2006 Lotus Elise
2006 Lotus Elise. Photo: Lotus. Click image to enlarge

By Laurance Yap

British cars have always been cool. But owning them hasn’t necessarily been the same.

Traditionally, Jag convertibles have acquired a reputation as the cars to be seen in if you’re the sort of louche, elegantly-dressed playboy out for a night on the tiles; Rolls-Royce automobiles have always been the epitome of old-money elegance and presence; and Bentleys have always combined beautifully-crafted interiors with massive power and performance.

Such charm often came with a lot of compromises, though. Small production numbers, expensive labour, and a lack of investment often meant British cars fell behind as automotive technology advanced. Bentley’s iconic 6.75-litre engine and transmission could trace their origins back to the 1950s; so could the V8 used in the last generation of Land Rovers such as the Discovery and previous Range Rover.

And when the Brits did apply modern technology to their cars, it was often with humorously disastrous results. Lucas – or “the prince of darkness” if you ask a frustrated enthusiast – gained a reputation for unreliable electronics whose reputation still lingers today, despite the fact that they’re now a supplier to car companies all over the world. A former employer of mine had a Jaguar XJS that burned to the ground with an electrical fire; I’ve seen old Range Rovers whose malfunctioning air suspensions jacked up opposite corners of the truck.

It’s all changing, though. British cars are cool again – and they no longer need to make excuses for themselves. Nowadays, you get all the character you ever wanted, along with solid quality, cutting-edge technology and vastly improved reliability.

2006 Jaguar XJ sedan
2006 Jaguar XJ Sedan. Photo: Jaguar. Click image to enlarge

Take, for example the new Jaguar XJ sedans. While their exteriors may still be very traditionally styled – exuding all of the charm of their forebears – they are actually very advanced. Sleek curves clothe an interior that is vastly more spacious and ergonomically sound, and it’s packed with useful gadgets like a touch-screen navigation system. Instead of using steel, an XJ’s body is made entirely of aluminum. It costs a bit more to make, but it’s lighter than steel and rust-free. Thanks to its use of aluminum, the XJ is one of the few big luxury cars of recent memory that got faster from generation to generation without the addition of a new, more powerful engine.

2006 Jaguar XK Victory Edition
2006 Jaguar XK Victory Edition. Photo: Jaguar. Click image to enlarge

Indeed, the new Jaguar XK coupe and convertible, both of which are now also made out of aluminum, are so much lighter than their predecessors that the base, non-supercharged versions now on sale are almost as fast as the old supercharged XKRs. Their lightness not only contributes to better performance from the 4.2-litre V8; it also means that the new XKs have much-improved ride and handling. The convertible version of the XK in particular feels like a much more solid piece thanks to the application of advanced technology in its construction.

2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur
Photo: Laurance Yap. 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur. Click image to enlarge

What’s interesting is that the renaissance in British motoring has been largely thanks to the stewardship and investment dollars provided by non-British entities. The new Jags wouldn’t have been possible without massive investment from Ford. Lotus’ new Elise was developed with Malaysian money (it’s owned by Proton, a manufacturer of small economy cars) and a high-revving engine from Toyota. And you wouldn’t see nearly as many new Bentleys on the road (if you’ve been to L.A. lately, you see them just everywhere) were it not for Volkswagen’s involvement.

2006 Bentley Continental GT
2006 Bentley Continental GT. Photo: Bentley. Click image to enlarge

The new Continentals (the two-door GT, the Flying Spur sedan and the upcoming GTC convertible) deliver on their quarter-million dollar promise with all-wheel-drive technology and a twin-turbocharged 552-hp W12 engine whose roots can be traced to VW’s large (and largely unsuccessful) Phaeton sedan. The Continentals’ interiors are all you would expect from Bentley – huge planks of wood, gorgeously stitched leather – but underneath lie Phaeton electronics, like the navigation system’s back end, the seat controls, and other bits and pieces that make it a more advanced and refined car as well as a morel luxurious one.

2006 Range Rover

2006 Range Rover
2006 Range Rover. Photos: Land Rover. Click image to enlarge

The current Range Rover has actually gone through updates at the hand of two foreign owners. BMW completely overhauled the chassis, suspension, and electronics, and made the big truck’s interior one of the best in the business in terms of luxury and fit-and-finish. It also replaced the Range Rover’s antiquated GM-based V8 with a high-tech 4.4-litre unit, and the chassis featured advanced air suspension and electronic stability control. After Ford bought Land Rover, it instituted another round of changes, resulting in a simplified interface for the in-car electronics and two new Jaguar-sourced V8s, the top-of-the-range version featuring 400 supercharged horsepower – making it not just the most capable luxury SUV in the world, but also one of the coolest.

2006 Rolls-Royce Phantom

2006 Rolls-Royce Phantom

2006 Rolls-Royce Phantom
2006 Rolls-Royce Phantom. Photos: Rolls-Royce. Click image to enlarge

Ford and BMW have been behind two of the other great British automotive rebirths: Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin.

It took the attentions of BMW – whose then-CEO was a noted Anglophile – to transform Rolls from a builder of creaky mobile sitting rooms into a purveyor of what is unquestionably the ultimate luxury sedan. The Silver Seraph, introduced in 1998, was merely a stopgap measure, fitted with a BMW V12 and built with vastly improved quality. BMW had its sights set much higher: it constructed an all-new, glass-walled factory in Goodwood to produce the Phantom – a squared-off monster of a car that, if it weren’t so elegantly styled and beautifully proportioned, would be the epitome of bad taste. Instead of screaming “I’m expensive,” the $400,000-plus Phantom whispers luxury from every detail. The hood ornament that retracts when you lock the car; the blue-tinged mood lighting; the subtle “power reserve” gauge on the dashboard and the umbrella holders in the doors that squeeze out excess rainwater as you slide the umbrellas back in.

The man who runs Ford-owned Aston Martin, Dr. Ulrich Bez, might be described as a bit of a fanatic, but it took a fanatic to rebuild Aston Martin, and the company now has a spanking-new R&D centre and a totally revamped factory in Gaydon. It’s now a major contender in the high-end sports car market, and is the source of the first truly credible challenger to the Porsche 911 in many years, the V8 Vantage.

2006 Aston Martin Vantage
2006 Aston Martin Vantage. Photo; Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

The new V8 Vantage is the car Bez has been waiting to build since he started running Aston Martin. Its $135,000 Canadian list price is just a few thousand more than a Porsche Carrera S, but with more standard equipment and packaging, it’s right in the same ballpark. While it may not be quite as focused a driving tool as a 911, its newness and rarity are going to be a huge attraction for people who’ve already owned several. It also has the sexiest engine note this side of a V12 Ferrari, sparkling driving dynamics, and a gorgeous body that would sell the thing on looks alone. Oh, and it’s practical, too, with a hatchback and a large cargo area.

2006 Aston Martin Vantage
2006 Aston Martin Vantage. Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

With Vantage production in full swing, Aston Martin will deliver upwards of 4,000 vehicles, almost a hundred times the number (42) it sold in 1992. That’s astonishing progress in just over 10 years, and shows just how far the company has come in terms of its product development and marketing. Aston Martins have always been cool – the James Bond connection sees to that – but its cars are now stunning to drive as well as beautiful to look at. Save for a malfunctioning electric fuel-filler door on the Vantage I drove for a couple of days (shades of the Prince of Darkness?), they’re also well-finished, robust and reliable.

Real cars – real COOL cars – in other words, that no longer need any excuses.

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