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A smooth, svelte all-rounder of a grand tourer, which can equally cosset and thrill in equal measure when called upon

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For Jaguar enthusiasts, the pairing of the letters ‘X’ and ‘K’ has long heralded excitement.

Although the mainstay of the British sporting marque’s business is rooted in saloons, it's sports cars and coupés that have put Jags on people’s most-wanted lists for decades.

The Jaguar XK remains one of the most desirable all-rounders in its class

And today is no different: the XK remains one of the most beautiful, desirable and dynamically impressive sports coupes available anywhere in the world.

More than 65 years ago, Jaguar redefined sports cars with the 1948 XK, clothing a big engine and big performance in bodywork that was svelte to the point of sensuality.

The firm has been offering much the same XK formula ever since, if with the occasional change of emphasis. The original XK was succeeded by the legendary E-type, known as the XKE in America.

Jaguar’s most famous car, it was a sensational looker and a monolithic landmark in the development of the sports car - the first production car that Autocar ever tested to exceed 150mph.

Gradually, through the XJS and XK8, the XK concept has evolved away from being an out-and-out sports car and more towards being a refined grand tourer. The XK now has to fill dual roles as a cosseting grand tourer at one end of the model range, and a full-blown hardcore sports car on the other – that role admirably taken by the unhinged XKR-S model, the most powerful car in the company’s long history.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Jaguar XK 20in black alloys

Even before the current XK arrived on our roads back in 2006 it attracted controversy as a design. We shouldn’t be surprised: a cornerstone of a Jaguar’s appeal has always been its sensuous styling, and image is more important than ever in these design-savvy times.

The XK has presence. From some angles it is strikingly handsome, but it isn’t quite the gorgeous vision in aluminium that Jaguar’s marketing suits would have us believe.

The steroidal excess of the XKR-S looks like shoulder pads on a supermodel. I prefer the simpler beauty of the standard XK

The XK remains a conservative design, even after facelifts in 2009 and 2011. Its classical coupé proportions mix with strong Jaguar hallmarks such as the ovoid intake ‘mouth’. But perhaps the biggest change is that the fuselage shape of the XK8’s lower body has been traded for a Coke-bottle form that heightens the XK’s muscularity, as do shorter overhangs and a wider track.

It is the larger details that split opinions most: the bluff nose, the slightly shapeless headlamps and the round tail lights provoking most debate. Some believe the overall design should have been more adventurous.

The same cannot be said of the XKR-S model, which is about as in-your-face as a sports design can be. XKR-Ss get heavily sculpted front-ends for increased cooling and greater distinction. It’s a design that’s very un-Jaguar, but diversification away from what one believes a traditional Jaguar should be is a constant aim for design chief Ian Callum and his team. 

Many will gaze at the XK’s bodywork without realising that the metal itself is what sets this new Jaguar apart. Like the XJ, it uses Jaguar’s epoxy-bonded and riveted aluminium monocoque construction. Not only does this make the XK 30 percent stiffer than the old XK8, it is also around 100kg lighter.

INTERIOR

Jaguar XK dashboard

Jaguar has constructed the XK’s interior from fine-quality materials for the most part and furnished with a choice of wood or titanium decor that really broadens its appeal. Only some humdrum plastic cheapens the effect.

The upright dashboard of the XK8 has been replaced by a gently sloping fascia, and it is the better for it. Taller drivers can now get comfortable behind the wheel: there’s a good range of wheel and pedal adjustment, and acceptable head and legroom. It feels spacious enough, but remains cocooning, like a good GT should.

The interior is pure GT - cosseting, sumptuous and comfortable

Cocooned to the point of entrapment is how you’ll feel in the rear – assuming you can get in at all. Even kids will moan, and justifiably. Jaguar defends this with research indicating that’s its customers are happy, but that surely doesn’t excuse the mediocre 330-litre boot, even if the hatchback makes loading it easy. These things impact seriously on the XK's touring ability.

The XK’s interior is certainly the most hi-tech yet for a Jaguar coupé or cabriolet. In 2009, it improved further with a revised centre console, which houses the rotary gear selector from the XF. It’s a nice system that feels tactile and looks classy.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Jaguar XK front quarter

Jaguar's new 5.0-litre V8 that sits at the heart of all XKs is a revelation. It’s smooth and eager to rev, and it emits a glorious burble that switches to a snarl at the top of the rev range. Going down the ’box in manual mode, the exhaust even pops and crackles. Brilliant.

In-gear acceleration is sharp. The normally aspirated XK takes 2.5secs to get from 50mph to 70mph. But the linear nature of the power delivery never makes it feel that quick – the old supercharged 4.2-litre V8 XK suddenly unleashed a great gob of acceleration, while the new naturally aspirated XK piles on the speed with less drama.

The XKR-S is brutally fast, but the chassis of the standard XK is the best everyday tune

Opt for the XKR and the supercharged V8 turns what is an extremely good GT into both an excellent and extremely fast one. The engine means that it shoots from 0-60mph in just 4.6sec, but the killer blow is that the XKR fires from 50-70mph in 1.9sec.

If this doesn’t look so impressive on paper, on the road it’s the difference between picking off one overtaking victim and a whole swarm of them. More impressive still is the sheer relentlessness of the acceleration. Maximum torque of 461lb ft is on tap from 2500rpm to 5500rpm, making it hugely tractable. Like the same-engined XF saloon, the XKR is benign and unimposing when you want it to be and demonically quick when you plant your right foot.

