No one likes to hear this kind of thing from the likes of a car reviewer, but we actually don't get overly excited when a new car comes in. We approach it with the sober eye of a judge. (That, and we know it will be replaced in a day or so, possibly by something lame.) But I'll tell you, a model that gets our editors pretty excited, every time, is the Jaguar XK. Its looks and driving experience come together in a way that's seldom matched.

Perhaps it was the uncertainty of being for sale, and then sold to India's Tata Motors, that has kept the model virtually unchanged for a few years. All the same, Jaguar added a couple new tricks for the 2009 model year on both the XK and the XKR, the high-performance version that's available in both coupe and convertible body styles. (Compare the two years side by side.) Most notably, you can now get a Bowers & Wilkins premium stereo with eight speakers rather than six, a heartier amplifier and two digital inputs: one a USB port and the other an iPod jack for playing and controlling MP3 players through the stereo. I tested an XKR that had the stereo option. Significant drivetrain, suspension and interior changes make the R even more exciting to drive. Unfortunately, some of the same quality concerns that plague the XK are harder to accept in this premium-priced variant.

Power to Spare

A supercharged version of the XK's 4.2-liter V-8 shaves 1 second off the XKR's 0-60 mph times: The coupe does it in 4.9 seconds and the convertible is close behind at 5.0 seconds, according to Jaguar. Unlike a turbo, the supercharger provides its boost at lower engine speeds, so the character of the regular XK's drivetrain is preserved; it has loads of gusto right off the line. Thanks to its six speeds, the automatic transmission assures good passing power at highway speeds, too. The early EPA gas-mileage estimates were overly optimistic, with the same numbers given for the XK and XKR. The XKR is thirstier by 1 to 2 mpg. It still skates by without a gas-guzzler tax, though.
XK Series Engines
Engine4.2-liter V-8Supercharged 4.2-liter V-8
(@ rpm)
@ 6,000
@ 6,000
(lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
@ 4,100
@ 4,000
EPA-estimated gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)16/2515/23
Recommended gasolinePremium
(91 octane)
(91 octane)
Source: Manufacturer

The XK's six-speed automatic, one of the best transmissions I've driven, performed just as well here in the R, always seeming to do what I wanted it to do — especially in Sport mode — without my having to resort to the shift paddles. It also exacts its shifts — up and down — exceptionally quickly.

Sound Without Noise

Noise is very well-managed in the XK series, especially in the convertible I tested last year, where noise is expected and usually accepted. Credit the thick, insulated soft-top. The most noticeable sound in my XKR convertible was the exhaust rumble, which, like that of the regular XK, is among the best-sounding on the market. To keep a low profile, the Active Exhaust System mutes the exhaust during normal driving, but it opens a louver in the muffler during heavy acceleration, unleashing the growl. Jaguar opted to keep the supercharger's characteristic moan to a minimum. I was a little disappointed, because I like the way these chargers sound, but I suppose it makes sense for a luxury car. The coupe sounded a little quieter, but only a little. They've come a long way with soft convertible tops.

Athletic & Balanced

I was impressed by the XK's athleticism and balance, and the R dials it up a notch with firmer springs and shock absorbers. Though the ride quality is more taut, I found it livable in normal driving. Anyone concerned about the ride might want to stick with the standard 19-inch wheels. The optional 20-inchers on my test car come with lower-series tires that are even less compliant.

Jaguar recalibrated the adaptive suspension to work with the new spring and shock rates, and it still does a good job of controlling body roll. Like the XK, the R has a very grounded feel and balanced handling. The new arrangement probably makes for better roadholding on the smoothest roads, but when cornering on bumpy pavement I experienced a little lateral hopping that I don't remember from the regular XK. The XKR has less power-steering assist than the XK, and thus more feedback.

Better From a Distance

The first thing you notice on the XKR is its silvery grille, which happens to be the worst mistake Jaguar could have made — especially on this beautiful, high-profile model. Historically, R variants have had stainless-steel woven-wire mesh grilles in place of the regular model's conventional black mesh. Now it's clearly a plastic matrix with what Jaguar calls an aluminum finish. Perhaps it's the different color, but our 2009's didn't look as bad as the earlier, sky blue test car, but it still looks like plastic — cheap, low-class, inexcusable plastic. I also found fault with the interior, in which the optional semi-gloss wood trim looked good, but some of the trim pieces — like the shifter bezel and steering wheel spokes — just don't have the finish quality one expects at this price.

There were functional quirks, too, and I don't always mention little glitches in reviews because oftentimes our test cars are pre-production models, but this is a car that's been out awhile, and it's not the first time I've had electronics glitches. Jaguars used to be known for electrical problems, but that was before computers proliferated, and that's where the problem seems to lie now. In a previous XK test car I had a turn signal stay on no matter what I did. (I must have really stood out, because I didn't happen to be driving in Florida.) After puzzling over it for some time, I turned off and restarted the engine a couple times, which is like rebooting a computer. When it didn't help after the first time, I was concerned. The second one did it. With this XKR, I pulled into a space in our parking structure, turned the car off and then realized I was parked crooked. I started again, backed out and the engine died. It kept cranking, starting and dying. Cranking, starting and dying — and I was blocking the way. I was planning to call Jaguar when it occurred to me that the keyless ignition might interpret "off" differently than I do. I opened the door, got out, closed and locked it. When I got back in, the engine started right up. Three cheers for educated guessing.

Remember, we're talking about a car base-priced at over $82,000. Jaguar has an image problem — partly deserved and partly not. Then there's the fact that Ford Motor Co. owned the brand for almost 20 years. I personally don't care who owns what; the proof is in the product. But many buyers do care. A surprising number know that Ford owns Jaguar, and many consider this a bad thing — perhaps because they've had a problem with a Ford in the past, or perhaps just because Ford is a modest American brand that is perceived to sully the historic British luxury line and in some way diminish its international intrigue. One would think Ford would have been aware of this bias and go out of its way to prevent anything that could put its products' quality in question. That the automotive industry as a whole continues to shave cents (yes, in some cases just cents) off each car it builds and then throw, in some cases, thousands of dollars worth of incentives on the hood remains one of the most asinine practices in any industry anywhere. Will Ford and its current travails taint the models designed under its ownership? Has that intrigue returned to the U.S. now that Jaguar is owned by another foreign company?

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