road test: 2001 Jaguar XK8

xjrHow would you have replaced the XJ-S in 1996? It wasn’t an easy thing to do, not least because it had been in production for over twenty years and was still deservedly popular. Indeed, the final 1994 XJS Celebration models were wonderful things to drive, despite feeling like they were from another age; modern rivals from the Rover 827 Coupe to the BMW 850 felt awkward, plasticky and graceless by comparison. The XJS had bags of old world charm and quirkiness, yet was supremely comfortable and satisfyingly swift on the move. The 4.0 AJ16 engined ones were rapid and fun, the 6.0 V12 was blisteringly fast, silent and smooth – and both made you feel like a film star when you drove them.

As ever, Jaguar didn’t have a huge budget – having never quite learnt the art of making cars for less than it was supposed to sell them. So Browns Lane performed a very familiar trick, which was to repackage the same dish on a different plate. Fortunately for the Birmingham company, the ingredients it had to play with – namely the XJS and the X300 – were excellent already. The X100 (or the XK8 as it became known) was an inspired soufflé of both. Following Jaguar’s tradition of debuting its new engines in its sportscars before its saloons, the sleek new coupe came with the impressive AJ26 V8 engine in supercharged or normally aspirated form. Superficially this new motor was superb, with a creamy smoothness, a stirring sound and oceans of effortless torque whether you chose the 400BHP or 300BHP (respectively) version, but things didn’t quite go to plan…

The XK8 itself was effectively a rebodied XJS, using its excellent, stiff floorpan and double wishbone front suspension – with the rear suspension coming from the simpler but still superb XJ40. This gave a delightfully smooth, pliant ride on 16 or 17″ wheels, but larger wheels that came on later XK8s weren’t so nice; they may have looked more impressive but they spoiled the car’s natural poise and fluency. The body itself was a lighter, thinner steel than the XJS, but heavily zinc treated and less prone to corrosion than its predecessor. It came in two variants, the coupe and convertible; for the sporting driver the former is considerably nicer to drive thanks to its ultra rigid bodyshell, and it suits the supercharged engine’s extra urge more. The soft top is still very nice though, giving a silky drive that’s especially nice on 17″ wheels.

With a sizeable amount of power but less weight than the XJS, the XK8 is a very swift car even in normally aspirated form. Being a V8 it has plenty of punch at lower revs, and overtaking is effortless. It really surges forward on light throttle loads, so you need to keep an eye on your speed. Anyone used to the Jaguar sixes will be delighted by its smoothness and thrust, although XJS V12 owners might find it a little uncouth and melodramatic, as theirs is surely one of the finest engines ever made. Allied to strong brakes, an excellent chassis and a very well matched 5-speed autobox, an XK8 is a fine thing to drive.

It’s a little less lovely to own though, if you buy the wrong one. The AJ26 engine was plagued by two problems. First were its Nikasil liners; in an ideal world these were better than conventional iron (being stronger and lighter with lower friction), but the high sulphur content in some countries’ unleaded fuel proved corrosive and the bores were easily damaged. This wasn’t exclusively a Jaguar problem, many nineteen nineties marques suffered it – including BMW and Mercedes on their big V8s. It is perfectly possible to buy a car with a good AJ26 engine that’s undamaged by Nikasil, but you’d be crazy not to have a compression check done before you handed over money; this is the only way you can be sure the engine is tip-top.

The other problem with the AJ26 was its plastic timing chain tensioners, which crack after about 10 years, or 100,000 miles. Obviously depending on use this may be less, and you never know until you whip top of the block off. If there are any signs of wear (and there will be!), then you need the latest metal Jaguar replacements put in; both upper and lower tensioners should be done. Having seen my own XK8’s tensioners after 109,000 miles, I would have been lucky to get another 500 miles out the engine before they broke up and made mincemeat of the engine’s innards – so the importance of these cannot be overstated. If the XK8 you’re looking at hasn’t had its camchain tensioners replaced with the later type, either don’t buy it or deduct £1,000 and get it done as soon as you get the car home.

In 1999, Jaguar quietly replaced the AJ26 engine with the AJ27, which got continuously variable valve timing and reinforced camchain tensioners – as well as being nominated as one of Wards Best 10 Engines of 2000. Confusingly, late AJ26s had upgraded tensioners too, and then in 2001 the engine got another redesigned set of tensioners, this time – critically – in metal. These are the ones to go for, finally eliminating the problem altogether. Opinions vary about when exactly this variant of the AJ27 came in, with stories from Jaguar employees to the effect that there is no recorded date of a transfer between plastic and metal. In reality, it’s likely that cars from mid-2001 should have the new tensioners. If you’ve bought an XK8 and are unsure, take it to your Jaguar specialist and get it checked. Sadly they don’t give any kind of audible warning before they fail – unlike Hondas, for example!

All of this makes the AJ34 engined XK8 from 2002 the one to go for; if it has a 4.2 engine there will be no Nikasil or timing chain tensioner issues and you’re left with a very reliable, powerful and characterful engine – and the highest standard of equipment, build and finish of all XK8s. The final versions are beautiful machines in every way, the only downside being the wide availability of built-in sat nav in this era of cars; Jaguar’s sat-nav may have seemed impressive in a world of first-generation Tomtoms, but it is poor by modern standards and the mapping isn’t updatable, so you’re stuck in a late nineteen nineties road system! Worst of all though, it ruins the otherwise very pretty six-dial dashboard, which is one of the interior’s nicest features. My advice is get a non-sat nav car and buy a new Tomtom!

The main issues with XK8s nowadays – engines aside – are the profusion of suspension bushes which will all be going hard. Fortunately, the XK8 uses the XJ40’s rear suspension, and not the XJS’s racing car spec four damper-per-axle set-up, so it’s cheaper to fix, but if your prospective Jaguar clonks when it goes over bumps, there are lots of bushes that could need replacing. The most common will be the top bushes on the dampers, which take the biggest hammering. Fortunately this isn’t too complex for a Jaguar specialist, and enthusiastic drivers should go to the trouble of replacing the dampers themselves at the same time. Cars with the CATS active suspension are best avoided, simply because there’s more to go wrong and a well preserved non-CATS car drives and handles beautifully anyway. Other woes? The headlamps aren’t good for a car of this performance, and the electric radio aerial sticks; brighter bulbs and a replacement mast will sort these for under £100. Finally, the auto box needs regular fluid changes; officially it is ‘sealed for life’ but unofficially it’s well worth spending £150 getting the old fluid flushed out and the correct new oil put in every few years, to keep your transmission sweet.

Get a later model XK8 and you will surely love it. It is one of the prettiest nineteen nineties cars, and already looks timeless in a way that the more bold and quirky XJ-S never did. An AJ34 engined one shouldn’t give you too much trouble, with tyres and petrol being the major expense. Even these aren’t as expensive as a BMW 850 of that age, and smaller consumables like brake pads are closer to Mini prices than Rolls Royce. The normally aspirated XK8 is capable of an easy 30MPG on a run if driven gingerly (not that you’d want to), and they’re super motorway cruisers as well as being great B-road blasters. Ultimately, the X100 is not as dynamically capable as the later aluminium bodied XK that replaced it in 2006, it’s an altogether sweeter, softer and more charming car. And – as any Jag fan will attest – they’re much nicer to drive than the Aston Martin DB7 which shares much of its DNA, even if it lacks the fancy brand name. Another Brown’s Lane car to file under ‘future classic’, then!

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