That headline is a quote from David Pook that I jotted down during the first-drive event for the 2019 Jaguar XE SV Project 8 in Portugal. Pook is vehicle dynamics manager at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) Special Vehicles Operations (SVO) in Warwickshire, England. The quote sounded familiar to this American’s ears. Why? The 1964 Pontiac GTO broke all the rules in GM’s book and, in doing so, is widely credited as the first car of the muscle car era. Pete Estes waived a restriction that A-bodies be limited to 330-cubic-inch displacements. Instead, he approved the replacement of the Pontiac Tempest’s 5.3-liter V-8 with the full-sized Catalina/Bonneville 389-cubic-inch (6.4-liter) V-8, creating the Grand Tempest, later dubbed GTO. A star was born. As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
If you want to make a legend, you might have to break some rules.
Old Trick, New Car
Until now, the most powerful Jaguar XE, weighing about 3,900 pounds, was powered by a 380-hp supercharged V-6. So the go-fast boffins at SVO decided to apply that Tempest-to-GTO template to the lightweight, aluminum-intensive XE sedan. Start with the smallest car in the XE, XF, XJ lineup, and wedge JLR’s glorious 5.0-liter supercharged V-8 from the XJR575 into the compact sedan. In the XJR575, the engine makes 567 (SAE) horsepower. In the Project 8, it’s pushed to 592 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. For obvious reasons, all-wheel drive was added to the build sheet. Yet Jaguar didn’t intend to build a mere British muscle car. They had a 12.9-mile, 154-turn goal and the go-ahead from those who control budgets to pursue it with a specially engineered car.
If you want to build a legend, you have to break some rules
The Project 8’s foremost goal was to break the 7:32 “flat” four-door sedan Nürburgring Nordschleife lap record set by the 505-hp Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, our, ahem, 2018 Car of the Year. If SVO was able to do it, JLR would commit to a limited run of production XE SV cars (SVR-badged cars are series production). Eighteen months from its inception, in a “production-intent” Project 8, Belgian racing and test driver Vincent Radermecker broke the fastest-sedan record in November 2017—and not by a little. His lap of 7:21.23 was nearly 11 seconds quicker. (Note: This 27-pounds-lighter, two-seat package with rollcage, carbon-fiber front seats, and racing harnesses will not be available in North America.) For perspective, the Jag lap time neatly splits a pair from a mid-engine supercar, the Ferrari 488 GTB, our 2017 Best Driver’s Car. Record in hand, the Project 8 was a go for production. I watched the two record laps and couldn’t help but notice a contrast: The Jaguar driver was much more relaxed.
How’d They Do It?
Special Vehicles Operations set out to thoroughly examine and improve every dynamic part and system. In all, just 20 percent of the original sedan remains in each XE SV Project 8. The body-in-white, windshield, front doors, and dashboard are the same as those found in the standard XE. For the Project 8, the hood, a front splitter, front/rear fascia, and rocker panels are hewn from carbon fiber. The aluminum rear doors are specifically stamped to meet the bulging rear fenders, and the wheels are forged aluminum. To provide more rear bias, the center differential was retuned, and the air-to-oil-cooled rear differential is now electronic/active. SVO enlarged the diameter of the torque tube and both halfshafts to cope with the added power. The adaptive exhaust system is made of titanium. Also unique to the Project 8 are the suspension (height-adjustable with motorsport ball joints), the brakes (carbon ceramic, 15.7-inch front/15.6-inch rear), the wheel bearings (silicon nitride ceramic, like in the space shuttle’s main engines), and the aero package. Aerodynamics achieve a 205 percent reduction in lift with the front splitter and rear wing in the most aggressive track mode, delivering almost 270 pounds of downforce at 186 mph. With a limited production of only 300 hand-assembled cars worldwide (on a first come, first served basis), the $188,495 asking price is easy to justify.
It was a shock to learn that the SVO team, based in England, had even heard of our 2014 Best Driver’s Car winner, much less driven the fire-breathing 7.0-liter 2015 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, but they had. Indeed, they benchmarked it for its ability to be driven hard and confidently from the first corner to the last, and twice on Sunday. It was as if they copied and pasted right from our BDC story when we wrote, “With the first turn of the wheel, you become confident in the Z/28. With the second, you’re ready to set a hot lap. There is no learning curve.” The SVO team even considered the Z/28’s square tire fitment, with identical 305/30R19 Pirelli P Zero Trofeo tires at all four corners. As SVO agreed, the problem with using tires that wide and aggressive on the front is that, on regular roads, they can affect the steering feel and stability, often nibbling on minute irregularities or tramlining on what appears to be an otherwise smooth surface. Instead, the Project 8 is fitted with 265/35R20 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 front tires and 305/30R20 rear tires. And although the Z/28’s Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers work great pounding pavement into submission, they’re hard to live with every day. Instead, the Project 8 sports multimode Continuously Variable Dampers (CVD) with racy twin-coil springs (regular coils plus helper springs). Steering benchmark? The SVO team selected another industry great: the Porsche 911 GT3. However, the Porsche is a 3,250-pound featherweight (compared to the Jaguar’s estimated 3,950 pounds), plus the Porsche’s engine is in the rear, so its front tires carry just 39 percent of that weight. As such, it would appear that emulating its steering would be an unachievable goal [strokes chin].
