Richard Bremner explores the relationship between three iconic GTS
Richard Bremner looks at three iconic GTS with shared DNA and tells us why to buy one now.
If you worked at Jaguar’s Browns Lane headquarters in 1980, it would have been hard to imagine that the company’s five-year old XJ-S coupé was going to live another year, never mind to 1996. Or that it would not only sire a successor, but provide the basis for a sports coupé that would save Aston Martin from oblivion. That saving came 25 years ago, the 1993 DB7 becoming the most successful Aston yet when it was finally replaced in 2004. Like the Aston, the 1996 Jaguar XK8 was heavily reliant on the XJ-S as a hardware source, if with extensive modifications, a new 4.0 litre V8 and a decidedly more modern look. The father of these two, then, was the XJ-S.
At launch in 1975 it was the world’s most refined sports coupé. It was V12-powered, most were automatic and all were and sweepingly distinctive what with its flying buttresses and a bonnet long enough to flatter cigar-chomping corporate egos.
This Jag was quick, too, but the downsides of XJ-S ownership, coupled to increasingly patchy quality saw the V12 coupé encountering a near-death experience.
Spoilt for choice
But by 1996 it had become a range, offering V12 and straight six engines, coupé or cabriolet styling and manual or automatic transmissions. With over 115,000 built, a slightly off-putting reputation for complexity and a still more off-putting capacity for corroding, it’s only in the past few years that XJS values have begun to rise. That’s been
especially true over the past year, as your reporter can painfully confirm, having sold an immaculate 28,000-mile V12 HE 12 months ago for decidedly less than it would fetch today. Nevertheless, these are still relatively affordable cars considering the cylinders, sophistication and speed that they offer.
Last of the line
The Signal Red example here is the final convertible and the penultimate XJ-S built, carrying with it most of the many modifications made to the car during its 21-year life. These include an X-shaped brace bolted beneath the convertible’s engine bay as part of the upgrade from 3.6 to 4.0 litres in May 1992. This addition improved the body’s torsional stiffness by an amazing 25 per cent, and a mere four months later, extra bracing for the boot floor area came too, along with a driver’s side airbag. Piecemeal development was a regular for the XJS towards the end of its life, with Jaguar eking out the months until the new XK8 arrived. A final and significant change for the 4.0 litre came in June 1994, less than two years before production ended, when the six-cylinder AJ6 engine was replaced by the more powerful, economical and refined AJ16, as fitted to this car. Which propels this Cabriolet pretty effectively, should you sink the accelerator deeply enough to chivvy the four-speed automatic into a mildly roaring downshift. Then the Jag bounds along with rather more pace than its traditional styling might suggest, and if the 4.0 straight six sounds more mechanical than the V12’s velvet thrust, it’s a lot more civilized than the 3.6.
Yet unless it’s a be-winged RS XJS, this big coupé has always been more of a cruiser. Effectively a short-wheelbase version of the 1968 Jaguar XJ6, its double wishbone, twin subframe, generously bushed suspension was all about combining a quiet, plush ride with strong grip and respectable agility. Though more firmly sprung than the XJ saloon, the XJS is a very swift cruiser of straights and sweeping curves, but in tight turns you soon sense a diminishing enthusiasm for changing direction, a slight mushiness at the wheel all the more evident.
But as a car in which to drift effortlessly about, and with serious overtaking power when needed, the XJ-S has strong appeal. You can criticise the slightly uncoordinated look of the cabins in these better-equipped later cars, the pram-like stack of unhidden hood and a cabin less than commodious considering this car’s impressive length, but it’s hard not to luxuriate when you’re on board an XJS. Surprisingly, the convertible loses surprisingly little of the coupé’s quiet civility with the hood up too, certainly at legal speeds.
The DB7 Volante sampled here is also a car quite significantly altered from the Aston that went on sale in 1994. Apart from being a convertible, this example is powered by a V12 rather than the 3.2 supercharged Jaguar engine the DB7 was launched with. This is not the XJS V12 but an engine created, in loose terms, by fusing a pair of Ford Mondeo V6 motors. If that sounds off-putting, it shouldn’t be. This is a very well engineered V12, potent to the tune of 414bhp while issuing a soundtrack far more invigorating than a Jag V12’s. This DB7 is much livelier off the line than the XJS – almost too much so - builds speed more rapidly and feels far better planted on the road, especially through tighter twists. It’s more athletic, grippier and dynamic enough in sport mode for the pop and crackle of its exhausts to feel earned. This DB7 also has an early version of a paddleshift transmission, triggered by buttons on the wheel. They take some getting used to, but they’re more convenient than sweeping an arm to flip the gearlever if you fancy self-shifting.
Keeping both hands on the wheel is wise if it’s a back road you’re travelling, the Aston’s nose following cambers to the point of darting offline. The payback is sharper steering than the XJS provides, and it’s weightier too. That can contribute to the Aston’s occasionally leaden feel in twists, but be in no doubt that it can successfully assault these at some pace.
You’ll enjoy this in a cabin rich with the ambience of two shades of leather and some slightly afterthought-ish wood, the scale of the accommodation, right down to a slightly narrow driver’s footwell, much the same as the Jaguar’s – no surprise given their similar structural roots.
The same kind of luxuriant
‘In the XK8, you face a chunk of arcing walnut known as the Spitfire wing’
confinement greets the occupier of an XK8, again because of those XJS beginnings. The front seat backs look slightly insubstantial, having been thinned to excavate more rear knee room (pointless, really, there barely being room for a dog), your legs entering a tunnel to feel comfortably snug. You face a sizeable chunk of arcing walnut known as the Spitfire wing, correcting the original XJ-S error of launching with a tree-free interior. The XK8’S cabin felt faintly dated even when the car was new what with its Sixtiesstyle sunken dials, but its controls are better arranged than in either of the other cars, an unusual feature being the so-called ‘J-gate’ automatic transmission lever, which allows you to shuffle through the forward gears with no danger of painfully selecting reverse at 70mph. Or Park.
You might think that the cultured beat of Jaguar’s excellent V8 would strike you first once underway, but more likely it will be the suspension. The XK8 rides over bumps with fabulously-cushioned control, while simultaneously feeling significantly more incisive, secure at speed and downright entertaining to drive than either of the others. And so it should, being the newer car. Its XJS chassis was substantially modified, and out on the open road it really shows. This particular car is the XK8 in its earliest iteration, before the supercharger, before capacity increases and before any updates during the course of production. And it impresses, deeply, both with its complete competence and the sheer enjoyment it delivers. It’s not quite a Porsche 911 of course, but nor is it as wearing. Among this trio it wins as the easiest and most enjoyable car to own, drive and simply live with. If you want a stronger feeling of yesterday, however, an XJS provides it in spades, what with its amazingly low roofline, the delicacy of its interior furnishings and its stacked hood. Choose a V12-equipped car, and you’ll enjoy soaring, turbine-like go. XJS values are rising, too, though not as fast as they’re likely to for the rarer DB7, which still looks like value for a car wearing an Aston badge. The DB7 is not as rounded as the XK8, but it’s more glamorous, more richly upholstered and has a raw edge that some may prefer.
All three are impressively capable mile-mashers, the XJS amazingly so for its age. Given their sophistication, speed and pedigree all three are decent value, which is why the prices of each car here are rising.
XJS interior has the most character, but is not as roomy as the others.
XK8 interior tastefully harks back to Jaguar’s Sixties offerings.
Something for everyone… but which one would you go for?
BELOW AJ16 six-cylinder was only used for final two years of XJS production.
Well-damped suspension is XK8’S trump card.
The final production XJS – grace and pace.