New Jaguars don't appear that often, so the 1996 arrival of the XK8 was a big event. Not only the first clean-sheet Jaguar since 1987’s “XJ40” sedans, it’s the first with a V-8 -- itself only the fourth major engine in Jaguar history. Moreover, this new coupe and convertible are the first XK Jaguars since the beloved E-type (a.k.a. XK-E) died 21 years before.
Yet despite its wonderfully evocative styling, the XK8 does not pick up where the E-type left off. Jaguar may call it a sports car, but it’s really a posh grand tourer like the model it replaces, the XJS. Indeed, the XK8 uses part of the S-type platform, rides the same classic, all-independent double-wishbone suspension, and offers similarly luxurious “2+2” accommodations.
The XJS was hooted on its 1975 debut for abandoning sports-car basics as much as for its controversial coupe styling. But Jaguar knew what people wanted. With steady improvements to its big V-12, and the later addition of convertible and six-cylinder models, the S actually gained in annual sales as time passed.
It was thus logical that the XK8 would follow a similar formula. The XK8 originated soon after Ford bought Jaguar in 1990 and axed an erstwhile E-type successor dubbed XK-F (some of which was later salvaged for the Aston Martin DB7).
Meanwhile, Jaguar was investigating V-8s and had a prototype engine running by late 1991. Two years after that, Ford approved a V-8 XJS replacement coded “X100,” and the XK8 was a showroom reality just 30 months later. That was warp-speed for tiny Jaguar, but the X100 team received valuable timesaving pointers from the Ford crew working on the new ’94 Mustang.
The result blends traditional Jaguar elegance with American manufacturing professionalism. XK8 not only is rock-solid and free of quirky details, it’s agile like the XJS never was. It’s fast, too, thanks to that muscular new “AJ-V8.” An all-Jaguar, all-alloy, twincam engine (what else from Coventry?), the AJ-V8 relishes revs, yet never rises above a muted growl. And it mates beautifully with a new five-speed automatic transmission from Germany’s ZF that changes gears like a mercury switch.
A pure sports car? No, the XK8 is far too refined for that, but it is a genuine sporting Jaguar and modern in every way. If that’s not something to celebrate, nothing is.