This road was built for timber, gold and snow. Starting in the Warburton Ranges east of Melbourne, it tracks towards the dawn sun for 90km, through the pit of the Little Yarra Valley before pitching sharply uphill, all knotted and gnarled, ultimately terminating at Mt Baw Baw ski resort. It delivers a benign intro with a real sting in the tail; the sort of route that offers a concentrated torture test of a car’s abilities.
To key into this sort of challenge, you need something with torque to tackle the gradients, excellent chassis support to cope with the patchwork forest surfaces and the agility to bob and weave around road debris, collapsing bitumen shoulders and the occasional hard of hearing marsupial. In other words, probably not a Jaguar F-Type R. This is a road for something lighter, more immediate, more wide-eyed, not for something transferring the masses of a mid-sized SUV. The spec sheet lists the weight being ‘from 1818kg’ but further investigation reveals that figure to include a 75kg driver, fluids and 90 per cent fuel. Still, pulling a vehicle beyond its comfort zone remains the most effective way to discover how far that zone extends.
It probably won’t have escaped your attention that this is the facelifted version of the Jaguar F-Type. I tend to experience a little shudder when cars are treated to a mid-life facelift if only because, more often than not, the results aren’t always any great improvement. Indeed, when I first saw press photos of the updated F-Type I wasn’t sold. The front end looked as if it had lost its identity, with the slimmer lights giving it a more generic appearance. I was wrong and while it’s not my job to tell you what looks good or otherwise, the big coupe is now more svelte and modern. Park it next to the old car and the original now seems a little heavy-handed.
Nevertheless, there’s still something of a throwback vibe about the F-Type. Yes, the cabin now gets an updated infotainment system and a digital dial pack in the binnacle, but you’ll search in vain for a head-up display or adaptive cruise control and, to be honest, I couldn’t care less. It taps into a vein of buyers who actually want something endowed with a certain old-school tactility, something visceral, something analogue, or at least a convincing facsimile of it.
From Yarra Junction, the C425 meanders gently through Gladysdale, originally Slaty Creek but renamed in 1915 after Gladys Pettit, the daughter of the local postmaster. This is the timber trail that leads to Noojee, where lumber was fed onto the three-foot tramway to the Powelltown mill. The locals of the valley have an intimate relationship with the topography, the V-shaped valley offering little in the way of flatlands, with cleared plantations now occupied by fragrant apple orchards.
It’s easy to lope along in the F-Type, the softest setting of the adaptive dampers gently jostling the driver over surface imperfections. At first, it’s easy to come away a little nonplussed, as the ride quality doesn’t have the waft of a top-line GT, yet the steering lacks the feedback of the best sports coupes. You begin to wonder what this thing actually is, where it sits in the market, what case you’d need to make for choosing this over a 911 Carrera. The answers aren’t immediately forthcoming.
Perhaps calling this a facelift sells what Jaguar has done a bit short. This F-Type R gets new rear-axle hub knuckles and ball joints, adaptive dampers, coil springs and anti-roll bars. The transmission benefits from much the same electronic trickery seen in the XE SV Project 8, Jaguar claiming quicker paddle shifts. So there’s some real substance here, too.
The 5.0-litre supercharged V8 could never be accused of being short on substance. Good for 423kW and 700Nm, the AJ133 unit first saw service in the XE and XJ of 2009 and, with the closure of Ford’s Bridgend plant in Wales in September, production is being brought in-house with a lift-and-shift transfer of staff and equipment to Jaguar’s Wolverhampton factory for the remainder of the engine’s lifespan, which has a hard full stop with the introduction of EU7 regulations in around four years. Thereafter it’ll likely be replaced by a BMW V8 and while there are some great eights hailing from Munich, this is a special engine.
Given the headline figures, it’s surprising that it can feel a little bereft of torque at modest engine speeds. There’s not that bottomless barrel of brawn you get with AMG’s four-litre twin huffer, and the cabin fills with a harsh bass harmonic below 2000rpm. But keep your foot in and the payoff doesn’t take long to materialise. The exhaust butterflies flip open as the needle sweeps through 3400rpm. At 4000rpm, the V8’s found its voice and from there through to the 6800rpm redline is where you’ll want to play. You’ll need somewhere a little remote because discreet it most certainly isn’t, the exhaust crackling with a fusillade of bangs and pops on the overrun.
