” First up was pairing my phone to the car’s Bluetooth system:



Then I started calling people and saying, “Hey! What’s up? Oh, me? Nothing. Just driving around in a brand new Jaguar XJ, talking on the Bluetooth with the Meridian Audio system. You?”


One very cool thing about the dash is that the driver’s display is an LCD (I think) screen that changes to show pertinent information. If someone buckles or unbuckles it shows you the status of occupants, it shows what is playing on the audio system, gas, tach and speedo. It was very next-gen fighter pilot cockpit design.


 


When we returned from our drive we were led into a room where Lorraine McKiniry from the TV show “What's My Car Worth?” gave us a rundown on the Jaguar line-up.



Lorraine addressed the quality issue head-on saying that several years ago, Jaguar was ranked 36 out of 38 for customer satisfaction – just ahead of Yugo and Sterling. After Ford purchased the company, they surged to #2 and now the company is owned by Tata Motors from India. (She made a comment about there being an actual Mr. Tata and I stifled the urge to make a Mrs. Tata comment.)


Lorraine also pointed out that the base model XF starts at under $47,000, features a 240 horsepower turbocharged engine and manages 30 mpg and is still “All Jaguar.” (You’re still thinking “Jag-you-ehr” right? Good show.) This was about $30,000 less than I figured for a Jag. Here’s Lorraine standing next to the most power production Jag ever, the XFR-S.



Boasting a 550 horse supercharged V8 engine, this rocket can zip from 0 to 60 in under 4.4. Oh, and PS: we were gonna get to drive it in just a second. (Squee!!!)


After a little more Jaguar love-in, Lorraine assured us that the new line-up of Jags was the best ever and that, well, if we were interested…



So, now it was time to get our drive on! We walk outside to the racetrack and there are three stations setup: Performance, Refinement and Technology. We were divided into groups and Dana and I were sent off to Performance which is described as: Get behind the wheel in the Jaguar Performance Zone and feel truly alive as you tackle the autocross. A professional driver will introduce the driving techniques you need to master the circuit, then it's out on the course, applying your newfound knowledge. (I know, right?!?)


So we go over and the driver goes over the course, detailing where we should go hard, how to enter and exit corners, where to look, etc. The day’s best times are posted on the board, mid-41-42 seconds.



They also went over tips on how to break and some driving tips.



After that it was basically, “OK. Go and have fun! You aren’t going to hurt these cars so don’t be afraid to really go after it!” And then, it was go and pick your chariot…



I picked #25, a 510 horse, supercharged V8 rated at 0-60 in 4.6 ‘cause I wanted a sleek, black coupe. I got in and my driver was super cool. He went over seating position and made sure I had a feel for the car and then said to take the first lap at around 8 out of 10 to get a feel for things. Sounds like a plan.


I started off and the straight away and just plunged the gas to the floor and the car leapt down the line with this huge surge of power. The motor responded with a beautiful, deep, throaty growl that spoke of unending power and and response. Hitting the end of the straight, it was a slight brake into the first turn, back hard on the gas, big brake and squeal of tires into the second turn, stomp on the gas and get thrust back into the seat on the straight, pounce on the brakes, then stab the gas through the tight turn, charge through the needle , the final big hairpin where you brake hard to bleed off power, and then a final big rush of gas to the finish. It was amazing how well the car held the track, feeling both solid and agile, and incredibly responsive to gas and brake. You could feel the big soft tires bite when you pressed down on the pedal, making the car respond to your whim.


Driving it made me want to be a better man.


Almost breathless after the thrill and rush and mental exertion, I asked how I did.


“Well, let’s say that was a 6. So let’s not be afraid to really get on it for this timed lap.”


Six?!? Damn! So, we go around again, and I can tell I’m really moving way faster through the course, hitting the lines better, on and off the gas better, but when I hit the finish my time is called in at…52. My driver immediately  says, “No way. They got it wrong. You were way faster. You were like 45.”


So, I ask if we can go again. “Yeah. Let’s line it up. I think if you hit it even harder, you’ve got a 43, maybe a 44 in you.”


Challenge accepted! So again, around the autocross, tires wailing, engine thrumming, just charging through the turns harder and faster, pushing myself and the car as hard as I can, and I come in to the last turn and just trounce the gas, and then as I cross the finish, go into the massive sliding spin out in a huge screaming hail of screeching rubber. (Dana, having finished her run in 58, was watching from the tent, said that all onlookers were impressed with my balls-out finishing slide.)


Then on the radio, “John’s time….42.1” NICE!


At this point I *might* have said, “Dude! That was so awesome! I feel like I want to hug you!” (Offer declined.)


I don't have a video of me racing, but here is a Jaguar clip of the autocross course in action:


You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.



Next we headed to Refinement which is described as: Find out how a Jaguar car can transform your everyday driving in the Jaguar Refinement Zone. Enjoy the accurate, concert-like sound of the new Meridian Sound System, and delight in the intricate design details and the precise operation of Jaguar driving controls.


