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On The Road

Classic Brits: Jaguar's XK 4.2 and XKR are sports cars in best British tradition

Classic - in the best sense - means timeless, elegant and not subject to change in response to fashion trends. This is the first adjective that came to mind in our attempt to describe the new Jaguar XK series.

The series was first introduced for 2007 with the basic XK 4.2 coupe and convertible. This year it has been expanded to include the supercharged XKR, also available in the same coupe and convertible body styles.

Though completely new right down to the aluminum chassis and body panels, these automobiles are nevertheless identifiable at first glance by the basic silhouette that has justified the leaping cat icon since the late 1940s.

Jaguar has made a series of subtle changes to the XK's basic shape in this latest version, giving the car a slightly more solid appearance, but the sweeping fender lines, short overhangs and low oval grille opening have as much in common with the XK-Es of the 1960s as they do with contemporary trends in automotive styling.

During the recent Western Automotive Journalist media days, we enjoyed a week driving a rich "radiance red" XK coupe around the Monterey Peninsula, and for comparison put a liquid-silver XKR convertible through its paces on the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca racetrack.

We're pleased to say that if you're in the market for a true sports car in the luxury category, you won't be disappointed with either of these cars. The prices aren't inconsequential, though they're not in supercar territory, either: The coupe we drove sells for $76,700, including dealer prep and nifty 19-inch alloy wheels, and the top-of-the-line XKR convertible will come in at around $95,000.

If you're a Jaguar kind of person, you'll be very pleased with the range of improvements that Jaguar and Ford have made in these new models in comparison to the previous generation of XKs that has been on the road since 1997.

Tops on the list is the updated V-8 engine, expanded to 4.2 liters and producing 300 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque in its standard form, and 420 hp with 413 pound-feet of torque in the supercharged XKR version.

A completely new dual-clutch automatic transmission controlled by steering-wheel paddles gets that power to the wheels using technology derived from racing. This technology, now appearing on various high-performance cars, engages gears in the same direct fashion as a manual transmission, but uses electronically actuated internal clutches rather than depending on the driver's skill and left-foot clutch action.

The engine and transmission are inserted in an all-new, all-aluminum chassis and body. Jaguar made an extensive investment in aluminum manufacturing technology for the XJ sedan series, and it makes even more sense on the sports cars. Jaguar uses more aluminum in its body and chassis than any other production automobile, increasing chassis rigidity, reducing manufacturing costs and, most important, significantly reducing the overall weight of the car.

The combination of more engine power, less chassis weight and a quicker-shifting transmission produces true sports-car performance. The standard coupe goes zero to 60 mph in a competent 5.9 seconds, and the supercharged coupe manages it in a noteworthy 4.9 seconds. (The convertibles are about a tenth of a second slower because they're not quite as aerodynamic.)

We knew we weren't in the older XK as soon as we slid into the seats. Though the styling difference isn't obvious, Jaguar has stretched the wheelbase by almost 6.5 inches in the new model and widened the car a bit as well. The change in size translates into a feeling of much more interior space. Though the rear seats wouldn't be the choice of any adult for a trip of more than a few miles to a lunchtime hot spot, they actually can accommodate real people beyond the age where infant seats are required.

We were pleased to see that the controls and gauges seemed much more sensibly placed than in the previous big cats. In addition, the new transmission uses the typical cruising/sport shift gate arrangement of most other sports cars, finally doing away with the devilish J-gate that Jaguar stubbornly continued to use until the new transmissions were introduced.

Customers can choose two different wood finishes or an aluminum veneer for the interior trim surfaces, complementing the choice of leather colors. We would strongly recommend selecting a dark interior color for the space between the instruments and windshield, however. The steeply sloped windshield reflects a light-colored dash top, producing a serious glare that actually makes it difficult to see through the windshield under certain lighting conditions.

On the road, and even more apparent on the track, Jaguar has improved the suspension and handling. The standard XK 4.2 is best on long-distance cruises, offering confident road handling at high speeds while absorbing nearly all the imperfections of California's very imperfect highway system. The XKR, as you would expect, has an upgraded and much sportier suspension and brakes system, all managed by Jaguar's much-improved Computer Activated Traction System (CATS). With the CATS suspension on the stiffer chassis, its handling on the track is competitive with the serious enthusiast cars, such as the BMW M6 and Porsche.

In fact, that led to our one relative complaint about the Jaguar. Even though the company brags about the improved bolstering of the standard seats and the sportiness of the upgraded seats that are standard in the XKR, racing seats they were not. The faster we took the corners on the racetrack, the more we found ourselves sliding side-to-side on the seats.

But on balance, we suspect that Jaguar buyers aren't going to be comparing their cars with track-focused performance cars. Jaguar buyers aren't likely to be cross-shopping Corvettes, or even Porsches, and for them, we suspect, the BMW, with its bricklike styling, doesn't even deserve to be called a sports car.

Instead, the Jaguar buyer will seek this car out because of its sleek lines, and he or she will be happy that in terms of power, transmission and handling, it once again drives as good as it looks.

Gary and Genie Anderson, Los Altos residents for more than 20 years, are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits MC Squared, the MINI magazine, and contributes articles and columns to a variety of other automobile magazines.

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