The standard XKR is hardly lacking propulsion, but the XKR-S is noticeably quicker again and freer revving at the top end. Partly this is because the S feels like it has a more aggressive throttle map – despite Jaguar's claims to have softened it across all XKs for the 2012 model year. Either way, this is a car where you find yourself backing out of the throttle halfway down a straight in an effort to keep speeds broadly moral.

RIDE & HANDLING

The 542bhp Jaguar XK

The XK's steering, with speed-sensitive power assistance, is finger-light a low speed, the general refinement excellent, and the ride – for the most part – very accommodating. That said, the 20-inch wheels many Jaguar buyers will go for produce a stiff-legged reaction to potholes that the intermediate 19-inch rims largely avoid.

But the soothing nature of the XK is what characterises it. Even at a high-speed cruise it remains admirably quiet, and only an exaggerated roar on rough surfaces and some question marks over high-speed stability in crosswinds disturb the calm. Rolling refinement really is this car's USP.

The XK feels athletic and supple in equal measure

Pick up the pace and the XK subtly responds. It’s not a car to pummel the road into submission in order to maintain body control. Instead, the low-speed suppleness persists, even on the generally firmer and more sporting models.

The standard XK proceeds as you hoped it might: gracefully and with a pleasingly feline athleticism over challenging roads. The sensation is less raw and less aggressive than you’ll feel aboard many of the XK’s rivals, but that far from restricts its pace.

The slightly vague ‘sneeze factor’ remains in the light steering around the straight ahead, but resistance builds consistently once you’ve turned through that phase and the wheel’s general weighting and precision are good on lock.

But on a hard drive you’ll wish the rack communicated a little more and that a few layers of numbing assistance would peel away so you felt more connected. This is a car that enjoys rapid but measured progress, rather than being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and driven hard.

The downside in the R is that outright comfort takes a backwards step. Its ride is supremely composed but you detect a little more thump in the cabin over potholes and expansion joints. It’s probably a price worth paying for the extra agility, if sporting thrills are your be-all and end-all.

The dynamic changes of the S bring an improved steering response (more weight and less hesitation), making it easier and more satisfying to commit to a corner. The convertible XKR-S maintains a good balance between slightly bonkers performance and touring ability. Despite the outlandish exterior, it still possesses some traditional Jaguar refinement. Overall, the step-up in precision, composure and involvement over the standard R is probably in the region of 20 percent.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Jaguar XK

One pleasing Jaguar characteristic remains: the XK is good value. Prices start at around £65,000 for the standard normally aspirated V8 coupe and, although this is more expensive than some rivals, the Jag’s excellent standard kit list more than compensates, and never mind rivals’ air of relative ordinariness in comparison.

The 5.0-litre V8 is much more economical than its 4.2-litre predecessor, but won't return its claimed 25.2mpg unless you're restrained with the accelerator. Don’t expect to see its 264g/km CO2 emissions putting it in the running for a Green Car of the Year award though, especially lined up next to BMW’s next generation 199g/km V8.

Don't expect to run an XK on a tight budget. Fuel, tax, insurance and tyres are all costly

Insurance wise, the standard XK isn’t cheap, as you’d expect. It sits in Group 47. The XKR and XKR-S sit in the top group 50

The XKR offers a lot more than a supercharger for its £13k premium, but just remember what the sort of antics that you’re likely to get up to will do to your wallet; even being the most economical Jaguar XKR ever, we struggled to better 20mpg even when holding back. Not that this is likely to bother those shelling out for one.

For the drama and sheer performance, the XKR-S justifies its near-six-figure price but, in the final reckoning, it remains a large, relatively heavy GT. And as GT cars go, it’s difficult to argue against the XKR, especially at a saving of £20k.

The same verdict applies to the £103k convertible version of the XKR-S; whilst undoubtedly capable, it doesn't offer a significantly improved all-round package for the price premium.

VERDICT

4 star Jaguar XK

The Jaguar XK’s strength lies in the breadth of its repertoire: it both cossets and thrills, depending on mood and situation. This usability is enough to overshadow our disappointment at the XK’s final kerb weight and the effect that has on its performance.

Most customers are going to relish the rich and luxurious interior just as much as the car's speed, however.

The XK is perfect for buyers looking for elegance, comfort, daily usability and massive power

Moving away from softer rivals doesn’t prevent the Jaguar XKR being a brilliant GT. But amusing though the XKR-S is, there’s a nagging feeling that it is perhaps trying to be something it is not. The truth, we suspect, is that the XKR-S is about attracting a new type of buyer to Jaguar – one who is more extrovert and for whom 379bhp, or even 503bhp, is simply not enough.

Some say the sweet spot in the XK range is the standard 5.0-litre model. You’ll hear its supercharged XKR and XKR-S siblings a mile off and see them get more admiring glances parked outside country clubs, but the normally aspirated XK is certainly the most visually beguiling of the three-strong XK range, not to mention the most refined.

It’s as fast as you’ll ever need in almost all situations and is as usable everyday as a Ford Fiesta. All things considered, the XK is probably the best sport coupe all-rounder on sale.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Jaguar XK 2006-2014 First drives