Advantage Coventry

Mark Hughes pits Jaguar’s caring coupe for the ’90s against a broad chested bruiser from Munich

When Jaguar produces a new car, particularly a sportscar, expectations are almost unfeasibly high. Not only is it hoped that it will continue a lineage of feline beauty that encompasses the exquisite XK120, C, D and E-Types but it’s expected to be a machine of the highest calibre, capable of humbling its traditional rivals, BMW and Mercedes. In today’s world that means more than merely being a better drive; it must at least match their solidity, provide just as convincing a blend of all-round ability too, all within a package which maintains Jaguar’s traditional price advantage. A tall order for Jaguar’s first sports/GT car in 21 years, the XK8, a car which, in coupe form, finds its closest adversary in BMW’s recently-revised 840Ci.

The verdict is still out on whether the XK8 is ultimately a beautiful car, but in the flesh it certainly has presence. Its low build, high window line and multi-planed animal curves which could only be Jaguar create a drama that is largely absent in the aggressive, yet more ordinary-looking BMW. Where the subtle curves of the Jag flow gently, the BMW sits strident and harsh, mean as hell, the very epitome of late-80s up-front brash. There’s nothing subliminal about those extravagantly flared wheel arches, its muscle-man stance relieved only through the delicacy lent by its pillarless side windows. But it’s a more upright car than the Jaguar, more obviously saloon-derived and as such creates nothing like the attention.

These themes are repeated inside. The BMW dominated by a big, wide. centre console, its sweep mimicked by those of the door armrests, creating a cool, geometrical environment in contrast to the more abstract, cosier curves of the XK8’s dash. This friendlier feel is massaged home in the Jag by softer texturing and colours (particularly so with the Sport interior of our test car rather than the more ostentatious wood and leather Classic pack). But while it may be more seductive, the quality of materials is still not as uniformly high. The plastic trim surrounding the gearlever was coming adrift in our car, and some of the minor controls are very clearly Ford and Mazda-sourced.

The cosy environment inside the Jaguar is partly created by the traditional Jaguar way in which you sink down into the XK8, below the level of the high sills. This contrives to add to its exotic feel, in contrast to the more upright Teuton. It also helps give better headroom than the low roofline might suggest. But the confines inside are definitely much more restricted than in the practical BM. The 8-series gives a more commanding view, gives you much more shoulder room, more leg and headroom too. The back seats of the Jag are a joke, those of the BM restricted but feasible. The XK8 isn’t cramped up front, and its seats are comfortable and super-supportive, but fat cats are rather better catered for in the BMW, a point driven home by the wider proportions of the seat squabs. Both cars boast boots capable of holding two sets of golf clubs, a fact which is more illuminating about the target clientele than anything else. Despite the sporting billing of these cars, they are a long way from the E-Type to which many of the XK8’s styling cues refer. Altogether more refined and practical, bigger, softer and heavier, they target a more mature market. As driving machines they will deeply impress, rather than thrill.

Against such a backdrop it’s little surprise to find that a manual gearbox is not even an option for the XK8, and that the six-speed manual offered on the 840 is usually passed by in favour of the auto (incorporating Tiptronic semi-auto facility) of our test car. Each of these five-speed transmissions is mated to cutting-edge alloy V8, quad-cam, 32valve engines. That in the Jaguar is an all-new 4-litre design, a capacity from which the 840 engine has just been increased, now standing at 4.4. Although each gives similar power and torque, the greater bulk of the BMW gives the Jaguar a decisive power-to-weight advantage.

And yet… Squirt each around town and you’d swear the BM was quicker. This comes courtesy of a fatter torque curve with a lower peak, as that extra 400cc comes to your aid, and a torque converter wound rather tighter giving instant, punchy response rather than the progressive smoothness of the Jaguar’s. It’s only out on the open road, where you can give the Jag V8 its head, that its greater pace becomes apparent. It stays strong a long way further up its rev band than the BM unit and it has a beautiful fluidity of response. It revs free and it revs hard in a way that no Jaguar production engine ever has, yet at a cruise retains an impeccable, unflustered refinement that fully lives up to the marques reputation.

The 840’s motor can match neither the free-revving sweetness, nor the high speed silence of the Jaguar’s, but is by any normal standards a great combination of punch and refinement. Under acceleration both engines feature evocative, hard-edged V8 sounds, though its easier to play tunes with that of the BMW courtesy of its Tiptronic change facility. This has recently had its software revised, and now gives quite superbly pin-sharp changes the instant you move the lever either up or down. Once you tire of this the lever can be moved back across to the right for auto-mode (with adaptive electronics) where its changes are smooth and seamless.

Not quite as seamless as the XK8’s, though. This new transmission, developed in conjunction with ZF, is quite the best combination of response and smoothness throughout the range of change parameters we’ve ever encountered. Up, down, part-throttle or full, many of the changes are detectable only by the engine note. It’s almost enough to forgive it the lack of semi-auto mode — but not quite.

Both transmissions work through traction control systems which are barely needed in the dry, such are the width of the tyres and efficiency of their suspensions. Switch them off and the natural understeer of both (more pronounced in the BM) can be countered by power through slow corners, but these are not the sort of antics appropriate to these cars. Rather they are best enjoyed on fast, flowing A and B roads where their rhythm is not disturbed through big directional changes and their high speed poise can best be appreciated. The Jaguar’s steering is more informative than the BMW’s and its body roll more tightly checked: it feels generally more compact, giving more confidence about pressing on. The 840 has no vices up its sleeve, but it never actively encourages you to push.

The Jaguar came equipped with the optional CATS (Computerised Active Technology Suspension) adaptive damping set-up, the BMW with the firmer of two available suspension packs. The CATS package gives the XK8 a ride which, at low speed, is a little more jiggly than usual for a Jag but which is still more compliant than the BMW’s. Yet at high speed it gives firmer control of the body than the BM.

So the XK8 not only out-performs and outhandles its rival, but out-rides it too. All at a price saving of over £8,000 (though admittedly some of this is taken up by the BM’s longer list of standard equipment). Against this the BMW can offer only its formidable build quality which, visually at least, still betters that of the Jaguar, and its roomier interior. Even judged solely on these tangible, objective measures, the XK8 has the measure of the 840. And that’s before you even begin to take into account details like how wonderfully progressive its brake pedal action is, how much more special it feels to be sitting low in its cockpit, the sheer sensuality of the car. That it has retained such traditional Jaguar values amid an up-to-the-minute package which more than accounts for the opposition is great news.