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Jaguar XKR and XK8

Test venue: Ettington Park - Berkshire and Oxfordshire

Jaguar boasts that it is one of the fastest growing global motor manufacturers, although management from Browns Lane in Coventry admit that the USA still caters for between 50 and 60% of overall sales.

The success of the S-Type has lifted the profile of the Jaguar range and both the XKR and XK8 ranges are the latest models to be given a facelift. Introduced into the UK market in 1996, the XK8 sports coupes have been a phenomenal success, but the installation of the 4.2-litre V8 engine from the S-Type has transformed the latest cars.

This, along with numerous other subtle improvements and refinements, have lifted the XK into near 'super car' territory for the same price as older models. The first supercharged XKR was introduced in 1998 and both brands originally utilised the older 4.0-litre engine.

I'd been fortunate enough to have driven the full Aston Martin model range 24 hours before trying out the new Jaguar. It was a particularly suitable platform against which to compare the latest additions to the Jaguar stable.

New engine options are the normally-aspirated 4.2-litre V8 unit, which develops around 300 bhp, or the supercharged version, boasting 400 bhp. All models are restricted to a maximum speed of 155 mph and reach illegal speeds in around 5.5 seconds. This is quick enough even for the most discerning of enthusiasts.

But the new engines are merely the tip of the iceberg. The latest models are fitted with a new electronically-controlled, six-speed automatic ZF transmission using the traditional J-Gate system, dynamic stability control, emergency brake assist, xenon headlamps and new wheels and trim options.

Brembo brakes are standard on all XKR models and Jaguar offers an impressive range of extras through its R Performance range. R packs include aluminium trim options, handling packs, BBS and 20-inch wheels. There is also the option of four new exterior colours, including a striking Jaguar Racing Green.

But the system which most impressed me on a tour of the Oxfordshire and Berkshire countryside is the new Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC). This has also been introduced on Mercedes SL models. ACC is an advanced form of cruise control using microwave radar sensors, which predict and judge the distance you are driving behind a vehicle.

Set the cruise at 70 mph on the M40 and the management system will automatically reduce engine speed if a car pulls out or if the traffic slows. Once the blockage has been cleared the system automatically increases the engine speed until you are back at your cruising speed. The system is so accurate and effective that I didn't have to touch the brakes or accelerator for 16 miles on a stretch of the M40. If the sensors are blocked, perhaps by mud or snow, a 'Sensor Blocked' message warns the driver of the problem.

The supercharged unit offers smooth and impressive acceleration right through the rev range. There is no lag and the V8 unit produces a delicious whine as it reaches the peak of the rev band. Both V8 options are superbly refined and offer gut-wrenching performance, but Jaguar owners have never been bothered about fuel consumption. Drive the V8 as it cries out to be driven and you will see no more than 12 mpg, although Jaguar figures claim urban consumption of around 16 and an attainable 24-26 mpg on the open road.

In either coupe or convertible mode, both models are head turners at every count. They combine the luxury and refinement that you would expect from a car priced between 48,700 for the XK8 coupe and 63,350 for the range-topping XKR convertible, without detracting from the driving pleasure and raw appeal of a performance sports car. All models fall into insurance groups 18 E, 19 E and 20 E and are sold with Jaguar's Total Care warranty scheme.

Despite its size the XK is a very agile car. Equally at home on twisty country roads as it is making haste along a congested motorway, it offers precise speed-sensitive steering, acute handling and road holding to inspire confidence.

Dynamic Stability Control assists the driver in certain situations and computer active technology suspension (CATS) adjusts the damper settings automatically depending upon the driving environment. It's all a far cry from the crude handling and wallowing Jaguars of the early 1960s.

The interior offers all the luxury and extras you would expect from a car of this nature. The steering wheel and Recaro seats are electrically-adjustable, satellite navigation is an option and creature comforts, such as air conditioning buttons, heated seat options and switches and dials are all at hand and easy to use.

Aston Martin's bottom-of-the-range DB7 will set you back in the region of 95 grand. Compare that with the range-topping supercharged XKR at 63,000 and you could have an equally-attractive package with similar brute performance and still have around 32,000 change in your pocket. That's enough money to buy three Ford Focuses.

The Aston Martin might be hand-built, full of heritage, beautifully crafted and prestigious, but all-round improvements, no price increases and the new 4.2-litre V8 have transformed the Jaguar XK range into a very tempting and well-priced offering.

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