2004 Jaguar XK8
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by Richard Russell

Jaguars are all about class, style and character – especially the XK8. Beautiful exteriors combined with carefully crafted interiors of wood and leather are a Jaguar hallmark. Many worried when Ford bailed the troubled British carmaker out, assuming the Detroit giant would impose its will and ways on the legendary marquee.

Those worries have been allayed, for the most part, particularly at the upper reaches of the Jaguar range. What Ford did bring to the marriage, was engineering and manufacturing expertise that has raised quality levels to unimagined heights for a British automobile. It has also made available the supercomputer time and other technical resources that enabled Jaguar to meet crash and emission standards. Worry not, there may be some Taurus pieces at the lower end of the line, enabling prices to stay down, but up in the heady regions of this week’s XK8 coupe test car, things are all Jaguar.

This could be the most drop-dead gorgeous shape riding on four round black things. Competition might come from its drop-top (British for convertible) sibling, but in either case, you can’t help but stare, and admire. Introduced in 1996 with a more than passing resemblance to the legendary XKE, this long hood, short deck beauty seems to become more attractive with age. The bare body structures are assembled and painted at Jaguar’s modern new Castle Bromwich plant near Birmingham. They are then transported in covered carriers 25 km down the road to the Brown’s Lane facility near Coventry – the company’s spiritual home and corporate headquarters. Here final assembly takes place in a million square foot facility employing 2,400 who tailor-make almost every XK for delivery to a specific customer.

There are four models in the XK range – coupe or convertible in standard or “R” trim. All underwent extensive redesign last year with more than 900 part-number changes. The XK8 models are powered by a normally-aspirated 4.2 litre V8 producing 294 horsepower. The XKR models have a supercharged 390-horsepower version of the same engine beneath that long bonnet. Both engines were among the upgrades last year.

Our tester was the price-leader – at $96,000. It’s $106,000 for the cabrio version. The XKRs are $108,000 and $117,000 respectively. As you’d expect at this level, virtually every amenity and feature is standard, including Dynamic Stability Control, electric tilt and telescope steering wheel, automatic climate control, leather and burl walnut veneer trim.

2004 Jaguar XK8
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The styling show continues inside where the ergonomics are absolutely dreadful, but forgiven, because there is such an air of craftsmanship and originality everywhere you look and touch. One example of the unique nature of this Jaguar is the burl walnut trim, cut by hand from one single veneer “leaf” to ensure the grain continues uninterrupted from one side of the instrument panel to the other. Covered by layers of lacquer to ensure shine and provide protection, it is carefully bonded to an aluminum substrate to help it retain its shape for decades, rather than cracking as was the case with a wood substrate. Supple leather, cut by hand using sharp knives instead of lasers, covers almost everything else.

Amidst all this traditional luxury lies a heart of pure modern technology. The rear wheels are driven through a ZF six-speed gearbox by a silky smooth V8. This is not a derivative of anything else, but a pure Jaguar engine designed, developed and produced by Jaguar using Ford money and technical assistance – but no Ford bits or pieces. Aluminum heads and block, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing – it’s got all the latest trickery.

As we said, ergonomics are dismal – nothing is where you instinctively reach for it, the big steering wheel blocks much of the instrumentation, shoulder and head room are tight and getting in and out requires gymnastic abilities if you are over 150 pounds, five feet in height or 50 years of age. If you qualify on a combination of any or all of these fronts, start limbering up as you approach.

But during that approach you start to smile. You slow, and simply bathe in the contours and simple beauty of the curvaceous nose, muscular rear fenders and just about every other surface, especially with the coupe. Duck and squeeze through the low, small opening and into the wonderfully supportive seat and once again you pause to appreciate things. The array of wood, leather and chrome is both wonderfully modern and harkens back decades. Thankfully, the sound and ventilation systems are from the modern era.

Jaguar XK8 4.2 Litre V8
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Twist the unique round key and the unique sounding starter twists the V8 effortlessly to life, settling into a silken idle immediately. Select a gear, avoiding the cumbersome side of the J-gated shifter, and you will soon see where much of those dollars went. The engine and transmission have been ideally mated through modern electronics to provide seamless and powerful acceleration and serious reserves. The impression is not of brute power, but of integration resulting in more than adequate performance.

Should you chose to find a favorite piece of twisty two-lane the XK8 lies at the wait with the feline agility expected from something that looks this good. The front suspension consists of double unequal-length A-arms and coil springs while the rear also uses coil springs and similar unequal length wishbones. There is both grip and comfort, the sign of engineers with a decent budget and the desire to work to an ideal combination. Jaguars have been known through the ages for their supple suspensions and this one is no different. But it is also quite capable of showing off when the road bends. The steering is well weighted with direct turn in and very good feedback. The big, radially-vented disc brakes are powerful and progressive. The whole package is that of a very refined and well-sorted sports car, a very luxurious sports car.

This is 2004 so the XK8 also boasts a full array of electronic driver aids – allowing you to caress the limits without fear of being scratched should you go too far.

There are faster cars and more technically advanced cars but none that come to mind with this combination of grace and pace.

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