Jaguar Revives Its Tradition of Speed With Stunning New XK8 Sports Car

Jaguar is going back to its ancestry.

The new cheetah of these big cats, known as the XK8, is faster and more nimble than its predecessor, the overweight, overpriced, overaged XJ-S.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Jaguar's slogan was "Grace, Space, Pace." Its cars kept that pace - elegant, quiet, comfortable, blindingly fast ... head-turners.

The XK8 does that and more. The Connolloy leather, Wilton wool carpet, and walnut dashboard of our test car not only told the Jaguar story, they made it purr. "I just like being in it," said one passenger.

Carwash attendants and parking valets wanted to be in it, too: "Wow! Cool car. What is it?" crooned a couple of towel jockeys at a local carwash. At a classy restaurant, the valets left the car out front and knew later which wheels to fetch.

The coolest thing about sitting in the new Jag is holding the steering wheel - leather-wrapped grips on the sides and walnut inserts top and bottom. You just want to keep turning back and forth, the two surfaces sliding through your hands.

And unlike its predecessors, this cat offers more than atmosphere and looks. When Ford bought the company in 1989, the challenge was to redeem Jaguar's reputation for poor reliability without losing the character of the marque.

Japanese carmakers had overwhelmed the 12-cylinder XJ-S with faster, better, cheaper competitors that, unlike Jags of old, never leaked oil and virtually never broke down.

Skeptics worried that Ford might improve reliability but implant Jaguar with all the spunk of a, well, Ford.

Instead, the company focused on modernizing the factory in Coventry, England, and left product development alone. The result was a sedan, the XJ6, that blends Jaguar tradition with reliability.

The XK8 builds on that improvement. It is modeled not on its immediate predecessor, the XJ-S, but on the sports car that made Jaguar famous: the 1964-1973 XK-E, now on permanent display at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

While not priced for the masses, the XK8 is considerably less than the XJ-S. The coupe rolls out of the showroom at $64,900, with a convertible at $69,900. That includes traction-control, anti-lock brakes, and dual airbags.

Our test coupe, loaded with a foul-weather package and premium sound system, clocked in at $70,110. It drank a gallon of premium gas every 21 miles.

Compared with Japanese sports coupes, however, the quality still falls a bit short. The test car had an inoperative power passenger seat, and on a cold night the right front turn signal refused to light up initially. In a $70,000 car, that's noteworthy.

Otherwise the car ran well. Jaguar's first-ever V-8 engine is all-aluminum, and in the best Jaguar tradition, muscular and smooth. The chassis, a heavily modified version of the XJ-S, is stable and predictable, even in hard turns.

The only blemish on its stunning performance is a sluggish automatic transmission. At highway speeds, there's no problem, but in town it stifles performance. From a stop it upshifts determinedly just when you're beginning to pick up speed. Acceleration withers embarrassingly beside many low-geared economy sports cars. For $64,900, you'd like every other sports car on the road to get a good look at your tailpipe.

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