The convertible was designed before the coupe version
Jaguar has stopped looking back with its new XK. All you have to do is make sure you get the model with the roof, says John Simister

This is is a very rare treat. Driving a right-hand drive car at very satisfying speeds on the familiar, that is left, side of the road. It's the southern tip of the Dark Continent itself. South Africa, deeply beautiful despite all the ugliness of thought visited upon it in the past. Should I be feeling uncomfortable about driving in something so new and shiny and covetable, as I pass by pedestrians out in the country who think nothing of a 15-mile walk? Maybe not; people seem to love the Jaguar, judging by their waves and smiles.

What, then, is it? The embodiment of gorgeousness, if that rather arrogant, élitist and tedious ad campaign is to be believed. This "gorgeous" idea does seem to make sense in itself, though, not least because Jaguar can't go the hard-edged, clinical, technical route of the Germans because we all know Jaguar's brand values are warmer, more emotive than that. But neither can Jaguar retreat into the warm womb of history any more. It has done retro for too long.

The XK is the first taste of the new attitude, an attitude which has to be keen and forward-looking because otherwise Jaguar (known within the corridors of Ford US power as "the English patient") will die.

Besides, there was never anything retro about an E-type or an early XJ6. Jaguar design didn't fall back on its past then; it merely looked to what had gone before to give a visual continuity with what came next. The new XK is designed to reactivate that approach, so it has the open, oval mouth of the D-type racing car and the E-type and the XK8 that it replaces, but it has edges and tautness where once lay voluptuousness, and feline qualities all of its own.

In the metal, all of it aluminium (which is how the XK manages to be 90kg lighter than the XK8), it does look pretty good. I wasn't so sure when I first saw the XK, though. The shape is lovely, no doubt about it, especially at the rear quarters where the metal is stretched over the rear wheels then drawn sharply in behind them into a tapered tail. Viewed from the front three-quarter, the XK looks lithe and compact in way defiant of the true measurement. But the lights are fussy - the designer Ian Callum says they introduce a deliberate note of discord to make you notice them - and there's bright jewellery across the side intakes, and between the rear lights, which is superfluous.

It works much better in the open air than under the glare of motor-show spotlights, though, and a metallic grey XK coupé emerging, sun-dappled, from a cool avenue is a fine sight. The convertible doesn't generate quite the same desire, but is imposing nevertheless. There's also a strong chance that this open XK will come close to the driving precision and satisfaction of the coupé, which the last one's floppiness thwarted. That's because, this time, the XK's structure was designed from the start as a sufficiently-strong convertible, before the coupé parts were added. This is important. The new convertible's bodyshell is half as stiff again as the old one's, helped mainly by very deep, square-tube sills which are the largest aluminium extrusions produced anywhere in the European motor industry. The fact remains, though, that the coupé is still twice as rigid as even the new convertible, and that is bound to show in the driving experience. Some of the castings in the XK's structure are borrowed from the XJ saloon, incidentally, which was Jaguar's first all-aluminium production car, but the pop-up bonnet, which protects errant pedestrians from hitting the hard engine beneath, is all new.

It's the convertible that I drive first. Jaguar did consider a solid-roof coupé-cabriolet (CC) design, like that of the Mercedes-Benz SL rival, but decided to stay with two distinct XK body-styles. There were two reasons. With a solid roof in place, the XK had to have the right Jaguar fastback look, which is not possible with a CC roof. And a CC roof robs space needed for the rear seats which, though tiny, are cited by existing XK owners as a major plus point for the storage space they offer.

So, no CC. The sun is ablaze, the soft-top has been electrically retracted and secreted beneath its aluminium cover, and we amble onto the serene streets of Stellenbosch en route to the coast road and the hills. The cabin is quite unlike the old XK8's, and the better for it: there's no "aeroplane wing" of wood across the dashboard, in fact no wood at all. In its place, garnishing a facia of easy modernity with a good-looking, easily-learnt touch-screen information system at its centre, is textured aluminium to reflect the car's construction. Quite right, too. No E-type ever had wood, after all. Two types of wood are available, however, and US dealers (who always sell from stock because buyers won't wait) have so far ordered most of their cars with wood.

