Reengineered and restyled for 2007, the XK (formerly XK8) is a head-turner. At first sight it caught my attention, but it wasn't love ... until I drove it, in coupe and convertible forms. The XK is one of those rare cars in which all the systems work together as if made for each other — an obvious goal, yet one that's rarely met.
In terms of gadgets, the car is comparatively low-key. There's plenty of high-tech, but it's out of sight, in the service of performance. Despite some cosmetic quality problems, this is Jaguar's best effort, any way you look at it.
Exterior & Styling
Some folks object to the XK's oval-grille mouth, which makes it the latest addition to the long-standing Angry Grouper Automotive Design Movement. Personally, I guess I just like fish. Many people mistake the new model for an Aston Martin, possibly because it's broader at its base than the previous generation, which had the floating-snake-head look of the classic Jaguar E-Type. (I'd be at a loss without Animal Planet.)
As proven by the Chrysler 300, copying another car can be a good idea — when it's a more expensive one. Fortunately, Aston Martin has the same parent as Jaguar — Ford Motor Co. — so a lawsuit is unlikely. What makes the XK a looker, in my opinion, is its muscular haunches. In a strange regression, Jaguar mars those lines with a powered telescoping whip antenna, which is all but extinct in modern cars. On the upside, its operation is almost silent, and the whip remains the most effective antenna if you care about FM reception.
The convertible top does its business in less than 20 seconds. Though many new convertibles are going the retractable-hardtop route, the XK's fully automatic soft-top provides a pleasing roofline, and when lowered it hides completely under a hard tonneau cover for the cleanest look.
Adorning an XK couldn't be simpler: You can't. There are no factory options that change the exterior except paint and wheels.
Ride & Handling
The XK isn't a small car, but in short order I was driving it like one, flinging it into curves, powering out of turns and generally enjoying its capability and poise. The rear-wheel drive coupe and convertible both have excellent front-to-rear balance, which lets all the wheels share the duty of gripping the road in spirited cornering. Jaguar cites front/rear weight distributions of 53/47 for the coupe and 52/48 for the convertible.
My test cars rode on different wheels and tires: standard 18-inch wheels with Continental SportContact 2 tires rated 245/45ZR18 and 255/48ZR18 (front and rear) on the convertible, and optional 20-inch Senta-Style wheels with Dunlop SP Sport MAXX tires rated 255/35ZR20 and 285/30ZR20 on the coupe. Both of these summer performance tires had excellent roadholding, but the tradeoff is that you'll need all-season or winter tires if you plan on tackling snow and ice. The coupe's low-profile tires made for slightly sharper turn-in, but the biggest difference was in ride quality: The 20s rode much firmer than the 18s, to the extent that I had to confirm the suspension tuning was the same. With standard equipment, the ride is firm but comfortable.
The car's high level of control comes in part from its excellent accelerator response. It also helps that the body itself, now made completely of aluminum, is stiffer — specifically 31 percent and 48 percent greater in torsional rigidity for the coupe and convertible, respectively. The XK feels utterly grounded; perhaps the lighter-weight body lowers the car's center of gravity, too.
Behind the scenes, an adaptive suspension limits body roll and attempts to combine ride comfort with athletic handling. It does a very good job, automatically. I know Jaguar makes a point of limiting clutter — unlike its German rivals — but it wouldn't hurt to add a soft/firm selector for the suspension, simply because if people pay for technology, they want to know it's there and that they can play with it.
Going & Stopping
The aluminum construction makes the car lighter than its predecessor. Combine this with an incremental power increase from the 4.2-liter V-8, and you have quicker cars. The 300 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 310 pounds-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm propel the coupe to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, according to Jaguar. The convertible takes 6.0 seconds. This comes with respectable gas mileage of 18/27 (city/highway), good enough to avoid a gas-guzzler tax, which can't be said of the BMW 650i coupe or convertible.
Now, when you consider that the 2006 XKR did 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds with a 390-hp supercharged engine, the lighter, 420-hp 2007 version announced in June should break 5 seconds easily when it hits dealerships in November.
The regular XK should be more than fast enough for most drivers, and there's more to acceleration than test times. How a drivetrain does its job is critical, and here the XK is exceptional. The six-speed transmission has automatic Drive and Sport modes, as well as paddles on the steering wheel for clutchless-manual shifting. I've always found this feature nearly pointless, and the paddles silly. I occasionally use them, but it's only because automatic transmissions invariably fail at their job, which to my thinking is to be in the right gear at the right time.
It's with this established that I say the XK's transmission is excellent, and it has the absolute best Sport mode I've ever driven. First off, the upshifts and downshifts are very quick — a basic characteristic that's taken a backseat in recent years to additional gears and technological "advances." I've driven many automatics that are claimed to adapt to your driving style, but never has a transmission read my mind like the XK's. When I wanted quick acceleration, it stayed in a lower gear exactly the right duration. When I lifted my foot quickly off the accelerator, the gearbox had downshifted by the time my sole hit the brake pedal to enter a turn. And on and on it went, always doing the right thing at the right time, quickly. Bravo, Jaguar. If all automatics operated like this, auto-manual modes would be completely pointless, and paddles even sillier.
