The 592bhp XE SV Project 8 is the most powerful road-going Jaguar ever, all wrapped up in a four-door saloon body. Let the fun begin… Text by James Disdale.
CAT OUT OF HELL JAGUAR PROJECT 8
It’s a Jaguar XE in name, but little of SVO’s Project 8 relates to the company’s small executive saloon. Instead there’s four-wheel drive and near 600bhp from a supercharged V8 in a car designed to be as competitive on track as it is thrilling on the road. James Disdale tries the most powerful Jaguar ever made and asks the question on everyone’s lips: can you build a real M3 F80 rival now, Jaguar?
There are many reasons why it’s possible to get excited by the 2019 Jaguar XE SV Project 8 – there are 592 of them lurking under the carbonfibre bonnet, for starters, but the bits that seem to be getting Special Vehicle Operation’s head of vehicle dynamics Dave Pook most animated are the engine mounts. Buried deep in the engine bay, these unique pieces of billet metal are virtually impossible to see, yet Pook reveals they have a small but crucial effect on the way the car drives: ‘With the standard mounts there was enough movement in the engine and transmission unit [all 395kg of it] to have a small effect on the way the car steered. With these additions we got a subtle, but crucial, improvement in response.’
For a more mainstream model a cost analysis would have suggested the gains were not big enough to justify the financial outlay of bespoke components, but for the Project 8 only the best would do. Essentially, this car is a showcase for what SVO’s engineers can do when let loose to create the fastest-lapping Jaguar ever – a car that has already smashed the Nürburgring lap record for a production saloon, with a time of 7min 21.2sec.
Everywhere you look there’s evidence of this single-minded approach. Only the roof and door skins are carried over from the standard model, with carbon used for the front wings, bumpers, bonnet and boot. The front and rear tracks are increased by 24mm and 73mm respectively, and the headlamps have been edged forward 14mm to make room in the arches for the 20-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s (the only tyre option). That big spoiler on stilts isn’t for show, either, combining with the front splitter and rear diffuser to generate 122kg of downforce at 186mph.
Under the skin, the Project 8 uses the basic suspension of the standard XE, but upgrades include Eibach racing springs, billet suspension knuckles, stiffer bushes, and ball joints for the upper control arms at the rear. The anti-roll bars have also been recalibrated, as have the adaptive dampers and electric power steering. Go for the Track Pack option (£10,000) and you can manually lower the ride height by 15mm for circuit work, plus you get a roll-cage in place of the rear seats, a strengthening panel that increases torsional rigidity by 27 per cent and a pair of lightweight race seats. This little lot saves 12.2kg over the standard Project 8’s claimed, and not inconsiderable, 1757kg kerb weight.
Part of that weight is excused by the fitment – for the first time in an XE – of Jaguar’s ageing V8. The supercharged 5-litre unit gets a modified induction system and titanium exhaust and produces 592bhp with 516lb ft of torque. The ZF eight-speed auto, meanwhile, gives quicker shifts (200 milliseconds, should you need to know) and the electronically controlled all-wheel-drive transmission gets heavily revised mapping for its electronic brain and an oil cooler for the rear e-diff.
Oh, and then there’s the unique carbon-ceramic brake discs (400mm front, 396mm rear), which are clamped by six-pot and single-pot Brembo calipers respectively. Clearly a lot of effort has gone into the Project 8, but has it been worth it? We’re up bright and early at the Portimão circuit in Portugal, where we have a few hours, both on the track and the surrounding roads, to try to get under this XE’s heavily modified skin. However, there are some concerned looks on the faces of SVO’s movers and shakers this morning, because the forecast sunshine has failed to materialise. Instead, there are dark clouds and persistent rain – not ideal conditions for the car’s fancy French rubber…
We start off on the road in a four-seat version, which from inside feels very much like a standard XE – only the brilliantly supportive high-backed seats, Alcantara-trimmed wheel and F-type-style trigger gear selector give the game away. Still, you sit low, and the driving position is spot on, plus prodding the starter button quickly dispels any idea that this is a ‘normal’ Jaguar saloon. The V8 churns over for a fraction of a second before erupting into life with a bellowing crackle and settling to a burbling idle.
Pull the gear selector into D, squeeze the throttle and the Project 8 moves off with surprising docility. The next shock is just how well this freakish-looking XE is coping with what are some fairly terrible roads that suffer from a mix of potholes and subsidence.
