And the Cat came back
Somewhere east of Cape Town, South Africa, on a sinuously twisty road that hugs tall, ocean-side cliffs like a python encircling its prey, my temptation to pass a line of dawdling tourists is overwhelming. But as we pull out to pass, the passing lane abruptly ends. The serpentine road curves sharply around a bluff, momentarily blocking our view. Suddenly, an oncoming motorist appears, a few hundred yards ahead, squarely in our path. In the space of an instant, the only decision is to snap-shift down, nail the gas, crank the wheel to the left and thread a rapidly contracting needle's eye.
The new XK responds like a thoroughbred to the spur. In split seconds, we shoot around the line of dawdlers, juke back in our lane, ahead of the oncoming car and safely out of harm's way. Had we been driving something else, I might not be writing this. But for the newest Jag, that deft maneuver was, as the Brits say, a "piece of cake."
Sir William would be proud
The fabulous Jaguar E-Type was a sensation in its day — a glamorous 1960s stiletto heel of a car — slim, elegant, powerful, capable of nearly 150 mph — and able to take on a Ferrari at half the price.
After the E-Type came a long series of somewhat compromised cars. While recognizable as Jaguars, they were grand tourers, not true sports cars. Coventry's cats aren't supposed to be hard-edged racers, but they've got to be capable mile-eaters that can accelerate hard and sweep through a succession of tight, decreasing-radius turns without breaking a sweat. The company's founder, Sir William Lyons, summed it up as "grace, space and pace."
But competition today is ruthless. The newest coupe and convertible have to be the best Jags in four decades.
And they are.
Jaguar's huge investment a few years back in an aluminum stamping plant is paying off. The 2007 XK's bonded and riveted monocoque alloy substructure is 34 Hz (a Mercedes-Benz SL is 26; a BMW 6 Series is 30), some 50-percent stiffer than its predecessor and more than 400 pounds lighter. That's aircraft technology. Here's what it means:
When a car's chassis and body are really rigid, engineers can fine-tune the suspension to a fare-thee-well. Jaguar's improved Computer Active Technology Suspension (they call it CATS, naturally) is a highly sophisticated, two-stage adaptive damping system with sensors that measure the XK's attitude, pitch and yaw, steering wheel angle and brake demand, then adjust all four shocks independently in nanoseconds. There's two-stage Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) as well, so the new XK corners like a racecar, with no drama.
The proper feline for a cat-quick beeline
This car's incredible lightness of being means it needs less power and uses less fuel. And it's ULEV II rated. OK, you can get 300 horsepower in a Subaru WRX these days, but in the 3,671-pound coupe (the convertible is just 88 pounds more), the high-revving, 4.2-liter four-cam V8 with Variable Camshaft Phasing (VCP) feels like a lot more motor. (We can only imagine what the 400-plus-hp R-Type will be like.)
In the meantime, the newest XK iteration is bloody fast, with variable valve timing, 310 pound-feet of torque, perfectly weighted steering, and new race-inspired ventilated disc brakes with ABS and EBD.
There's a brilliant six-speed sequential-shift ZF automatic, with hyperquick paddle shifters (try 400 milliseconds between shifts), and three distinct driving modes: "Drive Automatic," "Adaptive Sport Automatic" and "Sequential Manual" for immediate response that's better than any gear twirling you could ever do with a standard stick. It stacks downshifts under braking, blips the throttle before it drops a gear and shifts very close to the 6,000-rpm redline.
High tech, low weight and mean muscle
Jaguar's included all the mod cons — like keyless entry and starting, two-stage unlocking, Adaptive Cruise Control, active front lighting, an LED backup light, ultrasonic rear parking aids, Forward Alert (which uses the front parking sensors to warn of an impending collision), and much more.
The rigid body's low mass helps reduce energy on impact. In the unlikely instance they're ever needed, the fast-acting, pop-up aluminum roll hoops actually pierce the convertible's glass rear window (in 60 milliseconds) when they're activated. But do you really think Jaguar would have that happen if it actually thought this cool customer would ever lose its composure?
Styling is subjective, but we think Jaguar's design chief, Ian Callum, (who penned the Aston Martin DB7 and the Vantage V12), has drawn a modern Jaguar 2+2 that's worthy of the marque's heritage. Outside, the new model's curvaceous exterior evokes that of the revered E-Type, but the '07 is clearly contemporary, mature and undeniably sexy. "There's no fat in this car," Callum says proudly. "It's an athlete."
A functional vertical side vent in each front fender is topped by a discreet Jaguar badge that helps break up the panel's expanse. "We wanted people to look sideways at a stoplight and know immediately what it is," says Callum. As if that weren't obvious with the XK's long, sweeping hood; selfish cabin; muscular rear shoulders; and handsome 18-inch, flared spoke alloy wheels that anchor the corners and completely fill the radiused wheelwells.
The In Crowd approves
Inside, deep, well-bolstered bucket seats grip you securely, and they feel great on long drives. Traditional Jaguar fans can choose honey-toned burl walnut or lighter poplar wood accents; newer customers may opt for brushed aluminum. Either way, the interior is stunning.
The wheelbase is 6.4 inches longer and the XK's about 3 inches wider than its predecessor, so the cockpit is generously sized without losing that sports roadster coziness. An electronic parking brake eliminates the old protruding fly-off lever. Those vestigial rear seats were retained after clients told researchers they didn't want a folding metal roof (because it would have made the car's butt too wide), and they really wanted small, practical rear seating that's fine for smallish people over short distances.
With the push of a button, the XK's triple-layer convertible soft top folds using hydraulic actuators and electronic controls in just 18 seconds. The side windows and rear-quarter glass are raised at the end of the cycle. It's stored beneath a trim tonneau cover. Fully folded, there's still room for 2+2 seating.
When the top is up, if you stow the retractable load-space separator, there's an additional 3 cubic feet of storage space. Designer Ian Callum said that his team looked at a folding hardtop, but they did not want to pay the weight penalty, and they would have had to make the XK wider in the rear, compromising its slim profile.
The Cat is definitely back
On South Africa's smooth, sweeping roads, we reveled in the throaty roar from the two-stage muffler. At idle, it purrs; under hard acceleration, there's a yowl reminiscent of the thrilling note from the parallel exhaust pipes of Jag's classic XK120. Time after time, we ran the XK through its gears just to hear their symphony. And on the twisty Killarney racetrack, we switched off the traction control and marveled at just how controllable this new XK is — a flick of the wrists gathered it up every time.
Oh, and here are the numbers according to Jag: zero to 60 mph is 5.9 seconds. The quarter-mile takes just 14.4 seconds. Add a tenth to both for the convertible. Top whack is electronically limited to 155 mph. The massive brakes are incredible, powerful enough to stop the car in just over 113 feet from 60 mph. Fuel mileage is 18 mpg city, 26 mpg highway.
The 2007 Jaguar XK coupe and convertible go on sale in April, priced at $75,500 for the coupe and $81,500 for the convertible. They'll go quickly.