A Jag to brag about

We roadtest the new Jaguar XK.

Now this is weird. ItÆs dark and the road is steaming ghost-like wraiths of vapour, as if weÆre driving across a steaming volcanic lake in the dead of night. WeÆre in South Africa to drive JaguarÆs new XK and itÆs raining, but that doesnÆt seem to be cooling the sun-soaked road, whose foggy plumes are so dense that I have to slow. Not that IÆm going that fast anyway û not at first.

WeÆre heading downhill on a four-lane road, only a double white line separating us from oncoming traffic. ThereÆs scope to overtake slower traffic, but on this freshly wetted road such manoeuvres seem foolhardy. But this Jaguar feels very secure. It is impossible to resist building the speed, especially as the XK doesnÆt feel remotely skittish. I also know that the ESP system works with subtle efficiency. And so I find myself gradually passing slower cars, developing a downhill rhythm thatÆs just as satisfying as the one I enjoyed in brilliant sunshine earlier on the challenging and beautiful Franschoek pass.

But never mind the scenery û how good is the car? What you need to know first is that the XKÆs character wonÆt be alien to anyone who knows the XK8. Not only does it appear as a more contemporary version of its predecessor, but your physical relationship to it when you sit inside, the way it makes you feel (good) and the civility with which it moves down the road all survive. But it doesnÆt take long to realise that the XK is far, far more than a rework of the earlier car. To get an instant idea of how it has changed, stand behind it where you can hear the snarling, NASCARrort of the exhausts. Their whipcrack blare suggest a machine far more aggressive than the XK actually appears and a change of character far more dramatic than the styling signals.
After a long drive youÆll conclude that these trumpetings are not inappropriate. This is a car that feels so much more deft on the road. The old XK8 would play if you pushed it, but you could never quite escape the feeling that it would rather waft than wriggle and charge. The new XK is vastly more willing. ItÆs nimble, eager to change direction, poised and predictable enough that youÆre rarely aware that youÆre flinging around a reasonably substantial machine.

One reason is that much of the raw material of the XK û literally, in the case of the body û has changed. Central to the engineering of this new Jag is the lightweight, rivetbonded aluminium shell. This body is the stiffest in the class, Jaguar claims, and 30% more rigid than the outgoing XK8 coupTÆs. At 1595kg, the XK also weighs less than the old car, despite greater safety provisions and the extra stiffening needed for a larger tailgate opening. Some parts are common to the XJ, but Jaguar is adamant that this has not compromised the design, only 28 pieces being shared between the two.

Mechanically the specification is familiar to the XK8Æs. The 4.2-litre 90-degree V8 is essentially unchanged, but complying with stricter emissions has produced new multihole fuel injectors that yield a small increase in power, from 290bhp to 295bhp. As before thereÆs variable inlet valve timing to fatten the torque curve, which peaks at 4100rpm with 303lb ft, 85% of which is on call from 2000rpm. The automatic gearbox is the ZF six-speeder found in the XK8, but this time it comes with paddles and a shift strategy altered to suit the XKÆs sportier nature.

Suspension is derived from the XJÆs, which means unequal-length double wishbones up front, though there are coils rather than air springs. At the rear there are lower wishbones, the upper links formed by the driveshafts, an arrangement whose lineage can be traced back to the E-type. New two-stage CATS electronic dampers are optional, while the rear tyres are wider than the fronts to provide additional traction. That said, 47% of the XK CoupTÆs weight sits over the rear wheels, not bad considering that the gearbox is in unit with the engine rather than mounted over the back axle.

Pop-up Bonnet
Other technical highlights include the industryÆs first pedestrian-protecting pyrotechnic bonnet, which pops up to cushion the blow, and curtain airbags that deploy from the sides of the seat û technology co-developed with Volvo for the C70 û owing to the absence of a roof in the convertible. ThereÆs a new touch-screen infotainment system with additional features (Jag claims that itÆs as intuitive to use as before, though weÆre not so sure) that will have a voice command option later, while radar cruise control is also available.

