The outgoing Jaguar sports car, the XK8, lasted 10 years on the market and, toward the end, had become a patchwork as new technologies such as satellite radio, navigation and airbags had to be adapted to it. Its V8 horsepower number began with a 2 instead of a 3, putting it way behind the competition. There were also new safety and emissions goals to be met. So for 2007, Jaguar replaced the XK8 with a brand-new car from the ground up, the first aluminum-chassis sports car in Jaguar's six decades of production.
Riding on a much longer wheelbase than before, the latest XK offers substantially more interior space. The seats are more comfortable, the gauges are nicer, and everything works better. Benefiting from the lightweight chassis, the 4.2-liter V8 propels the XK from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds, says Jaguar. Its rigid chassis and the latest CATS adaptive suspension provides a smooth ride and demonic cornering, coupled with accurate steering and powerful brakes. Gone is the old J-gate transmissions shifter, replaced by a more conventional design that offers a Sport mode with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
For 2008, the Jaguar has refined the XK with better interior materials, a concealed (rather than retractable) audio antenna, and more equipment bundled into the optional Luxury Packages. Nineteen-inch run-flat tires are available for 2008, and four new colors have been added for convertible tops. A high-technology, limited-production Portfolio Edition was also introduced.
The XK heritage dates back to the fast and sensual XK-120 of 1949. This latest design of the XK is beautiful and evocative of the breakthrough XK-E of the early 1960s, with some Aston Martin and Ford styling cues thrown in. (Jaguar's Scottish chief designer, Ian Callum, designed the Aston Martin DB-7 and DB-9.)
Like its luscious ancestors, this latest XK is a tasty combination of Jaguar style and traditional British luxury-car wood, leather, and quietness.
Jaguar XK Coupe ($74,835); XK Convertible ($80,835): XKR Coupe ($86,035); XKR Convertible ($92,035)
The stowaway power convertible top added some width to the rear end of the car to accommodate the steel top cover, but both the coupe and the convertible are stunning cars. We don't need those new front fender badges to tell us that it's a Jaguar, and the taillamps are a bit busy, but otherwise the coupe and convertible are a pair of lovely shapes, carefully adorned.
Most of what is underneath came directly from the all-aluminum-chassis XJ sedan introduced three years ago, and that's a good thing, leading to huge weight reductions with concomitant gains in stiffness, strength and performance.
Inside the latest XK, everything is roomier. The seats were given more travel, and there's more room for humans in all directions. Everything inside was new last year, from the new shifter with a Sport slot to the new dashboard and instrument layout, to the standard touch-screen navigation system.
The seats were given a major redesign, and are much the better for it, with longer cushions, more power adjustments, more enveloping bolsters, and generally more long-distance comfort built in. They're upholstered in Jaguar's traditional leather, of course, and set off by the buyer's choice of walnut veneer, poplar veneer, or aluminum trim panels on the doors and dashboard.
The instruments have more engaging graphics, the layout is better, and the switchgear makes more sense now because of the opportunity to redesign it.
The XK was built up from the idea of a 2+2 roadster. The coupe came after the more complex disappearing hard top design, also as a 2+2. We appreciate what Jaguar is trying to do here, but the rear compartment simply doesn't have room for the average adult occupant. Purses, backpacks, briefcases and satchels, maybe, but not real people. At least not very large people, and not for long distances.
All the controls and switches make sense, especially if you're used to Jaguars. Things work pretty much the same way as the previous XK8 and XKR. The new navigation system is big, bright, colorful, clear and useful with a minimum of fuss.
None of the other coupes and roadsters in this small luxury sports car class are exactly swimming in cargo space, and the XK doesn't move the needle here, either, with 10.6 cubic feet in the coupe, 10.0 cubic feet in the convertible with the top up, and only 7 cubic feet with the top stowed.
Dealing with the XK, working its works, discovering it system by system, was a pleasure. No surprises, no weirdness. We did find the A-pillar to be thicker than we'd like, interfering with our vision in some driving situations, but other than that quibble, the car was quick, quiet, comfortable and easy to use, with strong kudos for the touch-screen design and interface.
