How can two cars be so alike on paper yet so different in their appeal? We're talking about the 2006 Jaguar X-Type Sport and Audi A3 3.2 S-line.
Both sell for about $40,000 and are classified in Consumer Reports as "premium compacts." Both have horsepower and torque in the mid-200s, which is up to any legal street use. Both have all-wheel drive and sport suspensions for responsive handling and stability.
Certainly, both cars are aimed at potential buyers who want more quality than they can find in entry-level performance sedans, and have the budget to pay for it but don't yet have the need for a full-sized sedan. And both cars are extremely competent in carving through the curves on the back roads, responding quickly and efficiently to any request to change speed or direction.
In the performance category, there is just one difference - the transmission. The Jaguar X-Type, now going into its fifth year of production, offers a choice of a five-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic with the old Jaguar J-Gate selector. The automatic is just fine, but the manual is more satisfying - giving the enthusiastic driver the feeling of working a clutch, gearshift, brakes and throttle in smooth combination that evokes memories of great racing drivers of the past like Carroll Shelby and Sir Stirling Moss.
In contrast, the Audi incorporates a new innovation in transmissions developed on its Le Mans-winning cars. The Direct Shift Gearbox six-speed (DSG6) is a manual transmission that has no clutch and is shifted with paddles under the steering wheel. This isn't one of those fake paddle-shifters that use buttons to control an automatic transmission. Instead, it is a true gear-change transmission, but one where the clutch and gear changes are operated electronically, more quickly and certainly more smoothly than most drivers could ever manage. Driving this car evokes David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher, Formula 1 pilots of the present, in the driver's imagination.
The DSG6 transmission also can be shifted at the console or simply left to shift automatically in an economy mode that keeps the engine speed under 2,000 rpm, or in a sport mode that allows rpm to rise higher before shifting depending on the amount of throttle applied. These electronic manuals, which have been standard fare for several years in any race series that allowed them, are going to appear in more and more production cars. We would expect that within five years, enthusiastic drivers won't be satisfied with the old clutch shifter.
Styling and packaging are where these cars really segment the marketplace.
The Jaguar has very pleasing four-door sedan styling. Encompassed in the smooth compound curves behind the mesh grille and leaping cat are all the traditions of 60 years of English styling. It's easy to mistake this car for any elegant Jaguar built since 1975.
In contrast, the Audi has a very different five-door body - sort of halfway between station wagon and hatchback - wrapped in styling that had 30-somethings crossing the street to check it out, while causing 50-somethings to say, "Did they really mean to make it that awkward-looking?"
The difference starts with length. While both cars have roughly the same wheelbase, the Jaguar is 184 inches long, compared with the Audi's 169 inches, a difference of more than a foot.
The Jaguar's hood stretches over the front wheels and the tail extends behind the rear wheels so that the car presents a long sweeping line from headlight to taillight, all grace and elegance.
Our only complaint about the styling is with the aerodynamic front package installed on the sport model, which has the nice mesh grille of the other high-performance Jaguars but with aero skirts that are low enough to scrape the pavement when driving up steep driveways.
Like nearly all four-door sedans of the past, the Jaguar has four doors and a trunk lid providing access into the car. Though the rear seat legroom is pretty tight, the car does have 16 cubic feet of trunk space - as much space as in any car Jaguar makes, and more than many family-sized sedans.
In contrast, the Audi's nose and tail wrap tightly around the wheels, giving the impression of taut muscular performance that was first introduced on the Audi TT and has become the new theme in trendy styling.
This car drew more positive reactions from younger pedestrians than any other car we've driven recently. Two different times, with the car parked near Starbucks, I watched younger latte-lovers detour across the street to get a closer look at the car.
With the S-line, Audi has gone all new-generation five-door, molding a hatchback that looks as if it might have come from a station wagon onto a four-door sedan, then executing the styling equivalent of a figure-skating triple axel by integrating the rear end with the middle portion in a seamless and unbulky way, while allowing the curves to extend around the front wheels in an integrated manner.
Our only complaint with this body style is the new signature grille that Audi has adopted, which the designers may think looks like the up-market sibling Bentley, but to us just looks like a fish out of water, gulping at the air.
Close your eyes when driving either of these cars, however, and you would be hard-pressed to tell which one you're in. The nicely bolstered and sporty leather seats on both hold you tightly on the corners, the leather-wrapped steering wheel cradles the hands nicely, and your feet rest confidently on the dead-pedal and throttle.
Both cars have sport-tuned suspensions that take corners easily without any body roll, while absorbing imperfections in the pavement without any major issues.
The cabin soundproofing is in keeping with the prices of these cars, providing a perfect backdrop to the high-end sound systems that come with the premium packages.
If we had to choose between them for driving pleasure, we'd lean slightly toward the Jaguar; we found the Audi just a touch too sensitive in throttle and brake behavior and requiring more finesse to start and stop smoothly. But the differences are small, and these cars will both suit the driving style of any automotive enthusiast.
But frankly, we think one look will be more than enough for most buyers to decide that one of these is possibly the right car for their driveway style, and the other is one they could never conceive of buying.
If you're old school, and want to tell the world you've achieved the goals established by your parents and grandparents, then the Jaguar X-Type with the Sport styling is everything you've ever dreamed a car should be
On the other hand, if you're new wave, then the four-door Audi A3 S-line, with the hatch tucked smartly between the muscular haunches of the car, is just what it takes to tell the world you're one of the new style-setters of the 21st century.
Either way, your journey from here to wherever will be a driving pleasure.