There’s a 2.9-mile race track in Portugal called Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, but most people simply call it Portimão, after the town where it resides. It’s a tricky 15-turn roller coaster with blind crests, fast sweepers, a tight hairpin, and a 1-kilometer (0.62-mile) straight. Formula 1 teams use it for testing, and the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) races here. Jaguar chose to showcase its record-breaking sedan here because it’s such a thorough workout for a car. After two laps as a passenger with Pook (a very skilled driver, I will add) at the wheel, my laps began first thing in the morning. Nothing like jumping right in the deep end with the boss.
We swapped seats, and I drove off. Pook made it look easy, and do you know what? Like its Z/28 benchmark, it was easy to get in and just cane it. I now understand why the ’Ring driver was so cool. One of the first things I noticed was how linear the throttle was. Unlike turbocharged engines that tend to have unpredictable pedal input to engine output relations, the supercharged V-8 in the Project 8 gives it to you in precise increments: 4 inches of pedal travel is literally four times more power and torque than 1 inch. It’s very easy to get what you want when you want it. The first time I went for the brake pedal, I expected a carbon-ceramic brick. Instead, the brakes were supple and easy to modulate, with immense stopping power and not a hint of ABS. It was about the best brake pedal feel-to-effectiveness I’ve sampled.
When the first corner arrived, I cranked the wheel. It was light and buttery smooth, and the front tires bit and went. I wasn’t pushing yet, so I went into the next corner with more vigor and got the same obedience and effortless precision. Again and again, no matter the corner, it was always the same. Curbs? Meh. Double-apex right-hander? Got it. The Project 8 felt like—I can’t believe I’m writing this—a Porsche GT3 RS (with some luggage in the frunk). It’s hard to believe, but with the countless hours of EPS tuning, dialing the center and active rear differentials, and the racy suspension, Jaguar nailed it. There’s no muddy sense of all-wheel drive, no binding, and no push. You’d swear it was rear drive by the way it turns in, settles flat as a morning lake, and then erupts like a volcano.
Corner exits are truly a thing of beauty. With power going mostly to the rear wheels, the only time I could sense the front wheels clawing for traction was when I throttled an exit. Just as the Project 8 begins with what should be a lurid slide, it steps out slightly at the back then simply rockets away. “Huh, it must’ve sent some power to the front,” I thought. “Or maybe I’m just a hero. Yeah, that must be it.” It’s the kind of car that shrugs off everything and prods, dares, and begs you, “Go faster next time! Do you even drive, bro?”
In the fast sweeping corners, it was really hard to separate the suspension and tires’ prodigious mechanical grip from aero/downforce, but the car hangs on with the urgency and calm of a rock climber.
On to that half-mile-plus straight: The eight-speed’s upshifts are dispatched in 200 milliseconds with a shove to the back and a satisfying snort from the exhaust pipes each time. The epic roar of the big Jag V-8, now a hallmark for the brand, was even more present in the Project 8. On the first lap, I didn’t dare look. Finally I did: I hit 160 mph before my eyes shot back to the downhill braking zone and I went to the trusty brake pedal. “Aw, I could’ve gone deeper,” I said to myself. The car is stable at speed, under maximum braking, into corners, and out. This is race car–level control and dynamics.
A Road Drive, Too?
Not long after I’d reprogrammed my brain for what a road car—a specifically purpose-built one—could do on a racetrack, our SVO hosts introduced me to the man the other gathered journalists fondly called Scottish Rob, which sounds like something from a Monty Python skit. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Rob also works at SVO and was to lead me on a drive through the surrounding area. He drove a Range Rover Sport SVR, and I was in a four-seat Project 8 with the suspension 15mm higher in the street setting. What nobody told me is that Scottish Rob drives as if it’s a special stage in a WRC race. Ptooey! He was off like a shot from the moment we left the parking lot. I frantically looked down for the drive-mode button: “Dynamic, DynaMIC, DYNAMIC!” Rob’s route—well, Portugal in general—reminded me very much of the California roads we drive for car evaluations, surrounded by rolling hills with dry grass and oak trees dotting the landscape. “Yeah, I got this,” I thought, but it was as if Rob was trying to lose me. I wasn’t about to let that happen, and it didn’t. But here’s the thing: I’ve driven a Camaro Z/28 on roads like those, and although that car is capable and exhilarating, it’s also violent and mentally exhausting. The Project 8 is neither of those things. I really put the spurs to it, sticking to Rob’s bumper, but the Project 8 was happy to do it. It was a pussycat in comparison to a Z/28. That same confident, agreeable nature I had experienced on the track translated to the street, as well. Damn, these SVO guys are good. You can break a record at the Nürburgring and drive the same car home in comfort.
Should You Buy One?
Yes, and you’d better do so before they’re all spoken for. Besides, it’ll give you instant bragging rights. With near-certain collectible status, this car is next-level stuff. You can’t compare it to a BMW M5, Mercedes-AMG E 63 S, or Cadillac CTS-V. Not even close. I know it’s all relative, but I’ve driven thousands of cars in more than 20 years of doing this sort of thing. Now, a week after I drove the Jaguar XE SV Project 8, I’m struggling to find a fair comparison to it. A BMW M4 GTS? Subjectively, it’s better than that; objectively, it’s slower, too. Had it “just” been a Nürburgring special that couldn’t be driven on public roads, I’d have said so. But it’s not. It’s a true, everyday four-door supercar. Name me another. I’ll wait.
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