It takes more than a brilliant new car to restore the fortunes of a company in decline, but if any one car can do that, then Jaguar's XK8 is such a car.
Jaguar's brilliant revival dates back to 1989 when Ford acquired this beleaguered British company. Before tackling any new projects, Ford first set about restoring Jaguar's respectability. Contemporary quality control standards were put in place and Ford helped make improvements to Jaguar's factory in Coventry, England. When the XK8 program came it was the first new car under Ford's stewardship.
Jaguar's heritage is built on sports car legends, and the XK8 is the kind of machine that is capable of acquiring a stature out of proportion to its actual capabilities.
It's not quite an all-out sports car, not in the sense of the sainted XK-E or Jaguar's mid-'50s Le Mans winners. But it has the personality, style, and performance to become a legend in its own right.
Jaguar's XK8 coupe is one of the most sublime pieces of automotive sculpture on the road today. But we chose the convertible for our test because we were in Santa Barbara and wanted to put the top down and have some fun.
Just one year old, the XK8 rolls into 1998 unchanged, save for the addition of an auto-on/off headlight feature and some welcome new colors. Even the base prices are the same: $65,480 for the coupe, $70,480 for the roadster.
The XK8 arrived none too soon for Jaguar because the legend was getting moldy. The 1974 XK-E roadster was Jaguar's last real sports car--not counting the ill-starred XJ220 supercar. The subsequent XJ-S packed the prestige of a V12 engine, but left a lot to be desired in terms of agility and balance, comfort and convenience.
The XK8 is not an XK-E. It lacks a manual transmission, for one thing. Though the XK8's five-speed automatic is one of the best, manual shifting is a key element in the sports car experience.
For another, the XK8 is thoroughly civilized and elegant, inside and out. As beautiful as it was, the XK-E was primitive compared to its sumptuous descendant.
Jaguar used the XJ-S to lay the foundation for the XK8, but the chassis has been stiffened and tweaked almost beyond recognition. The V8 engine is all-new and drives the rear wheels through the five-speed automatic.
Coupe or convertible, the interior of the new XK8 is just this side of opulent with its walnut instrument panel, leather-trimmed wood rim steering wheel, and aromatic leather upholstery.
It's roomy up front, though there's a little less headroom in the convertible than the coupe. The seats combine comfort and lateral support that's on par with anything offered in the sport-luxury realm.
The rear seats are fabricated from the same excellent materials, but don't expect to have a lot of friends ride back there. 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 8-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.
The zeal comes from Jaguar's all-new AJ-V8 engine, a beautiful piece of work with an aluminum block and heads, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable cam phasing, state-of-the-art electronic engine management, 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 it is the lightest in its class. Ford intends to employ Jaguar's new engine in future Lincolns, but it shares nothing with Ford's own 4.6-liter V8.
Jaguar's new V8 delivers excellent thrust right from idle and sophisticated power music from the exhaust. It delivers enough punch to propel these elegant cars from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7 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--3,673 pounds for the coupe, 3.867 for the convertible. Fortunately, 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. It combines decisive response with limited body roll, excellent weight distribution and impressive grip from 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 immediate reflexes that separate sporting machinery from ordinary cars.
The key to this is chassis rigidity. Just how well the development team did its work shows in the convertible's impressive handling performance. Although the convertible 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. Jaguar product planners feel there just isn't enough demand in this market to justify the substantial investment required for a new manual transmission.
For all its backroad 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. We were disappointed that the color palette does not include a true red, yet does include electric blue and dark green olive that seemed inappropriate to us. Fortunately, the 1998 additions lend more choices.
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 below 10 mph. This means you don't have to hold up traffic when the light turns green with top midway up or down. That's luxury. And 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 the same elegance quotient.
There are other cars--the Lexus SC 400, 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 hard work and its Ford connection, Jaguar approaches the next millennial frontier as a fully contemporary car company capable of competing with the world's best.