One of the cool things about writing about cars for a living is that you get to experience a lot of very different vehicles, often within a few days of each other.
This can be good. But it can also create some issues.
I recently drove a Jaguar F-Type R with all-wheel-drive and a BMW M235i, more or less back to back.
But I didn’t drive the F-Type on the street. I drove it at the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York, on a track, while wearing a helmet. I drove it very fast. And not particularly well, but still.
The BMW was driven mainly on the Saw Mill Parkway, north of New York City, and in suburban New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. No helmet, but I did break out the driving gloves.
This is by no means a fair way to compare the two cars. Business Insider’s Ben Zhang checked out the F-Type (a slightly different version) last year and was blown away. We didn’t name it our Car of the Year — that honour went to the Corvette Stingray — but the voting was close. The Jag I drove had a supercharged, 550-horsepower engine. Sticker price: $US104,000, which is actually a bargain for a car of such stupendous power and performance.
The BMW, meanwhile, had a 320-horsepower, turbo-charged inline 6-cylinder engine. And no AWD. It costs $US43,000.
About the only thing these two cars have in common is that they both have two doors.
They certainly don’t have in common my love or affection. I was grateful that Jaguar allowed us to enjoy some track time with what is, in many respects, a road-going race car. But as stunning as the F-Type R is when you let it run free, the car left me with nagging impression that I just didn’t like it all that much.
It took about two days of thinking about this to figure out what was bugging me.
It’s that the car is pretentious. The car the F-Type is supposed to evoke is the legendary Jaguar E-Type, regarded by many as the most beautiful car of all time. The E-Type is special: the car is all sleek curves, and not one of them is out of place. It looks like it was drawn up by the Almighty and carved by Da Vinci. For my money, it’s the only car ever built that deserves to be called a work of art.
F comes after E, so the F-Type was conceived to be a modern-day version of the E-Type. It certainly has presence. But that presence is loud. The E-Type whispered. The F-Type roars.
Not that the Jag can be entirely blamed for being pretentious. There’s an arms race afoot in the luxury sports-car market to present oodles of power and potency in a strutting, self-confident package. Jag needs to keep up and would clearly fret if it couldn’t.
For what it’s worth, the M235i is also a product of history — specifically, the smaller BMWs of the early 1980s through the early 1990s. These were versatile, relatively luxurious sport coupes that were (and still are) flat-out a blast to drive, particularly the high-performance M3. The M235i isn’t actually an “M” version of the current 2 Series (M is BMW’s performance division). So although it isn’t an M2, it is a much snazzier version of the base 2 Series coupe. (Also, BMW hasn’t held back on the M badging, so confusion is understandable.)
This is not a pretentious car. But it is the best way in the world to turn a half a tank of gas into acceleration and handling over the course of a few hours. It weighs in at 3,400 lbs. — only about 200 less than the Jag. So while the F-Type is objectively much faster — 0-60 mph in 3.8 second versus the Bimmer’s 4.4 — the BMW feels quicker.
Mind you, the BMW isn’t burdened with the same aesthetic legacy as the F-Type. It looks sharp, but adding a few angles, swoops, and a pair of raptor-like headlights is enough to greatly amplify the utilitarian impression made by the M235i’s ’80s ancestors.
This is all a deeply subjective assessment. Some of it can be blamed on the Jag’s personality, which is literally full of sound and fury. The exhaust bellows like a beautifully dressed, overmuscled Englishman who just took a few grand off the house at a craps table in Vegas.
The M235i exudes synthesized motor sounds that are a cheerful tenor to the Jag’s boastful baritone (the engine and exhaust noises, due to technology not as lively on its own as BMW’s engineers would like, are sonically augmented and piped through the car’s stereo speakers).
Driving this dashing little thing isn’t exactly the most viscerally satisfying experience I’ve ever had behind the wheel — that honour would go to my 1997 Mazda Miata, in particular in November 2005 when I had to get my laboring wife to the hospital, a run from Pasadena to Los Angeles as the sun was setting so we could ultimately welcome our now car-crazy son, James, into the world — but the experience was still quite visceral.
I opened the sunroof and rolled the windows down and put it in Sport+ mode and worked the paddle shifters in automanual mode to have loads of fun with 3rd, 4th, and 5th gears. For the record, this is what it feels like to drive a Sidewinder missile. And also for the record, BMW has done such a fine job with the transmission that you can use the paddles or go semi-old-school with the shifter and experience a passable imitation of handling a stick.
The car isn’t without a few drawbacks, starting with the need to commit to a modest passenger load. It’s a 2+2 — two seats in the front, two in the rear. I could smash my family of five into my old Saab 900S. No dice with the BMW. I’m also still not much of a fan of BMW’s iDrive system, and for the most part, the infotainment setup in the M235i compares unfavorably with what you can get in a Chevy Trax.
On the plus side, the age-old BMW problem, that the “ultimate driving machine” is built around the driver, with everyone else in the relegated to afterthought status, has been solved, somewhat. My wife has ridden shotgun in countless cars at this point and she now holds the 235i in high esteem.
And for the driver, the “cockpit” nature of his side of the car is as dandy as ever. The moderately bolstered, highly adjustable seat, the wonderful feel of both the steering wheel and the steering itself, the clean analogue instruments complemented by various low-key digital screens — this is a comfortable car to drive fast or slow, to both cruise in and corner hard with confidence.
You can effectively switch your passion for driving on and off with the M235i. When you find yourself on the right road at the right time, it’s ready to go.
Now back to the F-Type. This is the kind of car that incessantly reminds you that its large and in charge. It wears absolutely nothing lightly. For many, this would be a welcome burden: Look at me! Look me! Hear me! Hear me!
I don’t begrudge anyone that, but for me, it replaces the basic joy of driving with something else. You are, to a degree, a celebrity in an F-Type — moreso in the F-Type R. In the the M235i, you are just someone with a great car that can do cool things. The smiles will come unexpectedly — you’ll catch yourself in a grin. With the Jag, you’ll demand it.
As I already said, not a fair comparison. Subjective as hell. But when you drive a lot of cars, you need to figure out what you genuinely like. There is that which impresses. And there is that which makes a connection.
In the M235i, you merge with the machine. With the Jaguar F-Type R, you don’t.