Unless you want to cultivate a rolling wave of traumatised livestock, it’s best to switch the exhaust into its quiet mode as the road winds into Powelltown. Here the bitumen describes long, lazy parabolas, perfect for leaning into the corners. The seats are great, offering decent support and, for an electrically adjustable chair, a low mount which means that this is a great choice for taller drivers. This car’s fitted with the optional panoramic glass roof, yet I never come close to having an issue with headroom. The driving position is good too, although the pedal placement retains the rather lazy carryover from manual cars of a higher-mounted heel-and-toe focused brake pedal.
The mountain ash forest off the port bow lifts like a vast tsunami wave over Powelltown. From here the road quickens through the plantations, throwing in fast, never-ending corners punctuated by short straights, where you can click down a couple of ratios and give the engine its head. The shift logic has improved in auto mode, although it’s still far preferable to paddle along yourself, the new software now happier to let you bang in a downshift that takes the needle closer to redline. Like all good performance cars, the F-Type R trips that slight twang of guilt, that something this much fun probably shouldn’t be legal and it’s only as I glance down at the dials that I realise it probably isn’t. Time to ease up.
Photographer Dewar and I stop at the trestle bridge in Noojee for a bite to eat and to grab some shots. A big copperhead snake suns itself behind me, only moving off into the brush after it decides it doesn’t want its picture taken. Noojee’s an old gold rush town, with the boom starting in 1860 and characterised by prospectors like Dick Belpoole, who was so determined to explore the deep gullies choked with thorny blackberry that he built himself a suit made of tin. Only in his final days did Dick agree to show anyone his mother lode on the agreement that he’d be taken out of the old people’s home where he was seeing out his days, but he dropped dead on the walk into the forest and the location of his gold seam remains a mystery to this day.
A railway line was built to Warragul in the south in 1919 which crossed seven trestle bridges and Noojee reinvented itself as a timber town. The line closed in 1954, but there’s still a massive sawmill and lumber yard on the fringes of town, where the road heads off towards Toorongo Falls. These days, it’s all transferred by massive trucks, which not only keep you on your toes if you’re tempted to apex across a sweeper, but also buckle the bitumen on hot days, creating a tramlining effect on the Jag’s big P-Zero tyres not unlike an over-zealous lane-keep-assist system.
The road changes from here. Gone are the big radius bends and the boundless cerulean arc overhead. The underbrush starts to claw at the narrowing and increasingly bumpy blacktop and you begin to prod at the drive controller to find the suspension setting the Jag’s happiest with. In truth, it makes little difference. Such is the F-Type R’s heft that it steamrollers many surface blemishes regardless of damper setting. It’s never ultra-polished but it also never becomes a handful, even in Dynamic mode. Perversely for such an old-school character, there’s an almost EV-like low-slung heft in the way the Jaguar presents itself to a corner; that implacable feeling of a surfeit of mass carried low.
The brake pedal has a beautiful long-draw modulation to it and the steering is accurate while still remaining somewhat mute. The paddles are a joy to flick up and down, and I muse for a moment whether this is one of those rare powerhouse cars that would be improved with the fitment of a manual gearbox. It would certainly go some way for compensating for the vanilla steering, but after blatting up through three gears in rapid succession I’m not so sure.
Those driveshafts to the front wheels are probably something I could do without though. Yes, they help the Jaguar step off the line savagely, 100km/h coming and going in just 3.7sec, and offer beautifully early throttle pick-up from the apex, but while they undoubtedly make the F-Type R more effective, I’m not sure they make it more engaging. Or adjustable, for that matter. On a couple of passes for Dewar’s camera, where I’d have liked a nudge of steer from the rear, all I got was dogged push from the front. What’s more, it’s not always predictable quite what results the algorithms controlling the electronic active differential and torque vectoring by braking will spit out. It can feel as if you can make two identical inputs and get two very different outcomes.
