XJS or XK8: But Which is Best?
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
Lets be clear: the E Type was an aberration. Jaguars before and since, sporting or otherwise, have been all about bigness and waftiness. Think GT cruising rather than apex-tickling.
Despite its lukewarm reception in 1975, the XJS fitted much more easily than the E Type into the Jaguar tradition established by the original XK120 and XK150. And the car that succeeded it, the XK8, just built on those touchstones.
The XJS and XK8, therefore, are very Jaguar. They're also very good GT cars. Which makes their values relative to the interloper hard to understand. You can pick up a decent example of either for a tenth of the price of an E Type. But should you?
At Great Driving Days we're lucky enough to run a V12 XJS and early XK8 on our hire fleet (alongside an E Type), so we know these cars well. We've put them back to back in our unique Coupe Conundrum experience. Here's how they compare.
You approach the XJS with a few preconceptions. We've been taught for so long that it's ugly. It's unresolved, awkward. It's not an E Type.
Age, however, has a habit of resetting things. Looked at through fresh eyes, the XJS looks a lot better in the metal than you expect. It's very long, very low and very wide. There's a lot of bonnet, which surely is never a bad thing. Our late 80s V12 is, to my mind, the best looking version - adding chrome to the original's austere exterior helps lift the styling, whilst retaining the J-shaped rear lights retains the character. Many prefer the later cars, which gained a very effective facelift that integrated the bumpers and side view very effectively.
The XK8 comes with no such hang ups. From the get-go it was acclaimed as a beautiful design, smooth and long with enough echoes of the E Type to be interesting rather than a pastiche. It also has a much better interior - the XJS dashboard has always felt like a let down to me, a rushed, fussy, cheap-looking affair that could only be a BL product. Not so with the XK8, whose Spitfire wing-shaped swathe of wood faces driver and passenger. It's not just a nod to Battle of Britain Blighty - it also echoes the dash of the original XK sports cars. Everything inside the XK8 looks designed, considered and coherent. The same can't be said of the XJS.
On The Road
Out on the road is where a comparison between these two cars hits a snag. Because under the shiny bits, the oily bits are pretty much identical. That's because in order to get the XK8 to market cheaply and quickly, Jaguar borrowed quite a lot from the XJS.
Drive the XJS and you realise just what a clever decision that was. 32 years on from the day our XJS V12 left the factory, it still sets standards for ride and handling. That's because underneath there's a lot of XJ saloon mechanicals, a car that out-rolled Rolls Royce when it was launched. The XJS muffles bumps and undulations brilliantly, but never at the expense of road feel. The XJS is no B-road banzai but it points and grips very well for a big, heavy GT car.
The XK8 is noticeably more sporting in intent. The suspension is firmer and the steering more direct. Yet it's still more on the side of lazy, one-fingered driving than ten-to-two gripped cornering. If anything, the lean towards sporting highlights the age of the XK8 mechanicals. Compared to the XJS, which does relaxed cruising so well, the XK8 feels like a compromise, and one that hasn't been entirely well resolved.
On paper the XK8 and XJS are perfectly matched: the newer car develops only 5bhp more at 290 bhp compared to the older car. How they get there and how they deliver it differs entirely.
The XJS uses Jaguar's superlative V12 5.3 litre engine. It's fuel injected and drives through a 3 speed auto box. Sadly very few manual XJS' were sold. Despite the limitations imposed by the gearbox, the V12 is an engine everyone needs to experience at some point in their life. It is turbine-smooth and effortlessly quick from a standstill. It's also silent, humming away up front without troubling your ears. You'll find yourself double-checking the rev counter to check it's actually running. Sample the V12 and ever-after you'll be conscious that other engines just don't have the same sense of a sewing machine busying away ahead of you.
The 4 litre V8 in the XK8 does a very good job of trying. It is extremely smooth for a V8 and has none of the burbling bark typical of American 8 cylinder cars. It's smooth and subdued. It's also quick, although it needs to be wound up compared to the XJS V12. Shorn of the comparison with the earlier car, you'd have to conclude that this is one of the best V8s of the last 20 or so years.
The XK8 also delivers its power more effectively, thanks entirely to its more flexible five speed auto box. Those extra ratios highlight just how far things moved on between the XJS and XK8. It also benefits from Jaguar's J-gate, which allows 'manual' changes between 2nd and 4th. These improvements make the XK8 much more engaging and sporting than the XJS.
The older car's clunky three speed box really is its Achilles heel, blunting performance and engagement. Consequently the XJS is unavoidably about sitting back, firing up a cigar and rolling along. There's a reason why there are two large, prominent ash trays in the middle of the car.
On The Inside
The XK8, as we've seen, has the much better interior. It's also much more comfortable, with multi-adjustable seats that are comfortable with good support. Everything you need falls to hand thanks to well-integrated switchgear designed for the car rather than borrowed from somewhere else. It claims to be a four seater but that's more wishful thinking than reality: the rear seats are narrow with very limited headroom and legroom. Visibility is also generally poor - the car flows away from the driver to reach hidden corners. It's a big car that would definitely benefit from parking sensors.
