Does The Jaguar XJ220 Deserve To Be Hated?

Why has there been so much hate for this car over the years?

3y ago

There are wannabe-wise-folk out there that will take great pride in telling you that hate is the closest emotion there is to love, and therefore, you shouldn't honour anyone or anything with hatred. Personally, I think that saying is just a way for people to jump on a bullshit-bandwagon in a vague attempt to sound significantly more profound than they actually are – but in the car world at least, there is a fine line between hate and love that can be crossed in either direction depending on your perspective.

The Jaguar XJ220 is a car that is the subject of a number of stereotypes that can cause people to draw quick and vitriolic conclusions regarding its pedigree, and greatness. Above every word in the English language, there is only one that can succinctly describe the XJ220 if the cliches are to be believed: disappointment.

In the automotive world, despite being a former holder of the title of world's fastest production car, the XJ220 represents a series of broken promises that were felt most violently by the affluent people who were paying an eyewatering amount of money for a car they never ended up getting. Sold as a V12, 4WD masterpiece; delivered as a V6, RWD shock.

But despite what anyone who pretends they know something about cars will tell you, I haven't been able to stop wondering whether the hatred that's been foisted onto the XJ220 is warranted, and if it really was worth being bitterly disappointed over.

The Bad:

It's always best to start by looking at the bad, because then there's only one way to go, and that's up. But of course, the main focus of "the bad" is on the story that every petrolhead and their dog will be abundantly aware of.

When the XJ220 was unveiled at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1988, it was shown to the world as a V12 hypercar that sent its mighty and majestic power to all 4 of its wheels. It was a heavenly recipe that sang right to the very core of the affluent car enthusiasts and investors at the time. Jaguar therefore received over 1500 deposits for £50,000 – the equivalent of £130,000 in today's money. The price of the car itself was set to be £340,000, which in today's money, is equivalent to £880,000!! But that's what people were willing to pay for their V12, 4WD hypercar.

The concept car.

The concept car.

After the deposits were paid, the waiting game began: a waiting game that the future owners got through by dreaming night after night about what would one day be parked in their garage. A 4 year wait was expected by owners, but they knew that come 1992, all of their Christmases would come at once in the form of a V12, 4WD hypercar. Unfortunately however, things didn't quite work out that way.

Everyone blames the early 90's recession for the XJ220's change of engine and drivetrain – but in actual fact, it was only one of a few contributing factors. One of the main things was something that is an all too familiar gremlin on purity nowadays: emissions regulations.

The V12 engine Jaguar were planning on using was an old unit, and they found it impossible to tune up to the required target of over 500 horsepower and keep it within the legal emission limits. Another factor was the tyre technology at the time; no tyre existed that could carry nearly 2 tonnes through 4 driven wheels to the 220mph target top speed. Speaking of which, the 4 wheel drive system, huge 6.2L V12 engine, and the larger body required to package it all made the concept over half a tonne heavier than its nearest rival, the Ferrari F40. All of these factors meant Jaguar were forced to change the critical components of the car.

Out went the V12 in favour of a V6 that had been sourced from a Metro 6R4 Rally Car. The engine required an increase in displacement – from 3 litres to 3.5 - and the addition of 2 turbochargers to reach the 542bhp Jaguar were after. The 4 wheel drive also got demoted to rear wheel drive in an effort to reduce the weight even further and narrow the body.

While the stock market crash wasn't the main reason why Jaguar made all of the changes they did, it did have a huge impact on one rather important aspect of the car: the price. The £340,000 asking price the car was set to have in 1988 was no longer viable in 1992, as due to inflation, it was equivalent to £447,000 in the year of the car's release. The price however rose even further, to a truly gob-smacking £470,000 - equivalent to £925,000 today!!

From a tangible perspective, the production car was better than the car Jaguar initially proposed – but that didn't matter to the people who'd left a £50,000 deposit for a car that was now being powered by completely different ingredients.

But in 1992, the production car was finish – and my God, were the buyers in for a shock. I can only imagine the kind of conversation Jaguar had with their customers upon breaking the news to them regarding what the XJ220 was actually going to be...

