1988 Ferrari 412i and the Jaguar Sovereign V12

They sat staring out at the cold winter sea. A pair of grandes dames. Two powerful old first ladies of the motoring scene, each contemplating retirement but still cutting a more impressive dash than many flighty young things half their age.

Elderly but still elegant, they ooze a sophistication whose timeless appeal transcends any passing whims of fashion with its subtle aristocratic arrogance.

Side by side as they stood, you would be surprised to learn of any similarities between the pair, beyond the simple technical link that, until the brash new 1987 BMW 750iL E32 arrived on the scene, this grand pair were the only two four-seater cars still available with massive, no-compromise V12 power units.

How could you possibly compare the clubroom comforts of the Jaguar with Pininfarina’s graceful Ferrari 412i, last of the front-engined Ferraris? A £28,900 businessman’s express, against a £71,760 piece of motoring extravagance.

They’re utterly different; different not just in price but in character, style and performance, yet a day’s back-to-back driving reveals how very similar they are in so many other ways.

Each is more than simply the sum of its parts – more than a mere car. Each offers a very personal sense of well being and enjoyment that is all its own; constantly reminds its driver of the correctness of his selection – and rewards him anew each time he drives for having made that choice.

Simply to stand and look can sometimes be reward enough. The two share a classic elegance of line that defies the years but which cannot long defy the wind tunnel.

In the pursuit of aerodynamic efficiency, we may not see again the stylist’s use of such curves simply for their aesthetic appeal; of lights and grilles and handles for their elegance rather than their wind slipping abilities. Hard isn’t it, to realise that Pininfarina’s timeless Ferrari body dates back nearly 16 years now. Or that the essential Jaguar is even older.

The Ferrari is Pininfarina’s work at its deceptively simple best. Smooth, clean, uncluttered lines are perfectly proportioned to disguise the big car’s ample size – only six inches shorter than the Jaguar and no less wide. Detailing, too, is careful and neat; the star-spoked alloy wheels; those lovely, delicately brushed alloy door handles, the classic Ferrari script across the boot lid and, of course, those characteristic round rear lights. The Jaguar, low and lithe, has a sensuous appeal that’s rare in a large saloon and is in pleasing contrast to the bulky, muscular aggression of its German rivals. Its detailing is less happy, though, with embarrassingly gauche stuck-on badges (crooked, too).

Inside, though, the Jaguar is much the more satisfactory. That walnut and leather passenger cabin is redolent of the great English luxury car tradition in a manner which can both captivate and charm you into forgetting its many little foibles and quirks.

The low, sleek shape has dictated that interior space cannot be generous; the driver will only notice a slightly low scaling position and the comfortable closeness of all the controls, but rear passengers may feel a shade too cramped for what should be sumptuous luxury.

However, it’s a rich, exotic interior-fussy in places – thickly chromed and amply endowed with all those gentleman’s accoutrements like reading lights and cigar-sized ashtrays which can lull you into happy acceptance of these limitations.

Where it goes wrong is in the blending of old and new (a problem that its successor the JAGUAR XJ40 has found even harder to resolve). The cheap plastics on the dashboard grate, as do the fumbly switches and the frightful sub-Sinclair computer.

A big car in the grand touring class, the Ferrari is generous in its use of space for driver and front passenger, who can enjoy large, thickly padded scats trimmed in a soft cream hide, and superb, all-round visibility thanks to the high-set seats and slim body pillaring. Less generous is the rear, though, which would be comfortable only for children.

