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First drive: Jaguar XK - on sale March



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There’s been a lot of talk lately about the possibility of Ford offsetting some of the huge losses it makes in North America by selling off Jaguar, the sports car brand it bought for £1.6bn in the early Nineties.

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to officials running the Coventry car company, which went through the pain of closing down its famous Browns Lane factory last year.

It’s not hard to see why they describe the gossip as malicious when it coincides with the launch of what could prove to be one of the most significant Jaguar ranges in years –the new XK.

Given that it has had to throttle back on ambitious plans for annual production of more than 200,000 new cars after selling less than 90,000 units worldwide last year, Jaguar is billing this all-new premium sports model as signalling the start of a fresh era, one where profit is more important than volume.

Not before time, the company has decided that small is beautiful – exclusive, even, compared with the size of premium sector rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz – and it has made a cracking start toward its new future with the XK.

Not due in the showrooms until March, this less feline and decidedly more muscular Big Cat range has already pulled in more than 4,000 advance orders. Around 1,500 of them have been placed by UK dealers, some of whom are now effectively out of supply until next year.

“This is a good start. Production of the previous XK finished last June and the run-out programme went well. We’re now building cars to customer demand and we are on course with our aim of overtaking the Mercedes-Benz 500SL and BMW 6-series to regain the market leadership won by the old model in 1997,” says brand manager Dermot Harkin.

“Times have changed since then, of course. The large premium sports car sector has expanded in size and the number of competitors has grown – but we’re confident.”

Completely reworked, the XK has followed the XJ saloon in being fashioned from aluminium. Up to 90% stiffer and 180kg lighter than their main rivals, both fixed-head and open-top models provide more shoulder and legroom than before, are quicker off the mark but use less fuel.

According to Harkin, typical customers are successful, self-made businessmen and women who see the purchase of powerful, high-grade sports models as a reward for their endeavours.

The XK should fit the bill in either guise, with a lot of equipment as standard fit, including keyless start, bi-zenon headlamps, a seven-inch colour touch-screen, satellite navigation, Bluetooth telephone system, cruise control, in-dash CD, rear parking assist, active speed limiter and an electronic parking brake.

Power comes from a smooth, 4.2-litre V8 engine linked with one of the best automatic transmission systems around: a sequential-shift six-speeder with three driving modes and an excellent paddle switch arrangement that moves with the steering wheel and provides super-fast ratio changes in 600 milliseconds.

But it’s not so much the way they perform as the way they sound that’s likely to prove the most emotive aspect of this new duo.

After years of working to engineer out every possible source of noise, Jaguar has transformed the character of XK travel by introducing new noises to the tail pipes via a clever system using valves that open according to the flow of gas.

Because they channel the gas to different chambers in the silencer, exhaust noise is reminiscent of the low, menacing sound that came from the Ford Mustang immortalized by Steve McQueen in Bullitt.

Enjoy the soundtrack.

Behind the wheel

Reduced overhangs and a wider stance make Jaguar’s new XK look a lot leaner than the old model, but step on the gas and progress in the next-generation Big Cat comes with an altogether meaner background sound.

The car uses orchestrated rasps, growls and roars as it drives – and there’s no doubt that these tailpipe tunes will be regarded as music to the ears of sports car aficionados.

Thanks to its advanced lightweight construction, this model manages to offer the pin-sharp handling and huge grip of an overtly sporty car while also providing the luxury and refinement of a grand tourer.

In either guise (fixed-head coupé and open-top), this is a head-turner with the performance – and sounds – that matches its head-turning appearance.

Strengths: Poise, balance, elegant handling
Weaknesses: Coupé doesn’t have sunroof
Opportunity: New flagship at just the right time
Threat: Stablemate Aston Martin
The USP: Blip the throttle and enjoy the sound
Price: From £58,955
Engine: 4.2-litre V8, 300bhp
Performance: 0-62: 6.2sec; top speed limited to 155mph
Transmission: Six-speed sequential automatic
Efficiency: 25mpg combined; 269g/km CO2 emissions
Rivals: Mercedes-Benz SL, BMW 6-series

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