Let’s get this out of the way: the Jaguar XK8 is a grill-challenged automobile. It's as if Ford sent all their leftover Taurus grills to the UK and then leaned on Jaguar engineers to find them a home. Or maybe the XK8’s grill was intended as a comeuppance; a punishment to the brand’s designers for daring to create a “new” car that borrows so heavily from their up-market British cousin’s two-door. Or maybe the wide mouth bass grill is all about brand differentiation; a stylistic non-flourish designed to ensure that no potential buyer confuses the Jaguar XK8 and the Aston Martin DB9. Now if someone had grafted the front end of a BMW 650i to the XK, we might have had something…
Once you get past the pedestrian (and pedestrian friendly) snout, the XK8’s design is pretty damn likeable, in a group consensus sort of way. Despite the failure of the aluminum XJ to ignite the sales chart, Jag was right to stick with the basic shape and proportions of their “gorgeous” XK. The front wing “power vents” add a welcome touch of aggression. My only real gripe is the Jag’s small windows-tall haunches motif. Do people really enjoy driving around in a bathtub? The resulting visibility is on a par for the sporty coupe genre: limited and occasionally dangerous.
Strangely, Jaguar’s $75k coupe doesn’t come with a sunroof. The omission reflects either its native country’s inclement weather or the brand’s lack of marketing savvy. The hatchback is a nice touch– that could put off buyers who find the feature either downscale or eccentric (BMW’s last Z coupe being the best/worst example of this odd breed). In any case, the vast majority of American XK buyers go topless. Too right, mate. The convertible is both sexier and more practical than the coupe. The rag top is one of those modern, multiple layer canvasses that keep out most of the road and wind noise, giving vitamin D seekers the best of both worlds.
The XK8’s interior also offers a choice. Traditionalists can opt for the demure burnished walnut or poplar wood inserts. Aluminum accents are available for modernists– or is that masochists? (Have you ever touched aluminum trim left out in a bright summer sun?) The XK8 has all of the must-have luxury car gizmos– keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, touch screen navigation, satellite radio, MP3, radar-guided cruise control. Tooling-up your roadster ain’t cheap; the appropriate options packages are a premium on top of a premium-priced car. At least you get some genuine gee whizzery: a dual-zone climate control system that can be programmed to send de-humidified air to the front windscreen.
The big story about this next gen XK8: aluminum. Jaguar clearly understands that weight is the enemy of fun, or maybe they just don’t have the antigravity technology used by the Germans in their 4,455 pound sport-licht cars. Sitting on an aluminum monocoque (as opposed to Audi’s aluminum space frame and body panels), the big British two-door weighs-in a relatively sprightly 3,671 pounds. Fuel economy is the most significant benefit, rather than the outright performance. While six seconds to 60 is plenty damn quick for Jag’s core clientele, it’s not enough to lure adrenalin-loving pistonheads. That said, the 27 mpg highway rating (for either coupe or convertible) is top of the class, and the forthcoming XKR variant will no doubt ratchet-up the performance ante.
The XK8’s all-important handling presents a peculiar combination of traits: soft turn in and appropriately plush responses to uneven surfaces, combined with an extremely stiff chassis. It is very likeable at first, particularly coming from an ultimate punishing machine. But after few hard corners, the ride motions begin to feel distinctly nautical. Initial application of the brakes is also soft, but their capabilities are beyond reproach. I have the strong sense that this car was designed with the older driver in mind, but the engineers wanted to make sure the performance was still there if the codgers wanted to dig for it. The result is neither fish nor foul.
The XK8 is a giant leap forward for Jaguar and undoubtedly the best all-round vehicle in the current Ford family. It boasts an excellent design, more-than-merely-adequate performance, terrific comfort, excellent practicality and a high gizmo count. It handles well, goes well, stops magnificently and flounces along with ease. So why does the XK8 feel like a watered-down coddling GT? Because it is a watered-down coddling GT. For some reason, Jaguar has decided to become the Lexus of English automobiles. Granted, if you liked your last XK8, you will love this one. But if your driving tastes lean more towards the Porsche end of the spectrum, or if you think a Jaguar “sports car” should have a bit of E-Type aggression in its DNA, don’t bother.