Almost a year has passed since Jaguar first showed its steroidal-arched warrior at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Since then it’s set what Jaguar says is a four-door sedan lap record at the Nurburgring. But now, at last, we get to drive it at the brilliant Portimao racetrack in Portugal and on the twisty roads in the surrounding hills.
The Project 8 looks right at home at a racetrack. Those flared arches with semi-pornographic cutouts, jutting front splitter and tall rear wing all scream motorsport. The Verbier Silver car assigned to track duties is about as racy as the Project 8 will get.
It’s equipped with the optional $17,960 Track Pack, which junks the rear bench for a half cage and adds fixed-back carbon buckets with four-point harnesses, saving 12kg. First up, though, is the Valencia Orange Project 8 I’ll be testing on a very wet road, incidentally.
This car is not equipped with the Track Pack, but even without it this Project 8 looks too track-focused to possibly work on the road. But Jaguar’s most hardcore passenger car works surprisingly well away from the track.
With springs that are four-and-a-half-times stiffer than those fitted to a conventional XE the ride is, of course, tight and firm, but not too unyielding. There’s enough compliance and bump absorption to deal with most road surfaces and while it’s far from cushy, it’s not uncomfortable, either. Even when the test route turns onto an ancient back lane, the Project 8 hums along with impressive composure.
Worthy Watch: XE SV Project 8 Nürburgring onboard
The damping really is exceptional. It skilfully prevents a firm ride from ever becoming overbearing. At no point does the car threaten to leap into the scenery. That’s the first surprise. The second is how well mannered it is in these wet conditions. A number of high-performance cars would be close to undriveable in this rain on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, as fitted here, but the Project 8 makes them work.
There is good turn-in bite and very stable, consistent cornering grip, which means you don’t feel at all nervous leaning on the chassis in corners. Traction is very strong, too, thanks to the clever all-wheel drive system, and those spring rates guarantee a very stable platform, a level of body control no other super-sedan can match, and astonishingly sharp steering response.
There’s no tougher test of a track-focused car than a wet, bumpy back road, but the Project 8 gives you the confidence to press on. It’s all by design. “We wanted to build a car that was approachable and friendly to drive at speed,” says vehicle dynamics manager David Pook‚“not something that tried to bite you.”
That’s why they settled on all-wheel drive. Jaguar has fitted its biggest and most powerful engine into its smallest and lightest car and Pook wasn’t interested in building a wheelspin machine. This car is the latest limited-edition trinket from Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO), the division responsible for hi-po SVR-branded Range Rovers, F-Types and specials like the 2014 F-Type Project 7.
No more than 300 Project 8s will be built, all in left-hand drive. It shares its body, front doors and roof with all other XEs (a carbon-fibre bonnet saves 3kg), but the Project 8 is so comprehensively re-engineered that it’s really an XE in name only.
Tracks that are wider by 24mm at the front and 73mm at the rear and only the lower suspension arms are carried over. Everything else is bespoke. Even the headlights were relocated, dragged forward by 14mm (with the bodywork around them) to make space for 20-inch Cup 2 tyres.
“If we didn’t get the Cup 2 tyres to fit there wouldn’t have been a Project 8,” says Pook. “They were the only tyres that would have worked on this car.”
Squeezing the 5.0-litre supercharged V8 into the engine bay was less of a struggle, but SVO had to develop new billet engine mounts to stop the 400kg hulk from writhing around. The engine develops 442kW and 700Nm, delivered via an eight-speed auto transmission, and Jaguar quotes a 0-100km/h time of 3.7sec and a 322km/h top speed.
There are carbon-ceramic brakes with 400mm discs on the front, forged wheels, the differential in the rear axle is electronically controlled so it can open fully into a bend to reduce understeer and lock on exit to give maximum traction, the dampers are adaptive, ride height is adjustable for road or track, and the front splitter and rear wing, at full extension, generate 122kg of downforce at 300km/h.
This might well be the most comprehensively re-engineered four-door performance car of all time. “We built a car that all of us at SVO wanted to drive,” says Pook.
Time for the Verbier Silver car. The track is bone dry now and within two corners it’s clear that no other super-sedan is this aggressive. It’s more akin to a Porsche 911 GT3 RS or a BMW M4 GTS. It just happens to have four doors.
The adaptive dampers remain basically unchanged between Comfort and Dynamic modes, but in Track they switch to a more aggressive map and there’s less roll, less vertical movement and even tauter responses.
On sticky track-biased tyres, the Project 8 has enormous grip; you choose your turn-in speed and trust the front axle to find a way through the corner.
The steering is intuitive and precise, the body stays almost entirely flat and the car is perfectly balanced through the apex. In fourth-gear corners it sweeps from entry to apex in the subtlest four-wheel drift, like an old racing car. It’s the sweetest sensation.
Exiting a corner, there’s no power oversteer. If you unsettle the car on the way in and stand abruptly on the throttle pedal, you can make it drift, but it doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t slide very willingly even in Track mode, which favours the rear axle right up until it starts to lose traction.
The Project 8 slingshots out of bends with no loss of forward momentum, rocketing towards the next corner with eye-widening ferocity. The big carbon stoppers never fade, and with the four-point harness pinning you into the wrap-around seat, you feel everything.
Track driving is torture for most road cars but the Project 8 is built for it. The engine has almost as much character as it does power, and while the auto gearbox isn’t the quickest or most responsive, it does its job well.
What’s most important about the Project 8 is that it is absorbing, rewarding, and huge fun to drive. When diehard car guys are left to get on with it, the results speak for themselves.
Separating the big hitters from the big talkers on MOTOR Reviews
2018 JAGUAR XE SV PROJECT 8 SPECS:
Engine: 5000cc V8, DOHC, 32v, s/c
Power: 442kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 700Nm @ 3500-5000rpm
0-100km/h: 3.7sec (claimed)
Price: $287,000 (est)
Like: Four-wheel drive grip and traction; stonking supercharged V8; aggressive looks; exclusivity
Dislike: Left-hook production only; firm ride on the road; not a drifting specialist
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Nemesis - BMW M4 GTS
3.0-litre twin-turbo l6, RWD, 368kW/600Nm, 0-100km/h 3.8sec 1510kg, $294,715
It isn’t cheap, only 25 came to Australia (plus 10 DTMs) and you can’t buy one new. With more power and a 27kg diet, the roll-cage equipped BMW M4 GTS isn’t perfect, but it’s very fast.