For Jaguar right now, there are two letters more than any others that link the brand's heritage and its future, and those letters are XK. For close to 60 years they've been the Jaguar shorthand for sports car, and while a lot has changed since they unveiled the original XK120 prototype way back in 1948 (built in strictly limited numbers as a market teaser), one thing that hasn't changed is Jaguar's belief that style, performance and a distinctive personality is not a bad combination to build a car on.
Created around an all-new twin-cam straight-six engine that Jaguar's originators had designed while bombs were falling all around them during World War II air raids on Coventry, England, the first XK120s were in effect a run of hand-built prototypes that introduced that classic engine to the world in 180-horsepower 3.4-liter form, in a simple ladder chassis derived from the Mk V sedan, and with a stunningly modern shape for its day that showed how Jaguar founder William Lyons had a perfect eye for sporting lines.
Lyons' fallback position was that if the public didn't like the car, it would at least have served its purpose in introducing (and proving) the fine new engine. With little body-tooling involved it wouldn't have cost a fortune to try it out, either, and he could move on to introducing an even newer, up-market sedan based on the same new engines.
A Star Is Born
So the Mk VII sedan duly arrived at Britain's Earls Court Motorshow in 1950, and it was an instant star-with a top speed of over 100 mph, a classic combination of leather, wood and deep-pile carpets inside, wonderful looks outside, and one of the finest handling sedan chassis in the world-all at a price that had other manufacturers asking how on earth Jaguar could do it. It was also an instant smash when it made its first appearance in America not long afterwards, at the New York Show, where dealers took $20 million worth of orders in no time at all.
But Lyons didn't have to worry about whether people would like his sports car because two years earlier, in 1948, at the first London Motorshow to be held after the war, the prototype XK120 roadster had wowed them even more than the sedan would do. And after building some 240 of the opinion-testing limited-series cars, in 1949 Lyons committed the XK120 to full production and a star line was born. Then in May of that year, with his usual eye for publicity, and to justify the new car's badge, Lyons flew a group of journalists out to Belgium and to the hugely long, straight and level new motorway at Jabbeke where it demonstrated that it could achieve more than the 120 mph promised by the name (in fact 126 mph) even with the roof up-or almost 133 mph with the roof down and the big windscreen replaced by a small, racing-style "aero" screen.
And at the same time, the XK120 launched into what became a sensational motor sports career that covered everything from sprint and endurance racing to long-distance rallying and the gentler pursuits of sprints and auto tests. Through the exploits of a range of XK enthusiasts from ambitious amateur racers right through to the likes of Stirling Moss, the XK120 trophy cabinet started to fill with victories like the Tourist Trophy, the Liege-Rome-Liege and RAC Rallies, and stirring early performances in the greatest sports car race of them all, at Le Mans. It's not too far fetched to say the XK120 was where Jaguar really started.
From where the XK story evolved through the next 50-odd years, by way of the more powerful and faster XK140 and 150 models, to the specialized multiple Le Mans-winning C- and D-Type racers, the XK-E, and more recently the XK8, launched in 1996 and clearly part of the line.
But now, since early this year, there is a completely new XK family; and topping it, for the moment at least, is the recently added XKR - taking the XK's much admired looks, build quality, ride, handling and refinement, and adding a whole new level of performance. Which was one of the few things that had been seen as open for improvement at launch.
Light and Fast
In a nutshell, the 2007 XK has a naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V8 with 300 horsepower, a top speed of 155 mph (limited as ever) and a 0-60 mph time of 5.9 seconds for the coupe, 6.0 seconds for the convertible-because from the start you could have either. It actually felt quicker than that, mainly because of the strong power delivery and a superb noise from the very modern four-cam V8; but people do look at the figures on paper, and for some, good as they were, those weren't sporty enough.
Enter the XKR, with the same 4.2 V8 starting point but now, like the S-TYPE R, the XJR and XKR before it, with the addition of a mechanically driven supercharger (as opposed to an exhaust-gas-driven turbocharger) and a whole lot more power than its naturally aspirated cousin. That's 420 horsepower, and a big 413 lb-ft of torque, which with a delivery like a sleigh-ride knocks a full second off the headline 0-60 mph time to bring it under five seconds, and totally transforms how the car feels almost anywhere. Because the simple fact is that, good as the XK is, its chassis is so good that it feels as though it would handle all the power you could throw at it. And while there's likely to be even more in the future, this is fine for now.
