The Jaguar S-Type was intended to spearhead Ford’s growth plans for the leaping cat. That didn’t quite work out as planned.
Now is the winter of our discontent: In November 2004, Ford appointee, Joe Greenwell faced a panel of hostile UK parliamentarians at the Trade and Industry select committee in Whitehall, seeking explanations for his parent company’s decision to close Jaguar’s spiritual Browns Lane home and primary carmaking site.
Outside of any residual concerns MPs may have had regarding the loss of jobs or the wider industry fallout, the UK government also maintained a vested interest, having sanctioned grants in the region of £80m towards the £400m redevelopment of the former Pressed Steel Fisher plant at Castle Bromwich as part of the Jaguar X200 Programme.
Nine years prior to Greenwell’s Westminster grilling, FoMoCo had played it tough, warning the DTI that should governmental assistance not be forthcoming, X200, then in development, would be built in the United States. Keen to safeguard jobs, the ideologically non-interventionist Conservative administration caved. Now their cross-party equivalents wanted answers.
Greenwell spoke of a failed growth strategy, admitting that his Ford masters had been over-optimistic and had underestimated the opposition. By then, the New Jag Generation had not only failed to achieve anything close to its sales projections, but had been critically and commercially humbled by the German opposition.
Launched in the autumn of 1998, the S-Type was to be the posterchild to Ford’s ambitions for its leaping cat brand. But in time-honoured Jaguar fashion, the story begins much earlier. Over a decade earlier in fact, while Jaguar was an independent entity. With development progressing on the XJ40 saloon, stylists and engineers examined the prospect of a more compact car, dubbed XJ80.
It’s believed that nothing existed apart from a few stylistic renders, but as Jaguar entered serious talks in 1989 with General Motors over a 25% stake in the business, exploratory work began upon an Omega-based, Jaguar styled model, which would theoretically have been built alongside the Opel version in Rüsselsheim.
Ford won the bidding war in the winter of 1989 but with Jaguar haemorrhaging $millions, nothing further would be done about a midline saloon until around 1994, when the X200 programme was initiated under CEO, (Sir) Nick Scheele. However, despite Jaguar’s fortunes having been turned around on the back of renewed product lines, funding remained tightly controlled.
Speaking to DTW, former head of product strategy for the X200 programme, Jonathan Partridge, told us, “Because they wanted to keep the investment in the programme to a sensible level and look at parts sharing within the wider Ford empire, we ended up jointly developing it with the Lincoln DEW98 [LS]. That led to a lot of compromises in the engineering of the vehicle.” This would encompass aspects such as the V6 engines and suspensions, to gearboxes and electrical hardware. “That 5R55 Ford Explorer gearbox was a dreadful thing,” he recalled.
During this period, management is alleged to have commissioned a styling handbook – a ‘holy writ’ for Jaguar designers. In it, a list of seemingly inviolate styling cues were set out. This tick-box approach may go some way to explain X200’s hapless form, because stylistically, the S-Type was a textbook committee design. Yet, within Browns Lane’s product strategy function, the mood regarding X200’s style was upbeat. “I was on board with the sort of Mark 2 look-back”, Jonathan Partridge stated. “We were comfortable with the heritage”.
But if the bodyshape elicited mixed feelings, the cabin represented an altogether different level of inadequacy. While it is clear that the budget for X200 was tight, nothing visible apart from some switchgear (and the rudimentary nav-screen where fitted) was shared, which makes the decision to sign off on perhaps the cheapest and nastiest Jaguar interior in history even more astonishing. Most glaring was the centre stack, a semi-circular shaped moulding appropriately dubbed “the urinal of technology” by some Browns Lane wags.
Launched amid fevered anticipation, the S-Type received a broadly positive critical reception, although its drivetrain refinement was criticised, not to mention the uninviting interior ambience. Certainly, against BMW’s masterfully honed E39 5-Series or the cool Bauhaus sheen of Audi’s C5 A6, the new contender from Castle Bromwich fell glaringly short. Only the risible Mercedes W210 E-Class could offer much solace.
Nevertheless, early sales were strong, but it quickly became apparent that the S-Type, far from gaining conquests from its German rivals, was in fact taking significant numbers of customers from the more expensive XJ-Series, a matter compounded by the cars’ relative dimensions. Because while X200 was marginally more compact, internally there was little between them.
With the arrival of former BMW product supremo, Wolfgang Reitzle to lead Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, one of the earliest decisions the patrician German made was to order a major re-engineering upgrade for X200. Changes were made to the DEW98 platform, a state of the art ZF gearbox transformed the drivetrain, while suspension revisions markedly improved both ride and handling.
Inside, the dashboard was revised, losing the woefully downmarket treatment of the first-series cars, while externally, the grille was redesigned, while the removal of the side rubbing strips decluttered the flanks. The party line was that customers liked the styling, but the truth was that there simply wasn’t enough of them – a direct consequence of the way the S-Type both looked and felt.
A lack of engine choice proved another failing; for the first three years of the car’s career, the smallest engine available was the seemingly less than metronomically reliable Duratec-based AJV6 3.0 litre unit. Not so much of an issue in the land of the gas guzzler, but in Europe, rivals offered big-selling 2.0-litre petrol and compression-ignition alternatives. A lack of body styles was also cited. An estate model was rumoured to have been considered, but nothing came of it.
A major restyle occurred in 2004, which addressed many of the original car’s most egregious stylistic sins, and offered a far more convincing cabin ambience. This revision saw the S-Type achieve maturity but it came too late to save the model, which had lost its appeal to all but a diehard contingent. The end came, not a moment too soon in 2007, its XF successor illustrating that a market existed for a progressive Jaguar product.
If X300 was believed to have saved the business in 1994, while the X100 XK8 lent the new Jag generation some much needed credibility two years later, X200 was intended to catapult the leaping cat into the big time. Instead, a half-baked and underfunded programme saw two flawed model lines being offered, ensuring neither came close, either to meeting performance targets or adhering to marque values.
Today, X200 represents Jaguar’s creative nadir. Developed at vast expense and a store of good intentions – the factory alone cost almost half a £billion – an over-confident strategy assumed customers would accept a flawed product by dint of its badge and some cosily nostalgic styling.
Had Jaguar got that element right at least, the S-Type might have stood a chance, but instead it committed the most unpardonable sin of all. After all, a Jaguar that lacks style really is no Jaguar at all. In the end, X200 drank so deeply from the well of ugliness as to become a laughing stock. But if the joke was on Browns Lane, the bitter irony is that Ford was perhaps the biggest loser. To some extent, they’re still feeling the effects. Clearly nobody warned them that cats possess sharp claws.
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