Of all the cars I get to test drive, the ones I look forward to the most are Jaguars. It has to do with what Sir William Lyons tried to capture in the marque he created: "Grace, pace and space."

Jaguar is a sexy mix of sleek style, impeccable road manners, effortless speed and gracious accommodations.

While the entry-level X-Type has been disappointing in this regard, the S-Type, XJ and XJR all feel like the real deal.

So the thought of a new XJ platform being overseen by the cost-conscious Ford Motor Co. was cause for trepidation.

Then I saw the car.

While the front end was reassuringly familiar, the new XJ's larger size, and higher stance lacks the lithe look of the older car. From the rear door on back, it resembles a Buick LeSabre.

The looks may be lacking in the posterior, but there's little doubt the rest of the car lives up to the legend.

Ford has gone to great lengths to modernize a car whose previous architecture dated to the disco era. The new XJ uses an equally new platform mated to a lightweight all-aluminum body. The body uses rivet bonding and adhesives in its construction, just as in the aerospace industry. The result is a body that is 60 percent stiffer, yet 40 percent lighter than the old XJ body.

That helps keep this big cat light on its feet.

There are a variety of XJ trim levels. The standard car, the XJ8, is equipped with an aluminum 4.2-liter V-8 rated at 294 horsepower.

Mated to a new ZF 6-speed automatic transmission, that's good enough to sprint to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds.

The XJ8 also is available in a long-wheelbase version, the XJ8 Vanden Plas, mated to the same powertrain. If you need a quicker kitty, you'll want to opt for the XJR, which takes a sporting approach to the standard XJ8. This includes replacing the standard V-8 with a supercharged version of the 4.2-liter V-8. At 390 horsepower, this car reaches 60 miles per hour 1.3 seconds sooner than the standard car.

Not that you'd really notice.

Both the XJ8 and XJR feel plenty quick on their feet. The supercharger's whine and slightly quicker response is the only difference that most people will notice. That means most will find the XJR's $74,995 base price harder to swallow than the XJ8's $59,995 base price.

If $59,995 sounds more like a nice yearly salary than the base price of a car, realize that the XJ8 starts at $13,325 less than the Mercedes Benz S420, one of Jaguar's key competitors.

Certainly from a performance standpoint, there's little to complain about and much to praise.

The 2004 Jaguar XJ8 and XJR continue to deliver the superb, cat-like reflexes and luxurious ride without a feeling of floating. It's certainly more fun to drive than most of its competition.

Yet something has been lost.

In recent decades, these large cats expertly balanced the handling side of the equation wi th a suppleness that coddled its occupants. Some of that suppleness has been lost. Where bumpy roads were once handled with dispatch, they now register with a firmness that's unseemly for a cat from Coventry.

Additionally, both a Jaguar XJ8 and XJR pulled to one side under heavy braking. This was worrisome in the two different samples I tested and bears looking at if you test drive one. Otherwise, performance is what you'd expect.

Inside, the cabin continues to deliver the luxurious accommodations that Jaguar buyers expect.

The folks at Ford have done an expert job of updating the traditional Jaguar look that is accented with yards of leather and burled walnut veneer.

All the "mod cons" are here as well, including a self-leveling air suspension, electronic brake assist, anti-lock brakes, 12-way power front seats, dual zone automatic climate control, and a fine 140-watt eight-speaker audio system.

Opt for the XJR and Jaguar adds the supercharged V-8 along with a performance suspension, Brembo brakes, 19-inch Z-rated performance tires, power folding mirrors, front and rear heated seats and a heated steering wheel.

Both test vehicles boast the same spacious cabin and spacious trunk (which was large enough to hold two close friends.) This is where the slightly bloated styling pays dividends, as the old model had a tight back seat.

In addition, the new car is taller, so entry and exit to the passenger compartment isn't as difficult as in the old car.

The one thing that is more difficult to deal with is the parking distance control.

This sensor emits an audible warning to the driver when his car is about to meet unexpectedly with an object. The problem is over-sensitivity - warning the driver too early and often. If the driver turns it off, it resets to the "on" position every time the car shuts off. Really, if you can't park this car without electronic aids, you shouldn't be driving at all.

The only other quibble is the hood ornament, aka "the leaper." It is placed far back on the hood. Obviously, this is done so the driver can see it. But looking at the car from the front, it appears misplaced.

Overall mileage was about 18 mpg, including some highway driving. The XJ8 requires premium fuel.

The bottom line?

Even if the car does look like a fat cat, Jaguar still delivers a sports sedan performance that is as entrancing as it ever was.

The 2004 Jaguar XJ8

Engine: 4.2-liter DOHC, 294-horsepower V8

Transmission: 6-speed ZF automatic

Tires: P235/55R17

Wheelbase: 119.4 inches

Length: 200.4 inches

Width: 73.2 inches

Weight: 3,803 pounds

Cargo volume: 16.6 cubic ft.

0-60 mph: 6.3 seconds

Top speed: 121 mph

Base price: $59,995

As tested: Not available

EPA rating: 18 city, 28 highway

Test mileage: 18 mpg

Fuel type: Premium

Built in: England