But the Ferrari, too, has had troubles in marrying modem refinements with traditional imagery. Not that interior design was ever a feature of this particular Ferrari; the 412is predecessor, the 400i, had masses of quaint but hopelessly inconvenient toggle switches scattered around its dashboard. As before, a massive centre console, sweeping back down between the front seats, dominates the Ferrari’s interior. But now replacing all those toggles are efficient but all too obviously Fiat-influenced lines of plastic push switches and electronic LED type heater and air conditioning controls. And gone is the elegant wood-rimmed alloy-spoked steering wheel, replaced by a disappointingly anonymous plastic and leather affair that’s a little larger and thinner than you would have hoped to see – though still not as horribly thin as the string of liquorice which Jaguar drivers are forced to steer with. The Ferrari’s instruments have changed too; just a small change but one which offended many purists, for they now read red rather than white on black. The layout continues unaltered, however. A deep binnacle in front of the driver holds the vital gauges – speed, revs, oil pressure, water temperature, while secondary information is displayed in three smaller dials – angled towards the driver – in the centre console.

The gearstick in our five-speed manual model remains a piece of classic Ferrari design, though – a simple chrome stick topped by a round black 1950s style gear knob, with the change pattern etched onto it in white.

Elsewhere the 412 docs offer a few concessions to the contemporary, with a Blaupunkt stereo of massive complexity, electric scat adjustment and motorised opening of boot and bonnet. But, like the Jaguar, it is at heart still firmly traditionalist in style.

Lacking the sometimes overpowering complexity of newer rivals like the BMW 750iL E32 or Porsche 928S4, the two are unassumingly easy to drive. Sophisticated and powerful they might be, but they are from an era when money and power did not come hand in glove with technological over-kill, just impeccable refinement and matchless engineering.

Contrasting cockpit styles of Ferrari, left above, and Jaguar, left, 3nd difference between Ferrari manual, above led, and Jaguar auto, above right, coalesce around great V12s.

The all-alloy 60 degree V12 is a piece of the Ferrari legend; a direct link back to the great front-engined Ferrari supercars.

The two driving experiences are, as you’d expect, quite different. Indeed, the V12 engines rather than being a point of similarity are more a point of departure for the two cars.

The Jaguar’s V12 is, you could say, the nearest thing to having no engine at all. Sounds absurd, perhaps, but faults and failings are what get noticed in an engine and the Jaguar V12 has none.

The Jaguar’s V12 is, you could say, the nearest thing to having no engine at all… it’s simply always there; a silent giant.

It’s simply always there; a silent giant of a unit. That broad-shouldered spread of power and torque never feels stressed or strained. Any high-speed motorway run can show off the worth of its 295bhp and 320lb ft torque. It will canter relaxed and silent but is always ready to answer a squeeze of throttle with an unhesitating, powerfully surging forward drive.

The immediacy and all-embracing nature of the V12’s response never cease lo impress. Revs, power bands, torque curves all melt into insignificance in the race of its might.

Having a three-speed automatic rather than the more modern four-speeder probably helps; there isn’t that constant shifting down out of an overdrive top. The overdrive’s absence, like the absence of wind cheating body lines, doesn’t help fuel economy. But is 15mpg rather than 18mpg a problem? V12s are not usually bought by the conservation conscious.

After that distinctive metallic wail as the sorter winds the Jaguar’s 12 cylinders into life the engine is barely audible. Even when revved hard – and you rarely will find the need or the opportunity to rev all the way to the 6500 red line – there’s little more than a muted, distant howl. Not so in the Ferrari, of course and nor would you it to be so. Though the power is always building and the engine is elastic in its is flexibility, the Ferrari V12 only comes into full cry for the last third of its rev range. Pass 4000rpm and you can feel it throw off that languid country gentleman’s veneer and begin to charge like the red- blooded Latin it truly is.

As the revs climb past 4000 and on towards the discreet red warning line, again at 6500, so the smooth background roar of the engine rises into an exuberant crescendo that has by-standers smiling in admiration. Driven like this, performance is exhilarating – though in absolute terms perhaps only a little better than the Jaguar’s. Certainly top speeds of the two are very similar, riding just the low side of 150mph.

But there’s more to this V12 than performance – fearsome as it can be; the alloy 60 degree V12 is a piece of the Ferrari legend; a direct link back to the great front-engined Ferrari supercars of the 1960s.