But enough of technology for a moment û letÆs savour the XKÆs interior. It is a thoroughly sumptuous place. New front seats, available with adjustable side bolsters, cup you far more effectively than the XK8Æs and in a cabin that provides usefully more front room. The dash is new and far easier to see over because it has ceased to be a cliff of walnut, its finely crafted leatherette (or leather) upper slopes creating a more inviting aura. DTcor can be walnut, poplar or aluminium, while the threespoke wheel is particularly attractive. ItÆs not hard to feel comfortable in here.

The same isnÆt true of the rear seats, which are for (compact) kids, baggage or adults in an emergency, JaguarÆs research indicating that customers prefer it that way. Whatever, the XK is far less efficiently packaged than the four-seat Maserati CoupT. You wouldnÆt call the boot commodious, either. Nor do the rear seats fold, so you should pack light, in keeping with your carÆs spare new structure.

Agility is just what you need on the Franschoek pass. This is a road that climbs a substantial mountain ridge north of Cape Town, throwing such a relentless mix of bends at you that youÆll be getting a work-out as well as the car. A relatively mild one itÆs true, because you donÆt actually need much physical effort to conduct this car. Nor mental, because itÆs pleasingly predictable û the steering wheel, chassis and seat communicate clearly enough to lift your confidence. Well, thatÆs true when your XK rides on 20-inch wheels; thus equipped, it provides reassuringly precise steering, the rimÆs weight building progressively as you swivel it and build g-force. ThereÆs a small amount of body roll û no bad thing, as a physical gauge of your ambition û but very little squat or dive, these last qualities down to the pitch-countering optional CATS electronic dampers. This is a car you can lean on, a car that subtly, classily and satisfyingly works with you.

Flies in the ointment
But weÆre not totally convinced. None of the cars we tried were on the standard 18 inch wheels, all the CoupTs coming on optional 20 inch rims. The convertible rode more pliantly on its 19 inch wheels û sharp ridges jostle the coupT, abruptly sometimes û but its steering, though accurate, was short of feel and weight build-up. We need to sample the car on standard wheels before we can come to meaningful conclusions. At the moment, weÆd like the ride of the 19 inch-shod car with the feedback of the 20-incher.

While weÆre carping, the brakes could do with more convincing bite, though they always manage to deliver, and the V8 can feel short of low-down grunt when youÆre going hard. Step forward the supercharged XKR. The transmission, however, almost entirely compensates for this shortage. Select Sport by sliding the lever left and you trip one of the most effective sportsshift strategies weÆve yet tried. The gearbox is almost always in the right gear, so much so that you wonder whether it can actually read the road. ItÆs rarely caught out, encourages you to go harder and proves so effective that you find yourself abandoning the paddles. True, some shifts are a little thumpy and the SportÆs elimination of sixth makes the engine rev fussily at high speeds, but this is some gearbox.

Speaking of noise, there was a touch too much wind roar in our car û redesigned seals will reach production cars û and too much road roar from those admittedly fat 20 inch tyres. These factors, and that occasional firmness of ride, make the XK a little less cosseting than the old car, but the trade-off is worth it because it feels so much less sleepy, so much more a car that you actively want to drive. Which is how sports coupTs should be û even Jaguars.

So Jaguar has changed this XK, and by more than you might think. Performance, agility, safety, efficiency and the realities of ownership are all improved by that deeply impressive aluminium body, while the (mostly) bigger cabin makes the XK a more comfortable place to be. But it isnÆt just the substance thatÆs changed û itÆs the soul. This Jaguar is now a real sports car, a satisfyingly effective entertainer. No, it not as invigorating as a Porsche 911 and it doesnÆt ride quite as pliantly as its predecessor but, questions of steering and tyre choice apart, it is a finely judged compromise and a highly desirable car.

Does the XKÆs new look signal this effectively enough? WeÆll see û itÆs a look that appears more different with familiarity. As an example, consider that the body is now waisted, like a Coke bottle, whereas the old XK8Æs was sculpted like a fuselage. Bluff nose apart û a look forced by pedestrian impact regulations û this is a sophisticated and handsome car, one that deserves to be recognised for its advances. More than that, it deserves real consideration from anyone after a svelte, sophisticated and engaging sports coupT.

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