Basically, they had all the cars set up and you could drive them around this 15 MPH course with speed bumps and potholes and things so you could get a sense of how the car handled. We tried out a couple of different cars and then headed to the 0-60 course. Here you get to jump in to the fastest Jag, the XKR-S and just press down the gas and go, and go, and GO! I jump in and again the pro driver was super cool. I asked him why the car though rated a 550 HP could “only” hit 0-60 in 4.2, which, in the world of “super cars” is really not that super. He explained that the car is really not a sports car, but a touring sedan. And that while a Ferrari or Corvette might be slightly faster to 60, you wouldn’t really want to drive in it cross country, which the Jag is bred for. Plus, the car is several hundred pounds heavier to include lots of comfort and tech that make the drive more pleasurable, but that they cut out of true sports cars. Also, he said that the car’s 4.2 rating is very conservative, and that it will hit that in any environment, say in Colorado. But if you took the car to a track in LA it would probably hit 3.9, but that Jag wants every owner to be able to realize the stated performance. Fair enough.


So he explains, “I want you to just roll into the gas. The track surface here is garbage and if you just pound it, you’ll just spin out. So roll into it and then press it down to the carpet and hold until I tell you to lift. You’re going to want to lift, but just trust me and hold it till I say stop.”


“And then?” I ask, wanting to make sure I’m totally squared away on the agenda here, as I’m going to be flooring a car with a 550 HP and a top speed of 186.


“Then BIG press and steady, firm hold on the brake. Just mash it to the floor and hold it. OK. Ready?”


“Ready.”


“Let’s do it.”


It was time for Sport Mode:



So I roll into the gas and then jam the pedal to the carpet and the car responds instantly, rocketing forward like I’ve just opened a 6-pack of nitrous. Ifeel this tickle in my stomach as 550 horses trample a similar number of butterflies, but there’s no time to think about it because we’re flying down the track, building and building speed and I’m just hanging on to the wheel, lock-jawed in focus and pressing to the floor in equal parts acceleration and to keep my leg from shaking.


“Keep on it…keep on it…keep on it…”


The end of the track is just ahead and beyond some bad stuff you wouldn’t want to take a 6-figure car into at high speed. But I’m keeping on it, trusting the driver. Then, “BRAKE!”


So I pound on the brake and the car wrenches to a quick stop, the huge ABS calipers bringing the car to a rapid, controlled stop. It was amazing.


I have been fortunate enough to do a catapult launch and arrested landing on an aircraft carrier while underway and I have to say that THIS was more intense. The cat launch was over and done in under 2 seconds, where this rushing surge went on and on for like an eighth of a mile, making it far more intense. Also, I was totally in control here, making it was more of an experience than just sitting there waiting for the ride to stop start.


When I got out of the car, my hands were shaking.


At the desk, the tech took my chip from the car and told me that I got the car up to 92, one of the fastest of the day.


The final driving station was Technology: Experience the innovations designed into every new model in the Jaguar Technology Zone. Discover for yourself how Jaguar instinctive technology inspires confidence and enhances driving control on these courses: Accident Avoidance, Instinctive All Wheel Drive, Extreme Acceleration and Braking. (The latter having been part of the Refinement course.)



 

So we get into our car and the driver explains that we’re going to take the first lap with all of the vehicle’s tech turned off. So he goes into the touchscreen and disables everything. Then we slowly roll up to this icy, wet hill that has a snow machine blowing on it.


We roll up until all four tires are on the slick surface and then he tells me to pound on the gas. Which, by this point in the day, you do not need to tell me twice. So BAM! Foot to the floor and the car immediately gets squirrely and turns sideways and starts sliding. Next we come up to a heavily cambered corner and same thing; pound on the gas and the car pitches and yaws and gets all sloppy. Then it’s a big dirt and oil covered corner that we enter and have a major slide and spin and finally onto a slip-and-slide matt that causes the car to do just that. Here’s a video showing you the course.


You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.


When we finished, the pro driver turns on all the tech and has me go through the course again. Immediately it’s clear how much more the car is in control, slips and slides are drastically reduced, it is much more stable coming out of corners, everything just feels safer and more confident. Way cool!


Finally we got ready to leave and were handed a swag bag.



A really nice coffee cup, ball cap, and cool 2 Gig USB drive that is designed to look like a Jaguar key fob!


I must say, this event was first class all the way, and is an example of how a ride-and-drive should be done. Where test drives are normally genteel affairs where you are babied through a few side streets, this was a balls-out course where we were urged to push the cars to our personal limits. The pro drivers on hand were terrific and really made this an epic event.



Feeling pretty damn alive after this, I assure you! Now, where's my checkbook?!


More importantly from Jaguar’s standpoint, the event totally opened my eyes up to the company and dispelled some major misconceptions that I held. Having a Meridian Audio sound system is now just even sweeter icing on the cake. Many thanks -- again! -- to my friends at Meridian for making this day possible!

Categories: March 2013, Best Of...

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1 Comment

Reply Dan
2:33 PM on March 7, 2013 
I anxiously await your call when either Ferrari, Lamborghini or Mclaren calls with a similar invitation. C'mon Dana, you had your turn!

Oh Mr. Tata- look at you! You own Jaguar, Range Rover... with your wife, Mrs. Tatas support and encouragement, you have done well.