The term ‘modern classic‘ is applied to any ageing heap these days, but I reckon it fits the oft-maligned Jaguar S-Type perfectly. I mean, it definitely looks like a classic car, right?
OK, so that retro grille and sixties throwback shape certainly didn’t win universal acclaim when it was launched in 1999. To quote period James May: “Great drive, but you wouldn’t let your kids sit around with their mouths open like that”. But it’s aged pretty gracefully - particularly the cleaner, post-2004 facelift model.
Is its styling reason alone to buy one? Well, no. You see, the reason it’s such a shrewd used buy is it’s a car that got far better with time. It launched with those Marmite looks, a disappointing interior and half-baked dynamics from a platform shared with the US-market Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln LS, meaning the executive class daddy of the time - the brilliant E39 BMW 5-series - slapped it down hard.
Jaguar quickly realised it wasn’t up to scratch and set about changing… well, almost everything. In 2002 the chassis received a thorough overhaul - chassis engineer David Pook who worked on the S-Type tells me the suspension was “entirely new” - while the interior was also junked in favour of a much more attractive, higher quality design. The exterior tweaks didn’t follow for another couple of years.
By all accounts it was massively improved, but by then it was too late. BMW had moved onto the (also controversially styled) tech-fest E60 5-series, and Mercedes captured traditional buyers with its W211 E-Class. The S-Type was never a sales hit in its eight-year life as a result.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and that means good ones, in particular, are a relatively rare sight, yet pretty affordable. The S-Type R, with its supercharged V8 goodness, can be bought for much less than half the price of the equivalent E39 M5, for example. But even that was a bit rich for me.
Instead, I was hunting for the more subtle (and less whiny) naturally-aspirated V8, ideally in dechromed Sport spec. As it turns out, they’re rarer than an honest politician, but I had a sudden change of heart about the chrome when I spotted what can only be described as an Inspector Morse-spec S on Auto Trader.
The lack of number plates on the ad pics scared me off at first. But it turned out it had no plates because it was fresh off the boat from Japan and yet to be registered. The Japanese loved traditionally-styled Jags, so there’s a fair number of imports around. At £6,995 it was above my budget, yet with just 38,000 miles (on salt-free Japanese roads to boot, so rust was unlikely) it seemed like a minter. Japanese imports tend to have covered low miles because a) it is costly to regularly drive cars in Japan and b) the extremely rigorous ‘Shaken Law’ roadworthiness inspection puts people off accruing mileage.
There was one big problem. It was early 2021, and the UK was locked down. I couldn’t just hop over to Wales to check it out. The dealer had supplied a ton of pics and videos showing it was spectacularly clean, especially underneath. But I’d never bought a car sight unseen, so it was a big gamble. Hey, YOLO and all that.
After negotiating a decent part-ex price for my E90 BMW 330i, ensuring the sagging headlining was repaired and arranging delivery, there it was outside my flat. There were a couple of small scratches I hadn’t been made aware of, and a suspension clonk that I could’ve used as a bargaining chip on a test drive (damn). But it had clearly been garage stored. The paint had a lovely deep sheen, the chrome was sparkling, and even the rubber seals were in good nick.
It also turned out to be an import-only Sovereign spec, meaning it was loaded up with almost every UK option. Extra interior wood, piped white leather, electric memory seats, steering wheel AND pedals - even an electric rear sunblind. Oh, and being a Japanese import, mine has a talking toll booth card reader in the dash and even a MiniDisc player (remember those?). Only the faint whiff of old cigarettes marred the lovely and plushly trimmed cabin.
After shelling out for a deep clean, some new anti-roll bars, new top mounts and (for good measure) a set of Goodyear Eagle F1s, I was ready to enjoy imported Jag life. Oh, and after I removed the horrid chrome ‘leaper’ that was a rarely fitted option on European S-Types, while also replacing the chrome-tastic grille for the nicer-looking mesh one.
So what’s it like to drive? Wafty, burbly and satisfyingly fast. The 4.2-litre, Welsh-built AJ V8 (you want that over the early 4.0-litre thanks to a better ZF six-speed ‘box) delivers a stout 300bhp, but at 1730kg the S-Type was a good deal heavier than the all-aluminium XJ of the time. The lesser 3.0-litre V6 is a touch underpowered as a result, but the V8 delivers a meaty punch in whatever gear you find yourself in, along with that evocative offbeat roar.
Granted, this is not a car that’ll have you giggling as you thrash it down your favourite B-road. Grip is strong and the suspension is nicely damped, but the steering is a bit light and feel-free, while the sheer weight and executive softness mean it’s hardly agile. The six-speed auto ‘box is very smooth and has the classic ‘J-Gate’ manual override, but it’s not all that responsive or quick-shifting. It is a truly superb cruiser, though - the ride is smooth with that thick-sidewall plushness helped by the smaller 17in wheels, refinement is excellent and the engine is very long-legged.
Problems/downsides? Well, these Ford-era Jaguars weren’t as over-engineered as the Germans, so while the general mechanicals are sound and the V8 is a simple, under-strung unit, expect smaller niggly issues to crop up. It’s heavy on its suspension, so bushes can wear out fairly quickly, while mine also has a persistent, slow coolant leak. It should be far less troublesome than an older Jag, however.
It’s not all that roomy, either; think 3-series space for 5-series dimensions. Oh, and there’s the small matter of fuel economy. My V8 is averaging 22mpg on E10 unleaded, though it’s better with super and you’ll see high twenties on a cruise. The V6 isn’t that much more efficient, either, and though the diesel is, that’s somewhat offset by the extra complexity (and servicing costs) of its twin-turbo unit. Another issue unique to Japanese imports is, of course, trying to understand the service history.
Yes, the obvious choice of retro Jaguar in this era is the lovely X350 - the all-aluminium XJ. But they have their fair share of issues too, not least the extra potential repair expense of air suspension. So I reckon it’s high time that the S-Type stood out as a reasonably priced, reasonably cool used executive buy.