"Hello. Jaguar here. Just to let you know that your hypercar's ready. Oh good, you're pleased! Erm...couple of things: it's only got half the cylinders we said it was going to have when you bought it...yes, you did hear me correctly, sir. A V6, yes – from an Austin Metro. But don't worry – it's got two turbochargers., this isn't a need to cry sir...and there's especially no need for that kind of language! Erm...also, it's now only rear wheel drive; oh, and it's going to cost you £130,000 more than we said it would. So, if you'd just like to come to our factory so you can swipe your card for the remaining money, that'd be great".

Suffice it to say, the majority of people told Jaguar exactly where they could swipe their card. Of the 1500 people who'd left deposits, only 275 actually purchased the finished car. To this day, it remains one of the most unsuccessful performance cars ever made.

Most of the people who'd pulled out were investors, not wanting to risk such a huge sum of money in the midst of a catastrophic recession when the market for such cars had all but vanished. And when you look at how the XJ220's value fluctuated, you can't help but see that the investors did have a point.

At the start of the new millennium, XJ220s in America were swapping hands for just $80,000. Even in 2008, you could pick up a good one for under $100,000. And the reason for that wasn't just because it was seen as a disappointment of a car that broke all of its own promises – it was because Bridgestone had made special tyres for it that they'd stopped producing, and once they were gone, that was it.

Bridgestone have since begun production of a new tyre especially for the XJ220 – meaning the only way you'd be able to pick one up for such a relatively bargain price now is if it had been crashed. Which given a couple of rather sobering facets of the XJ220, was a genuine possibility.

The definition of the phrase "turbo-lag" was heightened the day the production XJ220 came into the world. You would put your foot down, and then start an eerily long countdown akin to being on a terrifying amusement park ride. And then, once you'd counted to...erm...about 27, the turbos would wake up, and you'd suddenly feel this almighty surge of uncontrollable oomph.

The force of the acceleration was your only real inkling that something astonishing was happening, because listening to the engine over the sound of the turbochargers turning air into power was like listening to an acoustic concert in the middle of a hurricane. But regardless, the performance was savage, and with such savage performance available, the XJ220 needed to have pretty exceptional brakes. But unfortunately, it didn't. In fact, in the XJ220, a hard-braking maneuver would be delivered with a prayer, and a bowel movement.

The combination of monstrous turbo-lag and lazy brakes meant the XJ220 was difficult and frightening enough to drive as it was – but add in the fact that it was 7 and a half feet wide as well (which yes, was narrower than the concept car), and it was a bit of a nightmare to drive anywhere other than an open, wide piece of tarmac. I know hypercars aren't supposed to honour a person with any manners or practicalities, but the XJ220 was designed to fit in the real world like Hafthor Bjornson was designed to fit in a Wendy House. It's gargantuan!

So, as you can see, there are many things wrong with the XJ220. But as you'll also see, there's many things very right with it, too.

The Good:

Whilst its size and turbo-lag may have made it intimidating, if you knew what you were doing, it was actually a rather agile car through the bends. In fact, the XJ220 once held the production car lap record around the Nurburgring with a time of 7:46. While that may not sound all that impressive today – what with our P1 LMs that can get around there over a minute faster, and front-wheel drive Hondas that will beat it by a couple of seconds – it was hugely fast for the time. In fact, it knocked nearly 20 seconds off the existing lap record of 8:05, set by the Ruf CTR Yellowbird. Make no mistake, the XJ220 knew how to dance.

Subsequently, it also knew how to spin. You wouldn't have to reach far beyond the limit of grip for the XJ220 to show you once again why it was something of a widow-maker. But in some ways, that was actually a good thing. Modern cars are all about electronic systems to keep people safe, and they work - up until a special level of idiot shows up. The other way to keep a person safe however is to make them drive a car that is so shit-a-brick scary – especially in the wet – that it makes you feel like you daren't go near a tenth of its potential. It's a system that works akin to disciplinary dissuasion; when you were a child, you always behaved yourself for the adults you were absolutely terrified of.

When all the automotive stars align however and present you with an opportunity to safely open the taps on the XJ220, my God, does it deliver! From a standstill, it'll hit 60mph in just 3.6 seconds – without the aid of any electronic wizardry, using a simple 5-speed manual gearbox. After 60mph, 100mph comes just 7.3 seconds after setting off, and it'll keep on pushing to over 212mph.

