As I drove up to the Jaguar ALIVE Driving Experience at Derby Lane in my Prius, I had a momentary twinge of anxiety. I had never been on a racetrack, never owned a performance car, rarely driven fast. In high school, I was the one in the backseat pleading with Gus Drake to slow down when he was speeding through the night, frothing at the mouth, in his ’68 Camaro.
I was told there would be timed performance driving at the Jaguar event. I did not want to embarrass myself and leave feeling like Aunt Shirley.
Jaguar ALIVE, held at Derby Lane’s back parking lot, was a terrifically fun two hours. It started in a pop-up building where I registered and milled around looking at some of the new models, including the F-type, the brand’s first true sports car in decades (due out in April or May). Pretty women were everywhere.
We sat in comfortable stools while Lorraine McKiniry, host of What’s My Car Worth on Velocity TV, issued a presentation about the features of the new Jaguar line. She began by addressing what is often the elephant in the room when it comes to Jags: that for years the cars were good-looking shoddy crap.
She allowed that the perception used to be accurate—a long time ago. These days, Jaguar ranks near the top in quality, according to surveys. I was surprised to learn that the legendary English car has been owned by Tata Motors, based in Mumbai, India, since 2008.
I will not take up space here outlining the new features of the Jaguar brand, an impressive compendium of technological and style feats. That info is readily available for those who are further interested. I will say that what struck me most while politely driving the XJ sedan (with the long wheel base) on the streets near Derby Lane was how responsive the steering was. The luxury four-door handled like a sports car.
Then the real fun started. I queued up under a tent, where a staff driver offered tips on how to navigate the short, windy speed course. On a grease board were posted times, a couple in the 27-second range. He told us that the person with the fastest time on the course would win a signed art print of a Jaguar.
I didn’t much care about winning that, but I am a competitive S.O.B., and I certainly wanted to turn in a respectable time. We were to get two practices drives around the course, and then be timed on the third pass. My car was a brawny looking XJR coupe, dark green with black wheels. I might not drive well, but damn I was gonna look good.
I was paired with a professional driver. My strategy was to go at the course with reckless abandon in practice, then take the driving tips and dial it back to a more controlled approach. (I was told later that most people take the opposite tack.) My first run was a haphazard mess. I lurched around the track, knocked over a few little red cones. If it hadn’t been for the Jag’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), I could’ve seen us skidding, rolling and exploding into a fiery crash.
On my second run, I relaxed a little, and tried to navigate the course with a more anticipatory approach, looking out ahead to the next turn, as instructed by the driver. Then came the moment of truth. I can’t begin to tell you what mistakes I made in those hairpin turns, but I thought, all things considered, I’d done fairly well.
My time came over the walkie-talkie. 25.809. Not bad, the instructor said, a bit of surprise in his voice. Maybe that signed print wasn’t out of the question after all. I was no sooner out of the car when my driver wingman told me that someone had logged a sub-25. Oh well. I felt pretty good anyway.
I went through a couple of tamer, non-compeititve driving exercises, one of which vividly demonstrated the brilliance of the DSC. Jaguar ALIVE concluded with a straight-shot run to feel the acceleration of the 550-hp XKR-S (Sport), which goes 0-60 in a brisk 4.2 seconds. I hopped in one colored brilliant blue (looking good again).
This run wasn’t timed, but they did give each driver their top speed. It took little skill, just the cojones to keep the foot on the gas until the driver instructed you to break. This was a little tougher than expected because the distance for breaking at the end of the run looked kind of short.
I figured these people knew what they were doing and would see to it that i didn’t perish in a raging inferno, so I let ‘er rip until the last millisecond. Turns out there was ample room to decelerate. A young guy at the tent said I’d clocked 76 mph—78 was the fastest he’d seen.
“What have you seen on the slow side?” I asked. “In the 40s,” he replied with a shrug. “Those are the folks who just kind of chicken out.”
I filled out a survey on a mini-computer, grabbed my swag bag, and slid into the seat of my 2008 (I think) Prius with a serious case of Jaguar envy. The whole experience was a blast, and not once did I hear anyone say “Jag-wire.”