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2011 Jaguar XKR: Updating a British icon

Power and styling marks Jaguar's ultimate sports car
by: JAIME VALDEZ, Jaguar keeps both tradition and performance alive in the new XKR.

Back at the height of the Swinging 60s, Britain was known around the world for two iconic cars, the Mini and the Jaguar XKE.

The cars were about as far apart as you could get. As the name says, the Mini was tiny but featured a big interior and good gas mileage. The Jaguar was a true sport car with sleek lines, a long hood and engine choices that included a powerful V12. Celebrities drove both, and they also appeared in movies and fashion photography from the era.

Remarkably, direct descendants of both cars are still being produced today, although not by the original manufactures. The new MINI is made by BMW. The KX is now made by Tata Motors of India, but is still sold as a Jaguar.

Both cars still capture the spirit and looks of the original models. The MINI is small on the outside, big on the inside and gets excellent mileage. The XK is still a sexy sports car that can be had with a 510 horsepower supercharged V8.

Although the original versions of both cars are now sought-after collectors items, there's little doubt that the new ones are the best ever made. All MINI and Jaguar models are much more reliable than the originals, which suffered from constant electrical, mechanical and hydraulic problems. They are also much safer because of stiffer federal crash test standards and equipment, including front and side airbags.

Our test Jaguar XKR proves something even more important - the wow factor has not been sacrificed along the way. Not only is the Jaguar sports car stunning to look at it, the R version, which includes the supercharged V8, is reportedly the fastest XK ever.

Back in the 60s, all Jaguars were known for their elegant lines and luxurious, leather-lined interiors. When Ford bought the company in late 1989, it overhauled the entire line, making them far more contemporary while still retaining some of the best known styling cues, such as the oval grills. Although Ford remodeled the XK twice, all versions have retained the classic lines of the original, including the long hood, oval grill and rounded rear end.

Perhaps surprisingly, the current model, which first debuted in 2008, looks more like the 1960s version than the previous XK8. Unlike the current Ford Mustang, it is not overtly retro, however. For one thing, the rear haunches are much wider than before, giving it an even more aggressive stance than before. But it is also offered as both a convertible and hard top hatchback, just like the original.

The interior is also reminiscent of the original XK. The seats, doors, steering wheel and dash are wrapped in leather. Accents include chrome and polished wood. The seating position is low, just like it should be. The center console controls are modern, however, including the pop up transmission shift knob shared with other Jaguars. Controls for some features, like the heated seats and stereo system, are located on the touch screen mounted in the center of the dash, which takes a little getting used to. At least when new drivers are getting used to them, adjustments should be made before taking off.

On the road, our test XKR was remarkably easy to drive. The engine is not nearly a high strung as its 510 horsepower suggests. Acceleration is smooth and predictable, largely because the six-speed automatic transmission shifts so smoothly.

The character changes when you really get on the gas, however. Then the power comes on in a rush, complete with a suddenly growling exhaust tone. We can't swear the XKR will reach the 170 mile per hour maximum on the speedometer, but we don't doubt it, either. When the supercharger starts spinning faster, the power from the engine feels like it will keep building forever - or at least until we ran out of straight road.

Fortunately, the big four-wheel disc brakes are equally impressive, slowing the XKR down quickly without any drama. The optional red calipers look cool, too.

Shortcomings are hard to find. The rear seats are, of course, ridiculously small, but that is same with all so-called 2+2 sports cars. The ride can be a little jarring over broken pavement, but it is supple under most conditions, especially smooth freeways. Visibility is limited out the sloping back window, so care needs to be taken when backing out of parking spaces. But these are small sacrifices for such a high-performance machine.

The price, of course, will be a major obstacle for most buyers. At nearly $99,000, the XKR was one of the most expensive vehicles we've ever tested. But the original XK was exclusive, too. And they are only increasing in value.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Jaguar XKR.

• Manufacturer: Tata Motors.

• Class: Sports car.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: Two-door hatchback; Convertible.

• Engines: 5.0-liter V8 (385 hp); Supercharged 5.0-liter V8 (510 hp).

• Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 15/22 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $85,000 ($98,950 as tested).