Like many natural beauties, Jaguar XK8 has held up well over the years.

After it arrived in 1996, XK8 was immediately hailed as one of the more lovely automobiles of its day and a fitting descendent of Jaguar's most famous sports car, the XK-E.

Eight years later, XK8 remains a stylistic superstar and handsome status symbol. The feline mystique is still strongly evident in its curvaceous form and sinewy performance.

Coupe or convertible, this is a car to enjoy driving and to be seen driving. The convertible I tested drew constant admiring glances. People watch as it glides past, eyeballing the shape from its low aggressive nose to its rounded haunches, all punctuated by a rapping, high-performance exhaust note.

Nice.

But some things could stand improvement. While most other designers of mid- and high-end roadsters have conceived ways for the automatic top to settle down under a hard cover, which opens and closes as the top descends, XK8 soldiers on with a lumpy-looking fabric tonneau cover that must be installed manually.

The dashboard gauges still look like something that came off a Ford assembly line. And the absurdly small rear "seat," nicely trimmed in leather, would be more usable if it was simply a carpeted space for stowing objects. Or, that space could be used for a better system of top stowage (see above).

But on a beautiful Arizona afternoon, top down under blue skies on a rural highway, such complaints are quickly forgotten. XK8 remains one of the world's most beautiful cars and a stellar driving experience.

What it is

A drop-dead gorgeous roadster for cruising the town or touring the countryside, with the power and performance to uphold the Jaguar reputation.

Performance

An all-aluminum, 4.2-liter V-8 puts out 290 horsepower and 303 pound-feet of torque, which is plenty of pull, even for this 2-ton roadster. In regular driving, power feels strong and immediate. But once XK8 gets up into higher speeds, the engine feels like its losing strength.

The high-performance XKR, with a supercharged, 390-horsepower V-8 and enhanced suspension and brakes, is the Ferrari-fighter of the Jaguar stable.

The standard-issue XK8 pales in comparison but still provides the goods.

A six-speed automatic with a manual shifting feature is the only available transmission, underscoring XK8's role as less of a sharp-edged sports car and more of a long-legged cruiser.

Drivability

The ride is firm but forgiving, absorbing ruts and rough surfaces, providing the road-going performance of a true thoroughbred. The steering is quick and responsive, and the four-wheel disc brakes are impressive.

Though XK8 achieves a good balance between cornering and comfort, the handling is soft for a sports car. XK8's heft and comfort-tuned suspension blunts its agility through tight curves on back roads. XK8 is ha ppiest cruising at highway speed on secondary roads, as it was on a fast round trip to Payson.

With the top up, freeway driving is quiet and silky smooth, with scant noise from the wind or the road.

Top down, there's not too much wind roar or buffeting.

Styling

Evoking the classic charm of the XK-E, it's hard to fault the beauty and charisma of XK8, which looks both voluptuously rounded and muscular. Everything seems nicely assembled, with no rattles, creaks or shimmies.

The folded top breaks the sleek lines, looking chunky and old-fashioned. There's much to be said for heritage, but this part of the XK8 needs an update.

The trunk is minuscule.

Interior

Aside from the teeny rear seat, where no human could long endure, and the generic gauge cluster, the XK8 interior upholds the traditional values of British automobiles. There's enough thick walnut and leather to please any Anglophile.

The seats are comfortable and supportive, and there's plenty of room for two.

The switches and controls work well enough, though the automatic climate control seemed stressed out.

It was always blowing too hot or too cold, no matter where the temperature was set.

Pricing

Out of the range of most buyers, XK8 convertible starts at $74,330, with the coupe at $69,995. The XKR is about $12,000 more for either version.

There are a number of available options, but the test Jag came with just the basics, which in this case supplies a luxury load of convenience and power features. Shipping was $665, for a total of $74,995.

Bottom line

Still sexy after all these years, XK8 remains a solid favorite for wealthy people who enjoy driving something special.

Jaguar XK8

Vehicle type: Two-passenger, two-door convertible, rear-wheel drive.

Base price: $74,330.

Price as tested: $74,665.

Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 294 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 303 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 101.9 inches.

Curb weight: 3,980 pounds.

EPA mileage: 18 city, 26 highway.

Highs:

Beautiful styling.

Lush interior.

Highway performance.

Lows:

Stowed top issues.

Generic gauges.

Absurd rear seat.