Autos: Pick of the Litter

Automotive archives are littered with immortal initials. Everyone from Mercedes in the 1920s to Jaguar in the ’30s to Crosley in the ’50s to Chevrolet and—if you will pardon the mention—Excalibur in the ’60s has attached a variety of models and meanings to SS. GT implies Grand Touring whether the bearer car was, is, or will be a Pontiac, Maserati, Marcos, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Alpine, Bizzarinni, Lamborghini, Toyota, Triumph, or next year’s Bentley coupe.

But no letters, no meaning, no image are as indelible as XK. They belong only to Jaguar, and they represent about 55 years of its history. It began in 1948 with the XK120, an aerodynamic sports car of museum-quality design that could sustain 120 mph. There were XK140s and XK150s into the ’60s; then a pause for a generation of Es and Js until the XK8 resurfaced as a roadster-cum-sports car-cum-two-plus-two at the 1996 New York Auto Show. For 2003, the XK has morphed into a series of four: the 294-hp XK8 and the 390-hp XKR, each available as a coupe or a convertible.

We will not linger on the quieter side. The XK8 is a gorgeous machine from an impeccable gene pool. The coupe costs $70,000 and the convertible $5,000 more, give or take a few euros. With its posture, easy grace, smooth pace along broad boulevards, and feline agility on country roads, the XK8 is unmistakably a Jaguar.

For those who prefer their Jaguars with a nastier snarl, however, there is the XKR. The R is to Jaguar what M is to BMW and AMG is to Mercedes-Benz. It says that a perfectly quick and comfortable car has been pulled from the litter and sent to wizards in a racing workshop, where they have tinkered with the breathing and brakes, the wheel sizes and engine management systems, and the steering feel and suspension setups.

The XKR pumps out almost 100 hp more than the XK8, and increased torque makes the car almost a full second faster from zero to 60 mph. The coupe costs $82,000 and the convertible $87,000, but be prepared to spend another $10,000 should you choose—and you certainly should—hip-clenching Recaro seats, 20-inch wheels, and a steering wheel by Momo.

Although Jaguar claims the XK8 and XKR to be a new generation, most visual changes are nothing more than a brush here, a buff there. In their mechanicals, however, both XKs have taken substantial strides. Yesterday’s 4.0-liter engine has grown to 4.2 liters, with extra power squeezed from enhanced bore and stroke, lighter but stiffer components, revised camshaft drive, multihole fuel injectors, and electronic camshaft phasing. The transmission is now a 6-speed controlled by Jaguar’s traditional J-gate.

The performance of the XKR, of course, provides a magnificent rush—although not in terms of its top speed, because these days gendarmes are poised to confiscate our toys on just about every public road. Instead, what is impressive is the midrange surge that removes any anxiety from what would otherwise be difficult passes. Equally reassuring are the Brembo brakes that are strong enough to stop a semi, the electronic traction controls that prevent the car from journeying sideward or backward, and an adaptive cruise control that will sense vehicles ahead—or louts that cut in—and slow your pace accordingly.

These XK8s are inordinately comfortable and coddling cars. They feel good around you, like a camel hair topcoat. They also deliver distinction and identity. As a Mercedes delivers security and plod, as a BMW always seems to dwell on the edge of friskiness, so does a Jaguar offer its owners dignified passage in their private, sophisticated space.

Jaguar, www.jaguar.com

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