The XJS interior is, even in our facelifted, timber-bedecked version, a bit of a letdown. The dashboard looks rushed - apparently it was - and badly built, with a horrible plastic grommet holding either side of the dial cowling in place. You sit low, with a high central tunnel that gives a pleasing sense of GT decadence. But the seats are not that comfortable and the switchgear is scattered rather than arranged. Rear seat space is better than the XK8 - you could actually fit a family with teenage kids in here.
Both cars have large boots. In the case of the XK8 the apparent need to fit a set of golf clubs explains the only weak point of the styling - a slightly over-long rear overhang. As you'd expect, the later car has much-improved heating and ventilation. The XJS suffered from Jaguar's half-hearted approach to interior ambience at the time.
Overall, it's on the inside that the XK8 takes a resounding win. It's cohesive, luxurious and almost beautiful. Exactly what you want from a GT car.
Both cars could be used as daily drivers, but it is the XK8 that inevitably better fits the job. The seats and gearbox mean it is very relaxing, while the big boot makes it fairly practical. Neither car is going to save the planet but the 4 litre V8 will crack 20 mpg, a figure the daily XJS driver can only dream about. A later 4 litre 6 cylinder XJS would be a better option, but you're still stuck with a less comfortable interior and less flexible gearbox.
Even equipped with a V12 engine that tends to alarm buyers, the XJS' relative simplicity makes it much easier to own. This is a car from a time when bits physically connected to other bits, rather than via electronics. Things go wrong but as a general rule they are far easier to fix than the XK8. The six cylinder cars are simpler and the motors generally very robust. Don't discount the V12 though - regularly serviced with correct coolant mix maintained these are durable, high mileage engines that don't need to be scary.
The XK8 does go wrong. This is a complicated car built by a company not renowned for doing complexity consistently. That V8 can lunch head gaskets if not serviced properly - particularly the supercharged versions - and the gearbox causes problems if the fluid isn't changed well before the recommended intervals. The electrics are plentiful and questionable - a ECU code reader would be a wise investment. The sophisticated suspension can also be expensive to put right - shock absorbers alone will set you back £300 each.
Both cars rust. The XK8 is no better than the older car - the front floors rot out, the rear arches disintegrate and so do the sills. The XJS has problems with leaking windscreens, crumbling rear arches and holey sills. There are good specialists around to repair them both but, so far, parts supply is patchy - specialists like SNG Barratt haven't yet focussed on either cars so some parts (like the trapezoid XJS headlamps) are unavailable.
Despite these problems, neither car is any more risky to buy than a similarly aged car. The key to managing the risk and big bills is to research any car, check what work has been done and put some money aside for bills. These are cheap cars right now - so put some of what you save aside for a rainy day.
Jaguar churned out a lot of XJS' and XK8s and most remain, thanks to a solid enthusiast base. So if you want one, there are plenty about.
Which you choose will come down to those looks and how much you want a daily driver over a modern classic.
Buying a XJS provides more choice. There are many body styles - cabriolet, convertible and coupe - and even more engine choices: straight sixes of 3.6 and 4 litres or 5.3 litre and 6 litre V12s. All are extremely good - the 6 cylinders are very smooth and almost as powerful as the V12s. The car was also changed throughout its 21 year production life - early cars look very different to the final ones.
The XK8 didn't change much throughout its life. Most are 4 litre V8s, final cars got a 4.2 litre V8. It's available as a naturally aspirated 290 bhp or supercharged 400 bhp. We've had several supercharged 4 litre V8 Jaguars and they've all been problematic - the extra performance doesn't really add much to the XK8 experience so we would avoid them. Coupe and convertible versions were offered - the open top car is very good, with little of the scuttle shake associated with the XJS drop top.
The biggest problem with both cars is that they've been cheap for a while. So they are often poorly maintained or cheaply repaired. Such things are easy to spot and avoid though - take care and you'll end up with a very good GT car for much less than either is truly worth.
Expect to pay from £5,000 for a decent XJS coupe, £15,000 for a convertible. XK8 coupes start at £3,000 - or less if you're lucky - and double that for a convertible. XKRs are usually double the price of the standard car.
Picking between these two GT cars is tough because they both do the job they were designed for so well. They're smooth, relaxing, unruffled and powerful - in fact, everything that you need to set you up for a weekend getaway to Cannes. That they both rely on mechanicals that date back to the late 60s says a lot about how good Jaguar's engineers were back then.
Which you prefer will therefore come down to aesthetics and how you plan to use the car. Both can be used as daily drivers - although you might want to choose the 4 litre facelift XJS rather than the V12 - but the XK8 is certainly better for the role. It's much more modern, more comfortable and has the better interior. The XJS is the perfect weekend fun car - it's distinctive and gathers positive comments like bunches of flowers.
Whichever you choose, you'll get a very, very good GT car that is way cheaper than it really should be. I don't think that will last so make sure you don't miss out.
If our XJS and XK8 comparison has got you thinking, you can try out both cars on our exclusive Coupe Conundrum Experience. For less than £100 you can drive both cars for 60 minutes. Find out more.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Day. 01527 893733