The XK's exhaust note is intoxicating; imagine a refined Mustang GT. It's just audible enough in normal driving, and it becomes a roar befitting the grandest jaguar of the four-legged variety. (Jaguar must concur, as it's using the exhaust sound in its XK advertising.)
In braking, the requisite words are all there: four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, etc. More important, the performance is very good. Linearity, pedal feel and all that are decent, but the main thing is that the brakes are plain strong. The XK stops like a woman passing a shoe store. (Guys, am I right?) Again, the braking, like the handling, stands up perfectly to the engine power. Have I mentioned that I love this car?
Like most Jaguars, the XK's cabin isn't the roomiest you'll find, but it is significantly better than the previous model in all dimensions. For comparison, the BMW 650i is larger in most dimensions, anywhere from fractions to full inches. One exception is front-seat legroom, where the XK wins by an inch, at the expense of backseat legroom.
I'll let the photos and captions tell the story of the interior, but it's worth noting here that Jaguar keeps the controls to a minimum. Standard is a touch-screen interface for the stereo, climate controls and navigation system. The touch-screen is far better than the rotary knobs to which the German automakers stubbornly cling, but a couple things could be better: The nav map's zoom control comprises tiny onscreen buttons. A larger, real rocker switch would be worth the dashboard space. Also, the menus, once selected, slide into the screen from the side. It's kinda slick ... once. Then you just wish it would give you the menu faster.
Retractable hardtops are the rage, in part because they make for a quieter cabin. The XK's ragtop makes no compromise, though. Its top is thick and does a great job of keeping sound out. According to my measurements, the coupe was actually 1 to 2 decibels louder, probably because of increased road noise from the optional low-profile tires. One tradeoff does remain: The soft-top makes for a broad C-pillar that obstructs the rear view.
There were some initial quality problems. Some steering-wheel trim and a handle on the trunk lid's underside were missing. The carpet in the coupe's cargo area had separated from the body, and when I pulled the front seat's backrest forward, the handle snapped off in my hand. I promise I wasn't that anxious to jam myself into the backseat, which has zero legroom when the front seats are back all the way.
As a new model, the XK hadn't been crash-tested as of this writing. Other safety provisions include dual-stage front airbags that vary their deployment intensity based on occupant position and crash severity, seat-mounted side-impact airbags designed to protect occupant torsos and heads, active head restraints, and roll bars that pop up if the convertible rolls. An electronic stability system is standard, though only the coupe appeared to have a button that retains the traction control but allows more sideways slippage for performance driving.
Forward Alert sounds a warning if the car is approaching an obstacle at too high a speed. The driver can preset the distance at which the alert activates.
Cargo & Towing
The new XK coupe replaces the previous generation's trunk with a liftgate and cargo hatch. Technically, the hatch is a bit smaller at 10.6 cubic feet, but it's longer and more versatile, capable of storing one or two sets of golf clubs. The convertible has 7.1 cubic feet in its trunk when the top is down, but a nifty partition can be raised to increase it to 10.0 cubic feet when the top is up — a 0.8-cubic-foot decrease from the previous generation. Run-flat tires supersede the spare tire. To compare, the 650i coupe has a 13.0-cubic-foot trunk; the convertible has 10.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the top down and 12.4 when it's up. The XK is not rated for towing.
The buttons above lead to all the standard and optional feature information. A few extra quibbles: The XK has front-mounted radar that provides the Forward Alert and active cruise control, which maintains a selectable distance from the car ahead and slows the car if necessary. This system doesn't stop the car completely; it alerts the driver when a low speed threshold is reached. In my test vehicles, the feature didn't do the best job of distinguishing between cars ahead in adjacent lanes and those in my lane. It made for a lot of unnecessary slowing and going. I was unmoved by the Alpine premium stereo. Some less expensive cars' systems are much better.
Another novel feature is Automatic Speed Limiter, activated via a button on the center console. Setting a speed with the cruise control and pressing the button prevents the car from exceeding the speed. I've seen features that alert drivers when they exceed a preset speed, but never one that's an actual speed limiter. Not the worst solution I've seen for leadfooted drivers.
XK in the Market
I'm an ardent fan of the BMW 6 Series — the first of the new BMW designs that truly works. I'd take a real manual over an automatic — even the XK's — any day, and here the 650i has an advantage. If you're not a speed freak, the new XK is stiff competition for the BMW in every way, though we have yet to see if the quality issues disappear. It takes a lot to get me going, and the XK lights my fire more than the 6 Series does. If anything, the Ultimate Driving Machines have been losing some of their soul over the past few years. Jaguar seems to be getting its soul back.
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