The years have mellowed some of its more temperamental characteristics-notably with two sets of Bosch fuel injection replacing a multiplicity of Weber carburettors – and it has grown steadily in size to maintain and improve output against the background of ever tougher legislation. The 412’s version at 4943cc is slightly bigger than its 400i predecessor, has a higher compression and Microplex programmed ignition, changes that have upped power from 310 to 340bhpat 6500rpm. Peak torque is 328lb ft at 4200rpm.

But for all its modern additions, the engine remains an enthusiast’s delight. The four chain-driven cams sit under individual, alloy covers; twin oil filters nestle in the centre of the vee and twin distributors, right back under the bulkhead, are driven directly off the inlet cams. In contrast to the Jaguar’s silent superiority, the Ferrari engine has that cammy quality of a sporting power unit, Bosch injection has removed any fussiness – it starts first crank, trickles around in the traffic and will pull smoothly without quibble from well below 2000rpm.

But large and powerful as it is, it demands a committed and enthusiastic owner to work in harmony and extract its best. Where the Jaguar’s automatic gearbox is almost superfluous to requirements, the Ferrari’s five-speed manual ’box is there to be used.

Like the rest of the car, it’s man-sized. You need firm pressure on the big pedal to operate the heavy, twin-plate clutch and a strong hand to push through the stiff but positive gear shift.

All the pedals are in fact – as you’d assume – properly placed, and include a hefty left foot rest beside the clutch, though an English brogue rather than an Italian slip-on can foul on the side panel when using the throttle.

The two contrasting engines do naturally marry up with the whole driving style of each car. The Jaguar is an effortless, graceful luxury cruiser which simply tries to make the driving experience as relaxing and undemanding as possible.

Thai’s no simple matter but one in which Jaguar has succeeded beyond any reasonable criticism, with a synthesis of ride, handling, roadholding and refinement that is simply beyond reproach – and still beyond the means of newer opponents to copy.

The ride has a wafting, floating quality that somehow seems to remove the car from contact with the road surface and suspend it a constant inch above any potential disturbance. Only rarely docs the ride feel too floaty and the suspension briefly lose its remarkable composure.

If that was the Jaguar’s only virtue, it would be impressive enough, but the magnificent ride is allied to superlative handling and roadholding. Watch it from a following car and you can see the minimal body roll and the supple, long travel coil and wishbone suspension at work. Grip is magnificent – stability and composure even more so. Only the steering intrudes to sour the taste; after all these years, still too light and lifeless, and lacking that vital clement of communication around the centre position.

The big Ferrari, in complete contrast, has the muscular quality you’ll find in any of its front-engined supercar contemporaries. Heavy, solid and slightly old-fashioned, perhaps, but tight, responsive and totally predictable.

Power steering is lighter than you’d expect – though heavier and more informative than the Jaguar’s. And the big car answers the wheel with a speed and sharpness that belies its size.

The brake, like the clutch, is firm under foot and reassuring for its solidity: the fitment of ABS (not available on the Jaguar) has not robbed the ventilated disc system of its pure-bred precision.

Again, as in the Jaguar, the engineering elegance of a thoroughbred double wishbone and coil sprung suspension shows through. There’s little cornering roll, crisp and understeer-free entry to the bend, then finally, if the corner is tight and the driver is pressing on, a gentle drift into oversteer on the exit.

The ride, too, is remarkably supple and compliant – only the occasional shudder and creak as a wheel thumps through a bad surface break reminding you that the 412’s space-frame and steel panelled body structure docs not have quite the torsional rigidity of the unitary Jaguar.

But different as they are, both Ferrari and Jaguar are magnificent mile-eating machines; monarchs of the road. The Jaguar’s effortless grace is almost magical; the Ferrari’s blend of refinement and excitement near perfect.

They’re two classic machines; quite different and yet very much alike. Ultimates. Beautifully honed examples of all those traditional design and engineering virtues which should be posted as markers in today’s ever-quickening tide-race of technological change.

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