Being reactive is key here, and it’s an integral aspect of driving this road, in anything really. Lyrebirds explode from the verges, all legs, wings, tail plumes and panic while stubby branches drop from the soaring canopy above, like punji sticks aimed at your radiators. The road dips and climbs manically, dropping from one crest to another gully, the fall line teetering from right to left into fading vistas of fuzzy felt trees marching to the horizon. The proximity of the road boundaries creates a dizzying, three-dimensional feeling of speed, aided by the glass roof’s peripheral sensation of blurred and scudding branches knit overhead and the cacophony of the V8 ahead. It’s an intoxicating combination, even if you’re not registering huge numbers on the dials.
At one point, the road emerges from the green tunnel to a land of giants, huge mountain ashes lying prone and naked in a barren clear cut, the odd outsized primordial fern punctuating the destruction. It’s like a mini-Tunguska event, the ruination jarring.
Tanjil Bren is, like Icy Creek before it, deserted, the hunched and weathered shacks advertising snow chains still boarded after the tourist winter that never was. We haven’t seen another vehicle since Noojee, some 32km back, and we don’t see another on the 14km climb up to Baw Baw Village. After a few kilometres of gentle ascent through eucalypts and native ferns, the C426 makes a 90-degree left up to the ski station, with bold yellow alpine road marking and shiny guard rail injecting some jarring modernity. Go straight ahead instead and the bitumen ends and you’re onto the magnificent South Face Road; a story for another time and another vehicle.
Next comes the steepest part of the drive, if not the most challenging. The F-Type is in its element here, squatting out of tighter corners and charging uphill, and you time your lift-offs and downshifts to coincide with the arrival of the guardrail, for a cacophonous phasing effect through windows cracked an inch or two. It’s symphonic and a little juvenile, but nobody’s here and I’m having a bloody brilliant time, so who’s complaining?
At the left-handed Winch Corner, the gradient steps up to 20 per cent, before flattening to a mere 14, the thinner mountain air being squeezed, mangled and rammed by the gulping supercharger into the eight 625cc cylinders. And then it’s over. Ski chalets materialise and you’re in the vaguely underwhelming, treed-in and largely deserted parking lot of Baw Baw Village. Your destination is reached.
The car ticks cool, coarse chips dropping off the contracting rubber of the Pirellis’ tread blocks. Dewar fusses over how filthy I’ve made the Jaguar, the huge black mirror of bodywork now entombed in a gritty grey epidermis, but that comes with the territory. I can think of cars I’d have been quicker or more comfortable in than the F-Type R, but not a lot springs to mind that I’d rather spend all day doing this in and then tackle a three-hour drive home when tired. The sheer duality of its personality is as extreme as any, its malevolent aesthetic turns heads wherever we go and it’s packed with that attribute the absence of which we so often bemoan these days – character.
I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that cars like this are going to become more, not less relevant, in the near future; that a hardcore of enthusiasts will seek out something ever rawer. The F-Type R is a car for those who want to become supersaturated in the sensations of driving. It’s writ large in the unapologetic expression of its combustion, in the hot tang of oil and the heat soak of roiling air you feel just walking past the car at idle. It feels alive, and should you ever get the chance to drive one on Victoria’s timber trail, so will you. Here’s to timber, gold, snow and sheer force of personality.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR DRIVE
Start at Yarra Junction and there’s an easy in before the tough stuff. Premium fuel is available at the General Store at Neerim Junction. Noojee is the place to stop for lunch, with the Outpost pub and the Little Red Duck cafe both decent options.
JAGUAR F-TYPE R SPECS
Body: 3-door, 2-seat coupe
Engine: 5000cc V8, DOHC, 32v, supercharger
Power: 423kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 700Nm @ 3500rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Steering: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Tyres: 265/35 ZR20 99Y (f) 305/30 ZR20 99Y(r) Pirello P Zero
Pros: V8 soundtrack; styling; grip; grunt; analogue feel
Cons: Weight; lack of mid-corner adjustability; thirst
Star rating: 4.5/5