There's hardly any automobile more beautiful than Jaguar's XK8 convertible. I guess the XK8 coupe would come a close second.

Its voluptuous lines are the epitome of grace, and they remind me of the original Jaguar E-Type from the 1960s. The hood is long and low, accented with a power bulge and culminating in a small oval grille. Projector headlights sit under aerodynamic glass covers.

Of all the cars I have driven this year, the XK8 drew an uncommon amount of attention, which is a measure not only of its beauty, but of its exclusivity. It is especially stunning in Pacific blue, a new color for 2001. Wheeling it through traffic caused heads to turn, and perfect strangers often remarked about it in parking lots. One night I drove it to a gathering of friends, and before the evening was over nearly every one of them asked for a spin around the block. That's the kind of spell this car casts over people.

If you don't like being the object of every stare, this car is not for you. If, on the other hand, you appreciate cars as rolling sculpture, there's little else to compare to it.

Exclusivity comes at a price, of course, that only a few can afford. The sticker price of the test car was a hefty $75,250. The rest of us, however, will have to be content to enjoy it vicariously. The XK8 is powered by a 290-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-8 engine that is as sweet as maple syrup and just as smooth. Nary a vibration intrudes upon the reverie of twilight cruising with the top down. On the other hand, when you pounce on the throttle, the XK8 jumps quickly to the task at hand. Jaguar says it hits 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, which is plenty quick. Top track speed is reported to be 155 mph, which, in the convertible, would tousle your hair into serious tangles. I would be surprised if the convertible would go that fast with the top down, but that's rather academic unless you have a racetrack at your disposal.

Even though the XK8 is fairly speedy, its primary role is elegance. Retracting the top is completely painless. One button unlatches the top, lowers the windows and retracts the top in a few seconds. With the top down, wind buffeting is not bad, but the addition of a wind blocker behind the seat would make the cabin even quieter.

The doors slammed with more noise than one would expect from a car in this segment.

Settling into the deeply contoured Connolly leather seats is as comfortable as slipping into your favorite easy chair. A broad expanse of wood veneer reaches across the dash. The instruments are simple, round gauges with black faces and white numerals, a nice retro touch. Stereo and climate controls are packed into a small space at the front of the center console. These systems are complex and not the easiest to use.

For 2001, new equipment includes a 320-watt Alpine unit with six-disc CD changer, heated seats, headlamp washers and reverse parking sensors.

Safety equipment upgrades for 2001 include head and chest sid e-impact airbags and a network of sensors that measure the position of the driver's seat, whether seatbelts are in use and the severity of the crash. That information helps determine the appropriate level of airbag deployment, says Jaguar.

The XK8 is more a grand touring car than a hard-core sports car, and it rides accordingly. The ride is taut and body motions are well controlled. The front wheels transmit some jiggle through the wheel, almost as if the tires were overinflated, but that may be attributed to the extremely low profile of the tires on the optional 18-inch wheels.

Price The base price of the test car was $74,155. The only options were sport wheels which brought the sticker price to $75,250.

Warranty Four years or 50,000 miles.

Point: The XK8 convertible is one of the loveliest shapes out there. The 4.0-liter V-8 purrs with power enough to leap to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. Lush leather, real wood and a long list of creatur forts make this car a pleasure.

Counterpoint: It attracts strangers like honey does flies, and this is not the car for you unless you like being the object of attention. The doors diddn't slam as quietly as I expected, and the front tires transmit small vibrations through the steering wheel.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 4.0-liter V-8
Transmission: automatic Rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 101.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,962 lbs.
Base price: $74,155
As driven: $75,250
Mpg rating: 17 city, 24 hwy.
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