We’re in Normal mode (there’s also Dynamic and Track), and while the ride is definitely firm there’s a pleasing compliance, with the car shrugging off sudden compressions and torn tarmac with an impressively composed disdain that’s at serious odds with its track focus. You could drive this car to any track you wished and not worry about an osteopath’s bill to match its £149,995 price.
Curiously, Dynamic retains the same damper and steering settings as Normal – only the maps for the throttle and transmission change (in Normal the all-wheel-drive torque split is around 50:50 front-to-rear, while Dynamic delivers a more rearward flavour, but shuffles effort forwards if needs be) – so I switch to this sportier setting and squeeze my right foot to the floor. Crikey, this thing is fast. Peak torque doesn’t arrive until 3500rpm, but it feels as if the vast majority of it is available from not much more than tickover, from where the acceleration builds relentlessly to the 6500rpm cutoff.
There’s no real point at which the engine gets into its stride, there’s just a linear rush of preposterous thrust, punctuated by the briefest of pauses for gearchanges (the ZF unit is quick and reasonably smooth, but it can’t match the best dual-clutch units).
Perhaps more impressive is the Jag’s ability to put all this power down on these treacherously slippery roads, the four-wheel-drive system allowing you to shrink straights with brutal efficiency. Try the same in a similarly tyred BMW M3/M4 CS F80/F82 and you’d have so many spikes of heart-in-mouth wheelspin that you’d need a week’s holiday at the end of a 30-minute journey. Then there’s the noise, which is loud, but in the right way. Squeeze the throttle fully open and the V8 growls with all the exuberance of NASCAR at maximum attack. You won’t be popular with your neighbours, but when a car sounds this good, who cares?
Of course, the Jaguar’s Cup 2s aren’t totally immune to the inclement conditions, so care is needed when exiting corners, as the rear can slide a little wider than you are expecting under power before the four-wheel drive brings everything back into line. However, this loss of grip is never intimidating. Better still, front-end bite is much more tenacious, and in combination with the naturally weighted steering it gives you confidence to carry more speed than you’d think possible – only a 2019 Porsche 911 GT3 991.2 can find more purchase on similar tyres in similarly horrible conditions. As I drive back into the Portimão paddock the sun has broken through the clouds and the track is starting to dry. This is good news.
For the circuit work we swap to a Track Pack car, with the ride height dropped by 15mm – a job that requires a set of spanners and around 40 minutes. Track mode is the order of the day here, as its damper calibration takes into account the lowered suspension.
The first few laps reveal some damp patches on the circuit, which require occasional stabs of corrective lock as the Michelins work up to temperature, but soon the track is bone dry and it’s possible to start exploiting some of this Jaguar’s considerable potential. What grabs your attention first is just how light on its feet the car feels, allowing you to attack braking zones and corners with the sort of zeal that shouldn’t be possible in a car weighing the best part of 1800kg. Only when slowing from big speed for one hairpin does the XE betray its heft, only just making it to the apex each lap. It also monsters the long straights, feeling even faster here than it did out on the road (even the quickest road cars usually feel sluggish on proper tracks). There’s also great mid-corner balance, with either a lift or stab of the throttle helping to trim your trajectory and giving you the options of a neutral or subtly oversteering stance. Then on corner exit you can bury your right foot safe in the knowledge the four-wheel drive will catapult you down the next straight either totally straight or with a subtle slide wide – there are no smoky, showboating moments here; the Project 8 just isn’t that kind of car.
Special mention has to go to the steering, which is quick without being nervous and has a beautifully natural rate of response and weighting that’s meaty without being unnecessarily heavy. There’s more than a hint of Porsche in this electrically assisted set-up. It all adds up to make a car that’s both approachable and hugely rewarding. It simply encourages you to keep attacking harder and harder, testing both your and the car’s limits. If you’re looking for a GT3 for the family, this is as close as it gets.
As I peel back into the pits and come to a stop, I take a few moments to reflect on the last intense round of laps. Given the base car and its weight, the Project 8 simply shouldn’t be able to do what it does. That it can is testament to the engineering team and Jaguar’s bosses’ willingness to back them all the way. The only disappointment is that there will only be 300 examples, all left-hand drive, plus there are no plans to distil some of the lessons learned into a more affordable, M3-chasing XE, which seems like a wasted opportunity to us. Still, if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a Project 8, I’m sure these issues won’t put a dampener on your enjoyment of one of the most thrilling saloons ever.
