The Jag drives like a big car and, indeed, is more than half a foot longer than the Benz and the Lexus. The distinct advantage of that extra length, of course, is the only truly practical trunk of our trio. It handily fits two golf bags with the top down. In any case, you can still hurtle the XK8 over a mountain road with surprising ease. The chassis is much livelier than the car's relaxed straight-line behavior would suggest, and the Pirelli P Zeroes hold on and on. The AJ-V8 builds power smoothly and very quickly, with fast, direct shifts from the ZF five-speed automatic. Jaguar persists in using its trademark J-gated shifter, which was charming in the first Bush administration but now seems an annoying anachronism. On a twisting road, it's best to shove it into third gear and let the rev needle climb. Under these conditions, the XK8 feels like a really refined, old-fashioned muscle car.
The brakes confirm that opinion, because they were smoking by the time we'd made it down from Idyllwild to Banning. They work, but the long-travel brake pedal and their tendency to fade are less than reassuring. We are thankful that Lexus did not benchmark the Jaguar's brakes, because the SC430's are worlds better.
The XK8 also suffers from slightly inferior interior materials. There's a big sweep of wood across the dash and down the console, but it's heavily plasticized and surrounds some pretty chintzy switchgear. The leather seats look nice enough, but nice enough is not good enough at this price. Now that leather upholstery is commonplace, Jaguar's should look, feel, and smell different from the stuff you'd find in a Chevy Malibu. When we open the door of a Jaguar, we expect to go slightly faint from the intoxicating aroma.
Mercedes and Lexus also have sanitized their leather upholstery, but, otherwise, the SC430 interior has the best materials. From the moment you slide over the driver's seat and grasp the thick, richly padded door handle, every sense is soothed and every expectation met. The ergonomics, naturally, are first-class, and the climate control system detects exterior temperatures and adjusts the air flow accordingly, pumping cool air to your feet and lap on hot days and warm air on cooler days. Our test car was trimmed in gorgeous bird's-eye maple and equipped with a phenomenal standard stereo with a six-disc, in-dash CD player from Mark Levinson, a company heretofore known for extremely high-end home audio. Turn up the volume as far as your eardrums can stand, and there is virtually no distortion. The nine-speaker system automatically equalizes itself when the roof is lowered, so there's superb sound quality even at 80 mph with the wind whipping by.
The Lexus SC coupe that was introduced a decade ago was a styling revelation, a gorgeous car. The SC430 is not as successful (see the accompanying design analysis). Lexus designers spent weeks on the French Riviera, seeking the true meaning of luxury for the super-rich. The result is an overwrought exercise in floridity and frivolity, rather than a really serious car. Then again, that's exactly what a lot of buyers in this market want. The eighteen-inch wheels, a first for Lexus, don't help matters, looking as they do like aluminum manhole covers. Calling all aftermarket wheel companies.