The engine is much the same V8 as used before, all-aluminium (again) and now generating 300bhp from its 4.2 litres. The six-speed automatic transmission's gearing is shorter-legged than before, which, with the lighter weight should sharpen the acceleration, and there are fine, crackling V8 sound-effects on offer thanks to a tuned intake system and a rear exhaust silencer which, like a Ferrari's or an Aston Martin's, is bypassed at crucial high-energy moments.

Out in the hills the XK is sounding great, its gearbox is proving a work of genius (more in a minute), but I'm somehow not electrified. This is a very good convertible, and the lack of wind noise with the roof raised is impressive, but it feels less lively than I expected and its driving dynamics, for all the body's commendable rigidity, are not engaging me fully.

An anti-climax, then? Tomorrow dawns, and I'm in a handsome gunmetal-grey coupé the colour of my Corgi E-type model from the early 1960s. It's running on huge 20in wheels instead of the open car's 19in items (standard wear is 18in), and looks the hard-edged, driver-focused GT that has been missing since the E-type went soft (supercharged "R" version of the XK8 excepted).

Some aspects of fit and finish are troubling - the fit of the tacked-on rear spoiler, the exposed rivets in the tailgate's aperture that betray the construction method - but those rivets will be covered in the proper production cars (these pre-production XKs were built in December) and we are told the spoiler will be snug. Anyway, it takes just half a mile to forgive the flaws, because this XK feels the car I'd hoped it would be. The ride is firm but disciplined, the steering has precision and bite, even the engine feels keener, although the coupé is only 30kg lighter than the convertible.

There's a long, straight road, deserted and dramatic. I could have reached 60mph in 5.9 seconds from a standstill if I had tried, but right now we're going rather faster than that: not quite the 155mph top speed but briefly, before a crest triggers due caution, just 15mph shy of that figure. Like the convertible, the coupé doesn't feel quite as fast as it is, but that's because the mapping of the electronic throttle is designed to make the engine feel keen to rev rather than muscular low down. Besides, there's that gearbox to play with.

This is the most engaging, driver-involving automatic I have yet tried. Normally, such Tiptronic-type transmissions feel too aloof when in manual mode, not doing as they're told when they're told, and inflicting surges and uncertainty on a car's occupants. This one is not only an excellent automatic but also has a terrific manual mode, called Jaguar Sequential Shift. It's activated by steering-wheel paddles that are very well placed, and the shift speed is even quicker than, while feeling as smooth as, that current doyen of sequentials, the VW/Audi DSG. The downshifts are especially good, incorporating a throttle-blip like that of a Ferrari F1-type robotised manual.

Because it's instantly reactive, you don't get frustrated and bored by it. You feel in proper control, and it's marvellous. Aston Martin (a sister company to Jaguar) pointed the way with a similar transmission in the DB9, but the XK takes the idea to the next level of usability. It brings the XK alive, the better to enjoy a directness and intimacy of steering and handling never found in any XK8, "R" or not. The front wheels grip and grip and grip, while at the back the suspension (helped by the automatically, electrically-variable dampers) feels fluid and mobile as it helps point the XK into a bend and power out it.

You can drift out of a corner with a tail-flourish provided you set the stability system to its more lenient mode. You can interplay throttle and steering to a degree rare in a big automatic because the transmission allows such accurate control. The upshot is a big Jaguar that feels like a compact one; a Jaguar which feels, in fact, as you might expect an Aston Martin to feel (yet which, at prices from £58,995, costs far less). Yes, the ride is no longer pillowy and there's quite a lot of tyre roar on coarse surfaces, but these are the signs of a Jaguar designed to engage its driver instead of passively cossetting.

Jaguar has needed to reinvent itself to face the future, to move on and stop being the maker of "old men's" cars. (And even today's truly "old men" have never been younger in outlook.) The XK is the first step. It is Jaguar's future, and it works.

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