The six-speed automatic with manual control, a Sport mode, and shifter paddles on the steering wheel, is about three levels of sportiness better than the outgoing transmission and the old J-gate shifter. The new twin-clutch transmission allows extremely quick, positive shifts between gears, with little or no lurching on upshifts and a nice, growly throttle blip on downshifts. This is an improvement on the similar ZF transmission Ford uses in the Aston Martin DB9, now with better hardware and software. It can sense aggressive driving and adapt accordingly, limiting upshifts in long corners in Sport mode, and giving instant multiple downshifts when conditions are right.
The engine/transmission combination is good for about 5.9-second 0-60 times and 14.4-second quarter-mile sprints, according to Jaguar, with an electronic speed limit of 155 mph. The EPA rates the XK at 16/25 mpg city/highway, thus avoiding any gas-guzzler tax. But Jaguar does recommend premium fuel.
Hugely stiffer than the outgoing car on the basis of its riveted and bonded aluminum construction, almost 50 percent stiffer in bending and much stiffer in torsion, the current XK offers the kind of silky smooth ride and demonic cornering that great sports cars have always had. It's helped by the completely retuned CATS adaptive suspension system with faster-acting, smarter shock absorbers that work with the engine and transmission to immediately react to the situation and driver's intention. The tuning is roughly 10 percent stiffer in the front and 4 percent stiffer in the rear than the old car. There are several assist modes to the CATS system, including completely off, for track days.
Another byproduct of the stiff chassis is the steering accuracy. It's without question the tightest, heftiest, and quickest Jaguar power steering in history, but nowhere near the point of skittishness. Solid, stable, and planted. The traction control system now features a Trac mode that keeps everything on but allows a higher threshold of yaw, letting the car get sideways in corners for those owners who go to Jaguar Club track days.
The new XK models are fitted with a choice of 18-, 19-, or 20-inch wheels and tires. Base tires are Continental P245/45ZR18s front and P255/45ZR18s rear. Dunlop SP Sport 01 asymmetric high-performance tires, 245/40ZR-19 front and 275/35ZR19 rear, are standard on XKR and fitted on XKs with optional 19-inch wheels. Optional on all models (and standard on Portfolios) are Dunlop SP Sport Maxx ultra-performance tires, 255/35ZR20s for the front and 285/30ZR20s for the rear.
The current XK's ABS brakes are much larger than those on the previous model, and much more powerful, considering the reduced weight of the car, with braking starting at the very top of pedal travel, where we like it. No fade whatsoever after a long downhill switchback workout.
Although the weights and balances between the coupe and the convertible versions, which we drove back-to-back, are close, there's really no discernable difference in the way they drive, except that the convertible with the top down generates more sound in the cockpit and more admiring glances from the other drivers than the coupe.
With its Eaton supercharger, the XKR develops 420 horsepower at 6250 rpm, and 413 pound-feet of torque at 4000. It also rides more firmly than the standard model, with spring rates increased 38 percent in front and 24 percent in the rear; and its steering is tuned for higher effort and quicker response. Additionally, the front brake disc diameter is increased from 12.8 to 14.0 inches, and the thickness from 1.2 to 1.3 inches, not only to improve braking performance but also the system's resistance to fade. We haven't driven an XKR ourselves, but Jaguar says its supercharged super-cat can rocket from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds. Top speed is still electronically limited to 155 mph. EPA estimated fuel economy dips to 15/23 mpg city/highway, but the XKR still avoids a guzzler tax.
The limited-edition XKR Portfolio takes braking and handling to the next level with standard 20-inch wheels and tires, and an Alcon braking system that includes massive 15.7-inch discs up front with six-piston calipers; and in the rear four-piston calipers squeezing 13.8-inch discs. Crescent-shaped grooves cut into the surface of the brake discs prevent a build-up of deposits on the brake pads and improve braking performance under extreme use.
The Jaguar XK is an absolutely gorgeous sports car that will appeal broadly to successful men and women looking for the latest in sleek affordability. We are smitten by this beautiful Jag and the way it drives down the road, changing direction like the big cat it's named for, but coddling the adventurers inside like an English nanny.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this story from Cape Town, South Africa.