Sumptuous. Sexy. Sublime. By Tony Swan
When Ford acquired Jaguar Cars, Ltd., in 1989, a veritable Greek chorus of doomsayers lined up to forecast the demise of legendary make, which would surely follow its amalgamation into a great gray corporate monolith.
Events have obviously proved otherwise, and with the arrival of the stunning new Jaguar XK8, we think it's time for those gloomy prophets to turn in their robes. Not only is Jaguar back on track in terms of quality and reliability -- a turnaround directly attributable to Ford's stewardship -- it's also back in the sports car business, the wellspring of Jaguar legend.
Considered from the heroic perspective, the XK8 arrives none too soon, because the legend was becoming somewhat brittle. Not counting the ill-starred XJ220 supercar, Jaguar's last real sports car -- the sublime XK-E roadster -- went out of production in 1974. The subsequent XJ-S packed the prestige of a V-12 engine, but it left a lot to be desired in terms of agility and balance, as well comfort and convenience.
The XK8 isn't an XK-E. It lacks a manual transmission, for one thing. No matter how efficient automatic transmissions become -- and the XK8's five-speed automatic is one of the best -- shifting for yourself is a key element in the sports car experience.
For another, the XK8 is thoroughly civilized and elegant, inside and out. No one has ever called the XK-E anything less than beautiful, but it was downright primitive compared to its sumptuous descendant.
This is not a bad thing at all. Where in the gospel of sports cars is it written that you're supposed to suffer? That notion went away with the last Triumph TR-3.
Let's talk specifics. The foundation of the XK8 was the XJ-S, but the rear-drive chassis has been stiffened and tweaked almost beyond recognition. Two models are offered, a coupe and convertible, with an all-new V-8 engine --more on this gem later -- and, as noted, a five-speed automatic transmission.
Both versions are drop-dead gorgeous, but we were pleased to have the open-air option for some top-down touring in and around Santa Barbara, California.
The Inside Story
Coupe or convertible, the interior of the new XK8 is just this side of opulent with its walnut instrument panel, leather-trimmed wood-rimmed steering wheel and aromatic leather upholstery.
It's also generally roomy up front -- a little less headroom in the convertible than the coupe -- with seats that combine all-around comfort and lateral support as well as any in the sport-luxury realm.
The rear seats, though fabricated from the same excellent materials, are another story. Like most cars that characterize themselves as two-plus-two, the XK8's rear seat area is essentially a nicely upholstered parcel shelf.
The XK8 has rear seating because Jaguar product planners believe the demand for two-seaters is exactly equal to the market for eight-track cassettes. But whenever we hear that plus-two designation, it invariably makes us wonder: plus-two what? Jack Russell terriers? Ducks?
Never mind. The XK8 isn't about passenger capacity. It's about fast, elegant motoring, something it delivers with exceptional competence and zeal.
Ride & Drive
The zeal comes from Jaguar's all-new AJ-V8 engine -- aluminum block and heads, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable cam phasing, 290 horsepower, 284 pound-feet of torque.
Let us stress the all-new part. This is a Jaguar engine, developed from scratch, and at 441 pounds the lightest in its class. It shares nothing with Ford's corporate 4.6-liter V-8, although Ford will probably employ the Jag V-8 in future Lincolns.
The AJ-V8 is a beautiful piece of work -- excellent thrust right from idle, sophisticated power music from the exhaust -- and it delivers enough punch to propel these sophisticated cars to 60 mph in less than seven seconds.
It takes just over 17 seconds to reach 100 mph, and top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph. That's pretty brisk for a car in this weight class -- 3673 pounds for the coupe, 3867 for the convertible -- and the XK8's stopping power is just as brisk.
Stimulating acceleration is only half the story. The XK8 also delivers an inspired blend of ride and handling -- decisive response combined with limited body roll, excellent weight distribution and impressive grip from its 17-inch Pirelli P-Zero tires.
Jaguar's chassis and suspension engineers have done exemplary work here. The XK8 has the supple feel the luxury market demands, but it also has the right-now reflexes that separate sporting machinery from ordinary cars.
The key to this, as always, is chassis rigidity, and the index of how well the development team did its work is the convertible's handling performance. Although the soft-top version is a little heavier, the result of added structure to compensate for the absence of a steel roof, its handling is indistinguishable from the coupe.
In two days of touring, including a long, lonely stretch of mountain road that's one of California's best sports car exercise arenas, we were unable to provoke Jaguar's new cat into the slightest hint of unseemly behavior.
We tried all sorts of unlikely capers -- entering decreasing radius turns (turns that tighten up) too fast, tramping on the brakes in mid-turn -- until the co-driver finally said enough was enough. Through it all, the XK8 never missed a step.
If we could add one thing to the XK8's dynamic recipe, it would be a manual transmission. Jaguar's J-gate automatic shifter allows the driver to select specific gears, but like all automatics and semi-automatics, it's just not the same. On the other hand, Jaguar product planners feel there isn't enough demand in this market to justify the substantial investment required for a new manual transmission, and they're probably right.
For all its back road competence, high-speed stability and high-tech power, the XK8's number one appeal is its head-turning good looks, a factor that figures high in the driving experience. Even in Santa Barbara, a community that has a high percentage of automotive exotica, the XK8 stopped traffic and elicited questions from passersby: "How much? When can I get one? Can you pick me up after work?"
With its handsome proportions and smooth lines, this is a stirringly beautiful car. If there's any fault to be found, it's in the color pallette, which doesn't include a true red but does include a couple other metallic hues -- an electric blue and dark green olive -- that seem inappropriate to us.
Aside from that, though, the XK8 ranks as one of the best-looking cars on the road. Amazing grace on wheels.
Naturally, the convertible got lots of attention in sunny Santa Barbara, particularly when we raised or lowered the top with the car in motion.
The top -- a power-operated affair (with a glass rear window) that latches itself automatically -- will go up or down at speeds up to 10 mph. Why this is significant isn't clear to us, but it certainly attracts attention.
The XK8 clearly belongs to the realm of high disposable income.
There are cars in this price range that are more agile -- the Acura NSX and Porsche 911 come to mind -- but they don't have quite the same elegance quotient.
There are other cars -- BMW's 8-Series coupes, the Lexus SC400, and the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class roadsters -- that are just as posh, but feel a little sterile compared to the XK8's uniquely British interpretation of sporting luxury.
That's the real genius of the XK8. Jaguar has done a masterful job of meshing the spirit of a legendary past with the high-tech present. Thanks to its Ford connection, Jaguar approaches the millennial frontier as a fully contemporary car company capable of competing with the world's best.
And as for all you defrocked Jaguar prophets, there's hope. Employment opportunities exist for people with your talent in the weather forecasting business.
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