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Something makes sports car enthusiasts care very deeply about Jaguar, the venerable British nameplate that has, alas, been owned by Ford Motor (F) since 1990. For the brand that earned devotion with the sexy postwar XK-120 and iconic E-Type, the American ownership of Jag has been a good-news, bad-news affair. While Jag's quality, once a bigger joke than Richard Harris singing MacArthur Park, is now top-drawer, it's brand élan has never been worse. Sales of Jaguars have been plummeting recently and Jag hasn't helped its image by foisting a $30,000 front-wheel-drive compact sedan, the X-Type, on the public.
That brings us to the newest cat from Coventry with an assist from Dearborn, Mich. This sleek, curvaceous, burl-walnut bedecked, $80,000-plus new XK convertible is Ford's best attempt yet to restore to Jag the burn that has long been absent.
The XK shares underpinnings with another Ford-owned sports car, the $110,000-plus Aston Martin Vantage. Jag lifted the 4.2-liter 300-horsepower V8 engine from the XJ sedan. No surprise then, that the car purrs nicely at low speed and elevates to a throaty growl at higher revs.
As few of us get to drive any vehicle above 100 mph, what's important about this car is its design, interior appointments, and, of course, the admiration elicited when its driver pulls up at the boss's weekend house. The rear-quarter view of the XK is its most photogenic. The haunches of the convertible (the model I tested) really do remind me of a big cat hunkering down for a pounce. The burl walnut in the cockpit is masterful. Leatherwork on the seats, as you'd expect in a Brit car, is as good as a Rolls-Royce. Steering precision and braking power exceed any Jag in recent memory and are on a par with a Mercedes. A simple LCD touch-screen in the center of the dash that controls navigation, audio, temperature, and other functions seems wonderfully simple at first. But with the top down, readability washes away with sunshine, and it often took me multiple jabs to change the radio station. The wheel-wells are a bit overgenerous, but that's to accommodate optional, gawdy 20-inch wheels.
THAT FORD TAURUS SMILE
The front end is a bit too blocky, but it was designed to meet new European regulations intended to give pedestrians a better chance of survival if the car plows into them. And Jaguar should change the vapid smiling grille reminiscent of the -- egads! -- Ford Taurus.
The backseat held a booster seat and my preschool son. But I'd only subject a suitcase, or Hummer owners who don't recycle, to the same. One glaring omission: a retracting hardtop that's de rigueur among pricey convertibles like the Mercedes SLK. The cloth top, when up, makes for a noisy cruise.
The XK is the start of a last-ditch effort by Ford to save the Jaguar brand by concentrating on stylish models, all priced above $40,000. This strategy will be advanced with a new S-Type sedan by 2008 and the decision to let the X-Type fade into the same dustbin as Roger Moore's 007 films.
At bottom, the XK is a fun, stylish car that befits the heritage of the Jag brand for those of us who still care. Still, among convertibles, I find the BMW Z4, Mercedes SLK, Audi S4, and even the Mazda Miata more flat-out fun to drive, even if they don't have the same cachet among many sports car enthusiasts as the Jag.
Editor's note: The Jaguar XK's aluminum chassis is derived from the Jaguar XJ. It shares only an engine block with the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
Corrections and Clarifications
In "Trying to sharpen Jaguar's claws" (Executive Life, July 10), the Jaguar XK's aluminum chassis is derived from the Jaguar XJ. It shares only an engine block with the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
By David Kiley