The car was given its XJ220 name because Jaguar were trying to crack 220mph with it. When it went to the Nardo Ring in Italy – the infinite 8 mile loop in which manufacturers can get close to their car's top speed – it reached 212mph. On another run, the car reach 217mph – but that speed was achieved with the catalytic converters removed, as they robbed the engine of 60 horsepower.

No car can reach its actual top speed at Nardo due to the fact that it's one constant corner, so it's hard to determine exactly what a factory XJ220 – with its power-stealing cats – would be capable of. All we do know is, it's bloody fast!

The Verdict:

The XJ220 might just be the most misunderstood performance car of all time. People wasted so much of their energy hating this car – with the critical word in that sentence being "wasted", because it really doesn't warrant such an emotion.

It is a car that's best experienced through a free and empty mind. If you can forget everything, let go of all your prejudices, and just experience it, you'd soon realise that it's an absolutely sensational car, and without a doubt one of the all-time classics.

Nowadays, I hope people begin to love this car after the initial contempt that was thrust upon it. No, it didn't have a V12 engine, and no, it didn't have a 4WD system – and thank God for that! Looking back and reflecting, I think the XJ220 was all the better for being completely different to the initial concept. The ingredients that it ended up having made it stand out even more – initially into a spotlight of predetermined critique. But my God, it was miles better than anyone who was disappointed by it thought it was.

So then, to answer the question in the title of this blog: no, the XJ220 most certainly does not deserve to be hated. In fact, it deserves nothing but unreserved love.

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Written by: Angelo Uccello

Twitter: @AngeloUccello

Tribe: Speed Machines

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Photo credits: NetCarShow

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Comments (6)

  • My favourite car of all time is the Diable SE30, but as a kid, the first scale model my Dad bought me was a silver XJ220 and it spawned a love of supercars and their design that burns passionately 25 years later. I love the fact that Jaguar still made it, despite the market conditions and the emissions issues, the fact it has one of the best shapes ever in my eyes and was still the fastest production car in the world...

    I just wish they would stop mincing around with super fast XE's and build the CX75 in whatever engine configuration they feel suits the car and the times the best, regardless of what the concept had! Long live the XJ220...

      3 years ago
  • I love it and always have. Unfortunately never could afford to buy one. :(

      3 years ago
  • As soon as I laid eyes on the XJ220 for the first time several years ago, I absolutely fell in love with it; and after learning of its story not too long afterwards, I still absolutely loved it because it looked so good and because they had managed to get out of an engine with half the cylinders (albeit with the help of both twin turbos and Tom Walkinshaw Racing) what they were trying to achieve with the original, and I think that speaks volumes as they had at least got the power output they'd promised back in 1988.

    With regards to the 217 mph top speed at Nardo without the catalytic converters, and on the same day I learned of the 220's story, I'd read that both Autocar and TG magazine had said at the time that, on a straight and level road, the 220 without the catalytic converters would have reached 223 mph and, thus, exceeded the 220 they aimed for.

    Up until reading this article, I never knew that there were people out there who hated the XJ220. Sure it wasn't what had been promised in '88 and it was tricky at the limit even with the monstrous turbo-lag, but it was the fastest production car in the world until the EB110 and, subsequently, the F1 came along, and it was Jag's first attempt at landing a spot in the hypercar world. I'm sure, if the 220 was done today, they would be able to deliver the promised car and would probably be a whole lot faster than 220 mph.

      2 years ago
  • Just imagine what they could if they took that car back to the drawing board today with all of the technology we have now. I think this one is a great example of a perfect imperfection. It looks good and it looks like a lot of fun regardless of its flaws. I enjoyed learning about this car. I think this car still has potential. It in some ways reminds me of the SAAB Sonett III it to was a misunderstood car. It was not fast or furious. It had a v4 engine in it. Not the best one. However they do have some good qualities like the Jag that just makes it fun to ride/drive.

      3 years ago
  • The XJ220 was hated for several reasons... Of course the turbo V6 was the obvious one - but not for reasons one would think. It performance was flat in low RPM's and the sound was awful. But it was so much more. Despite it's Nurburgring lap time, many journalists described the XJ220 as an absolute pig around the track: tail happy when the boost hits, inconsistent brake feel, mixed steering, etc. And then there is the big elephant in the room: It was a Jaguar built at the height of "British quality" woes.

    That aside, if we admire the car for what it set out to do, hit 220MPH, it accomplished just that, while still keeping one of the greatest looking designs of all time.

      3 years ago