XK badge apart, the modern XKR has something else in common with the original "prototype" XK120s, and that's aluminum. In the 1948 car, it was just the convenient way to allow a hand-formed body without committing to expensive tooling (and a useful weight-saving bonus for the early competition cars) but for the new XK it's the engineering bedrock. In fact the new XK structure is almost entirely aluminum, and very sophisticated indeed. The construction is bonded and riveted like an aircraft, and uses super-high-strength materials, panels and forgings to give one of the lightest, strongest, stiffest, safest shells in the business.
And that goes for the convertible as well as the coupe, because the XK family was designed to be a chop-top from the start-as distinct from chopping the top away then trying to put the stiffness back. So on almost any road, the structure feels tremendously solid and secure, even from the passenger seat, where feet on the floor can sometimes reveal even more than feet on pedals and hands on wheel. And pretty much wherever and however we drove, there's precious little difference hardtop to soft.
It's light, too-way lighter than rivals like the BMW M6 or Mercedes-Benz SL550, and that helps everything, from acceleration to brakes to ride and handling. And in all respects, this XKR is a genuine class act.
It looks stunning in the metal, muscular and clean without any excess glitz that it can live without. And very importantly, it looks like a Jaguar. Just look, for instance, at how solidly it sits on its huge optional 20-inch wheels, and take a look at the rear, so wide and low and aggressive, yet again so clean and so Jaguar. It's a great looking thing.
But it isn't all show and no go. The XKR is now a very serious performer indeed, and with a character all its own-"Jaguarness."
Exceptional Quality and Simple Features
There are a couple of minor moans in the cabin, like a pretty low-rent glove box latch and a few too many stray reflections in the instruments if you have a light-colored interior and a very bright day, but in general it's a big step forward in terms of modern interior styling, and an even bigger step in terms of perceived quality. Put simply, it looks sharp and functional without losing the classic traditional look entirely, and the build quality is one of the reasons why Jaguar has recently been rocketing up the J.D. Power and Associates customer satisfaction ladder.
It's comfortable, too-deep and supportive seats, an excellent driving position, controls that are logically placed and easy to operate, without any ridiculous multi-function selectors or the like-because Jaguar does a much better job of handling minor functions like climate and audio controls, communications and navigation with its big, easy-to-read touch screen than some others do with their rotary switches and multi-buttons.
Jaguar has a good grasp on what's actually valuable rather than what's available, and doesn't pile the features on as thickly as some rivals, but definitely has just enough. And it really only has one driving mode compared to the M6's dozens. So at one point, 10 miles down the road from a brief stop, my motoring colleague and I remarked to each other that if we'd been in the Bimmer we would still have been sitting in the parked car choosing settings.
And in fact simplicity, good honest transparency, and a near total lack of frills is what lets the real engineering scream out at you-and believe me, the real engineering under that handsome skin is magnificent.
The roads we drove the car on in northern Spain allowed everything and forgave nothing-plenty of room to run, nowhere much to hide. There's no wonder they're proud of it. Even in stiffer XKR form, the ride is fantastically supple given the exceptional level of body control, and on twisting mountain roads it has an agility, fluency, suppleness and precision that simply bury most big grand tourer rivals. It has huge amounts of grip, but also loads of feedback through the steering and the good old-fashioned seat of the pants, and it's just as satisfying whether you're dialed back a little way for the long haul or turned up to eleven for that special piece of road that just needs to be driven. With this classically Jaguar balance between comfort, refinement and massive cross-country ability, it is for all the world a sporty GT in the true sense.
All of which makes it one of the finest cars Jaguar has built in a very long time, and possibly one of their finest ever. And also what means it has no worries in wearing the illustrious XK badge. It's definitely family.
For more than thirty years Brian Laban has been writing about automobiles and racing for national and international newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. He also is the author of more than fifty books on motoring subjects. Laban lives in Sussex in the UK, but with cars to drive and races to see he is rarely in one place for more than five minutes at a time.