A bright-red Jaguar convertible will turn the head of even the most jaded auto enthusiast, and it seemingly represents a challenge to numerous amateur racers throughout the Sacramento area.

Take my word for it.

During a week behind the wheel of a stunning, flaming-red 2003 Jaguar XK8 convertible, I was continuously invited to drag race or road race on the public streets. Challenging drivers piloted everything from massive sport-utility vehicles to sedate family sedans.

My best "go away, I'm not interested" facial expression failed to cool the competitive fires, and I had to continually resort to pulling into fast-food restaurant drive-throughs and meekly telling headset-wearing employees that I decided not to order anything.

You get the point: The '03 Jag XK8 droptop looks hot. It's pretty hot on the fly, too. With a 4.2-liter V-8 maxing at nearly 300 horsepower and laying down 303 foot-pounds of torque at 4,100 revolutions per minute, the XK8 left intersections with authority and pretty much ran rings around most of the hardware on the highway. An over-the-top, sport-tuned suspension gave the convertible a monorail-feel on the corners.

The stiff suspension was great for zipping around slow-moving commuters. Hitting speed bumps or even tiny road imperfections was not nearly as much fun. My teeth are still rattling from the jolts the suspension sent up my spine and into my skull.

Steering was effortless, and it featured more-than-adequate feel for a light sports car. Brakes were world-class.

Inside, the XK8 was appropriately luxurious, and the controls were easy to understand and operate.

The two leather-lined bucket seats in the front were comfortable and could be set back to provide plenty of room for even my long legs. As for the back seat ... I'm not sure it actually qualifies as a back seat. I could set my briefcase there, and my son tossed his backpack in there on runs to school. That pretty much took up all the room.

A contortionist might be comfortable in the back seat allegedly designed for two, but I'm sure that most normal-size humans would be begging for mercy there after a few minutes.

Riding with the soft top up, vision out the back of the car was limited. I found myself double-checking my mirrors to make sure I was not about to rub paint with another vehicle.

Riding with the top down was a dream in warm weather. Wind buffeting was virtually zip, and I had a good field of vision for 360 degrees. Happily, the convertible top powered up and down with ease -- a vast improvement over my experience with the previous-year XK8. The top on my 2002 tester froze in place, and no amount of tinkering would budge it.

There was one annoyance that seems trivial now, but it was a major embarrassment for about 20 seconds. The Jaguar had one of those hand brakes -- mounted on the driver's left hip in the XK8 -- that is engaged by pulling up, but once engaged, the hand brake does not remain at an elevated angle but drops back to the floor.

The trick is that to release the hand brake, you have to pull it up until you get sufficient pressure, then press down on a button mounted on top. Should you fail to do that correctly, putting the car in drive and stepping on the gas will get you a lurch forward and propel the tip of your nose within an inch of the steering wheel.

This happened to me the first time I backed the XK8 out of my driveway, and if the neighbors were watching, no, I was not attempting to depress the accelerator with my right knee and drive the car with my nose. After this episode, I always checked the message center behind the steering wheel to make sure the red "brake" light was off before hitting the gas.

My feeling about the XK8 -- and all Jaguar convertibles, for that matter -- is that it is the prototypical niche car. Fortunate XK8 convertible buyers can plop down ut $80,000 to get a high-performance machine that's great for, say, making a warm-weather run down to Big Sur or twisting up Highway 50 to Lake Tahoe. It's fun for a driver and one passenger who appreciate sports car motoring and the admiring glances they get when whipping past more-pedestrian transportation.

The 2003 XK8 convertible was not built for runs to the day-care center or those shopping bag-laden returns from the supermarket. The car's purpose is to deliver performance and sporty enjoyment.

On that score, the XK8 hits a home run.

2003 Jaguar XK8 at a glance

Make/model: 2003 Jaguar XK8.

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, rear-drive, high-performance luxury convertible.

Base price: $74,975.

Engine: 4.2-liter V-8 with 294 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 303 foot-pounds of torque at 4,100 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city; 24 mpg highway.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with clutchless manual shifting option.

Steering: Power rack and pinion with speed-sensitive feature.

Brakes: Power four-wheel vented discs with anti-lock and special enhancement features.

Suspension type: Sport-tuned, fully independent front and rear (with wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bars front and rear).

Interior volume: 70 cubic feet (estimated).

Trunk volume: 10.8 cubic feet.

Fuel tank: 19.9 gallons.

Curb weight: 3,980 pounds.

Front track: 59.2 inches.

Rear track: 59 inches.

Height: 51 inches.

Length: 187.4 inches.

Wheelbase: 101.9 inches.

Width: 81.7 inches.

Tires: P245/45ZR18 performance tires on front; P255/45ZR18s on rear.

Assembly point: Coventry, England.