TECH AND PHOTOS
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 Jaguar XE SV Project 8
Engine V8, 5000cc, supercharger
Max Power 592bhp @ 6500rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 516lb ft @ 3500-5000rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Eight-speed auto ZF 8HP, four-wheel drive, electronically controlled limited-slip differential
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers (two-way optional), anti-roll bar Rear suspension Integral-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, 400mm front, 396mm rear
Wheels 9.5 x 20in front, 11 x 20in rear
Tyres 265/35 R20 front, 305/30 R20 rear
Weight 1745kg (Track Pack)
Power-to-weight 345bhp per ton
Top speed 200mph+
Basic price £149,995
Drive-My rating 4.9
Top right: Track Pack deletes the rear seats and adds a roll-cage. Right: carbon-ceramic discs are standard.
‘IT SHRINKS STRAIGHTS WITH BRUTAL EFFICIENCY’
‘GIVEN THE BASE CAR AND ITS WEIGHT, THE PROJECT 8 SIMPLY SHOULDN’T BE ABLE TO DO WHAT IT DOES’
‘Everyone wants to do a car like the Project 8’ SVO’s head of dynamics on the making of the Project 8. Words by Steve Sutcliffe…
Dave Pook’s interest in cars – actually, make that his obsession with cars – started at an early age. As a 14-year-old he raced radio-controlled cars and always, he now admits, had to have the best set-up car around; had to have the fastest car, full stop. Which meant his fellow RC competitors always wondered what on earth he’d done to make his cars so unbeatably quick.
And even back then the answer was ‘springs, dampers, all the rest of it’, explains Pook.
‘To be honest, I’ve been fascinated with this kind of thing since childhood,’ he continues, ‘so I guess it was inevitable that I’d end up doing something with vehicle dynamics.’
As a result, and having now worked at JLR for 18 years after moving from a graduate job at Daewoo, SVO’s head of vehicle dynamics also admits that he has ‘always wanted to do a car like the Project 8 because, you know, everyone in this business wants to do a car like the Project 8.’
So how and precisely when did the idea of building his dream car become reality? And where did he start when attempting to conjure a near-600bhp, four-wheel-drive road racer that can lap the Ring in 7min 21.2sec out of a humble Jaguar XE saloon?
‘We started on it in September 2016,’ says Pook. ‘That’s when we started on the computer modelling side. I don’t remember anyone saying that we had to do it with the XE, but the project evolved quite quickly, and everyone involved really liked cars like the BMW M3 CSL F80, and we realised then that the XE would be the perfect car to do it with.’
Plus, Pook explains, the XE is not only the right size of car, but it has its engine and gearbox in the right place, is pretty stiff to begin with and has fundamentally very sound suspension design.
Pook and his team admit they focused on making a rival for the BMW M4 GTS F82, but the further they went, the more they realised what they were building was more like a rival for the 911 GT3 991.2 – an example of which Pook just happens to own.
They knew they’d have to stick with the familiar 5-litre supercharged V8 engine, albeit in a slightly wilder state of tune, and that this would inevitably be mated to the ubiquitous eight-speed ZF transmission. But on the chassis and suspension side they had a lot more freedom to let rip.
‘On the suspension,’ says Pook, ‘we spent at least three months in the world of computer modelling. In order for the car to drive in the right way, we needed the suspension to behave in a specific kind of way. We needed it to be stiff in this direction and stiff in that direction, and deliver certain spring rates and have a certain form of damping, and contain certain technologies to help it achieve this.
‘We spent a long time refining these elements to build up all the parts that we were going to put into the car. We did that pretty quickly, though, and that was one of the most intensive periods of development. We basically went: “This is the car we want to make, this is how we’re going to create it.” And then we went off and designed the parts, made them, and put them on the car. And most of them worked really well, right from the beginning.’
The front-end feel of the car and its ‘positive feel’ were massively improved by having stiffer engine mounts, says Pook. ‘And then the concerns around engine refinement actually turned into a positive for this type of car, as well. So when you’re sitting there at idle, the car has this gentle thrum and throb to it.’
So it’s not a particularly refined car, and is all the better for it, correct?
‘I think it actually adds to its appeal,’ says Pook. ‘It’s part of the character of the car, and it makes you think, “Well this car is actually a bit different, a bit special.”’
But a rival for the mighty 911 GT3 991.2? Not quite, perhaps, but then not that far off, either, as we’ve now discovered having driven it for ourselves. And the best news of all is that there will be much more stuff like this from Pook and his team at SVO in years to come. Roll on Projects 9, 10, 11 and beyond.