First Drive: 2003 Jaguar XK8 and XKR Coupe and Convertible

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Jaguar XK-Series Coupe

(4.2L V8 6-speed Automatic)

Sleek, Sexy, Fast and Faster

A car that turns heads. A car that makes jaws drop and salivary glands work overtime. The Jaguar XK is just such a car. In either coupe or convertible form, few others compare when you're talking about objects that are pleasing to the eye. Add to that a throbbing engine and the latest technology, and you've got a very desirable car that several lottery winners have purchased with their windfall.

Although its looks and straightline abilities have very few equals, a 2002 XK placed fourth (and last) in our luxury convertible comparison test. We chalked this up to a suspension that couldn't decide whether it wanted to lean toward assuming the identity of a sports car (wearing 20-inch wheels as our test car did) or a grand tourer (as it offered up too much body roll in exchange for a smooth ride). Moreover, the interior might have been furnished like a grand palace, but Jaguar had issues to address in terms of ergonomics.

Now going into its seventh year of production (lest you think that's long in the tooth, consider that the previous XJ coupe had a shelf life of 21 years), the XK receives a significant number of enhancements to keep up with its posh competition, a cadre of them which have sprung up since the XK's introduction in 1996, including the Lexus SC 430, Maserati Spyder and the Mercedes SL500 and CL500.

Jaguar boasts that there are more than 900 altered parts in the XK for 2003. Thankfully, none of them are in the sheet metal, which remains as gorgeous as ever and is aging as gracefully as Heather Locklear. Changes to the exterior are limited to different wheels, slightly different badging, available (standard on the R) xenon headlamps and some new colors, including a lovely Jaguar Racing Green.

The biggest modifications lie under the hood and around the wheels. Jaguar's new V8 engine sports an expansion in displacement from 4.0 to 4.2 liters, resulting in a small swelling of horsepower, from 290 to 294. Torque has been augmented to 303 pound-feet from 286. For pure straightline acceleration ability, the Jaguar has no equal. Jaguar has listed a 0-to-60 mph time of 6.1 seconds for the coupe, an improvement of 0.5 seconds over the 2002 version.

Meanwhile, the acceleration times of 5.2 seconds for the supercharged R version — which benefits from a 20-horsepower increase to a total of 390 horses and 17 more pound-feet of twist — remain static. With a huge Eaton supercharger, twin air-to-liquid intercoolers and minor structural changes over the normally aspirated V8, this power plant results in one of the fastest coupes you can get for under $100,000. Based on our performance testing of the convertible version in the aforementioned comparison test, these are real-world numbers that can easily be achieved.

Managing the growling unit is a new six-speed ZF automatic transmission with a final drive ratio of 2.06:1. Shifts are delivered quickly and efficiently, much better than on the five-speed unit we tested. However, a complaint can be made of the shifter's detents should you row the gears yourself; engagement is loose and isn't conducive to the kind of precise actions that would befit aggressive driving. Best, then, to leave it in drive, step on the throttle and enjoy the intoxicating aria the V8 provides.

Reigning in the horses are ventilated disc brakes at all four corners, newly supplemented by BrakeAssist, which kicks in ABS if the system deems it necessary even though the driver may not have provided enough force. Halting the XKR coupe are standard Brembo discs and calipers, previously only available with the optional wheels or special editions. Unfortunately, Jaguar hasn't fixed the obstinate hand brake mounted to the left of the driver's seat that has confounded many a Jaguar novice; how about installing the logical push-button e-brake from the S-Type?

Also new for the year is a stability control system, a chief item we deem necessary in a car of this class and character. We didn't get the chance to test it in our brief introductory drive, but we're sure it'll come in handy when there's a sticky situation involving yaw rates, lateral acceleration and steering angles.

Double wishbones for the front and rear are the basis upon which the XK8 rides; this arrangement provides a luxurious, well-damped ride, perfect for highway cruising. Monitoring the XKR's contact with the road is CATS (Computer Active Technology Suspension — convenient acronym, no?) that adjusts the dampers to provide a firm or comfortable ride, according to driving characteristics. Immense grip of the road below is provided by plump Z-rated Continental 245/45ZR18s for the front and 255/45ZR18s for the rear. All XKs come with 18-inch wheels, and 19s (20s for XKRs) may be ordered for up to $6,000.

Another option, for XKRs only, is an Adaptive Cruise Control which decreases driver input should you be rolling along on a sparsely populated highway. Once you set a particular speed and distance that you'd like to keep between you and the car in front of you, this unit uses microwave radar to maintain that distance, accelerate up to the set speed and brake in order to keep that space (or time units). Don't feel too safe and nod off, however, as the system can only utilize 25 percent of braking power; if someone swerves in front of you, a tone alerts you, but then it's up to you to brake in order to avoid a collision.

Sprucing up the interior are some new color choices for the buttery leather and glossy planks of wood. Should you care for an in-house map, a navigation system is available, and new for the year, it'll even provide you with an animated "analog" clock. (You know, just in case you thought that a digital timepiece would be too gauche.) For the XKR, you can opt for Recaro sport seats and a Momo steering wheel and gearshift knob.

As befitting a $70,000 vehicle, the Jaguar houses most of your major luxury conveniences, such as heated seats, reverse park control and a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel with a tilt-away feature. But because this is a $70,000 vehicle, we can make snarky comments about the six-disc CD changer that's outdatedly mounted in the trunk, the nascent rear seats, the auto-down (but not auto-up) windows and the automatic top that's easy to operate but isn't self-covering like those of its competitors (two of which provide a hardtop). Wind buffeting is more noticeable, especially when considering that riding in the SL500 with the top down and windows raised is like driving a coupe with just the sunroof open. The footwell is cramped and the pedals are needlessly close together, as if huddling for warmth. The center stack controls are overly fussy, with too many similarly sized buttons that require your attention away from the road. Also, the interior needs a little more attention to detail when it comes to final fit and finish. The flash lines on the sun visors were as obvious as on our previous '02 test car (one that caused a gash when this writer inadvertently ran her knuckle across it).

When it comes to pure gee-whiz technology, the seven-year-old Jaguar XK falls slightly behind its competitors. However, we have no doubt that many buyers who become enamored with the stunning shape of the cat will care very little about the intricacies of details that become all but obliterated when they go out cruising, the wind ruffling their hair and engine note soaring around them. Pricing hasn't gone up since last year, and for the money, you've got your Miss Hawaiian Tropic pageant winner waiting for you to unleash its fearsome power. Life is good — especially if you've just won the lottery.

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