Bargain V8 drop-tops. Supercar pace and the wind in your hair, from less than £10k! 100 Mercedes SL takes on Maserati 4200 Spyder and Jag XKR. Made-to-measure muscle cars. Savile Row tailoring meets sledgehammer punch in these V8 roadsters from the turn of the millennium. Greg MacLeman suits up to pick a winner. Photography Tony Baker.
Pick any year between Tottenham’s victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the collapse of Goldman Sachs, and the go-to sports-car-turned-tourer of choice for the well-trousered company director or final-salary-pensioned retiree will invariably be rear-engined and German. Around the turn of the millennium, however, the likes of Jaguar, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz had finally begun to offer viable high-performance alternatives to the all-conquering 911, and to threaten its dominance of the midlife-crisis market.
Unlike the Porsche, however, these three are more grand tourers than outright sports cars: the sort of machines whose head units’ first preset is locked on Radio 2, with Moloko’s The Time is Now in the CD player. But unlike their predecessors, these romping V8 roadsters added face-melting levels of performance to tempt buyers who wanted Top Trumps bragging rights in the pub, but a sumptuous ride and comfortable leather interior when their mates weren’t watching. And with values of each of these incredible machines dipping below the £15,000 mark for the first time, Moloko may well be on to something: they’ve never offered more bang for your buck than they do right now.
The first of our trio to show up on the scene was the Jaguar XKR, the halo model of the XK8 range, which was unveiled in Geneva in 1996 as a replacement for the ageing XJS. The XK8 can trace its roots to Pininfarina’s 1970s XJ Spider show car and the XJ41 of the following decade, both of which raised the possibility of a new sports car to carry the torch of the E-type, but neither project came to fruition. By the time the XK8 arrived it was more XJS than E-type, built on the platform of the former but in the image of the latter. It shared a similar floorplan to the XJS, with reworked double-wishbone front suspension and the more modern double transverse link set-up borrowed from the XJ saloon at the rear, plus a cutting-edge traction-control system and computerised active damping.
While the XJ6 had enjoyed increased investment thanks to Ford’s takeover of the firm, the XK8 was the first model to be fully conceived, designed and funded by Dearborn, and it definitely benefited as a result. The most noticeable departure from the Jaguars of old was the lack of straight-six or V12 engine options, power instead being delivered by a brand-new, all-alloy, 90˚ V8 – a first for the firm. Build quality and cost control also improved, the slightly off-putting Ford switchgear being a small price to pay to shake Jaguar’s reputation for poor reliability and to undercut its main rivals to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds (even the 280SL cost £15,000 more than the Jaguar in 1996).
Two years after the launch of the XK8, Jaguar returned to Geneva to unveil the XKR, the pinnacle of the range and the first real threat to the Porsche hegemony to come out of Coventry. The styling remained faithful to the entry-level car, with its large oval air intake and bonnet bulge that brought to mind the E-type without drifting into the realms of pastiche. However, the XKR featured sporty mesh in its mouth and two purposeful sets of bonnet louvres to aid cooling – a sensible precaution given the mechanical upgrades over the base model.
Under the bonnet, the XK8’s 4-litre V8 was thrown out in favour of the ballistic, supercharged version from the XJR saloon, upping power from an already handy 290 to 370bhp, and slashing the 0-60mph dash from 6.6 secs to just 5.3, while the top speed was then 155mph, in line with its electronically limited German rivals. Like Mike Tyson in a shift slip, the XK now had the punch to back up its superstar looks.
Despite the prodigious performance, it’s clear when climbing inside the XKR that Jaguar’s targets were firmly locked on the luxury, rather than sporting, end of the market, with cosseting leather seats and a cockpit dripping with burrwalnut trim harking back to an earlier era – even the centrally mounted digital clock displays an analogue face. Compared with its rivals, the seating position is rather high, giving a commanding view of the long bonnet. It’s clear that this isn’t a small car, but its external size certainly isn’t reflected in a cabin that, though supremely comfortable, borders on the claustrophobic.
All XKRs from this generation were fitted with a bespoke, Mercedes-built ‘J-gate’ five-speed automatic transmission, and it suits the character of the car perfectly, being laid-back and smooth in its operation. Like its lesser siblings, the XKR excels as a long-distance tourer, with great waves of torque; it produces more than the XK8’s 290lb ft peak at just 1600rpm, on its way to a whopping 387lb ft at 3600rpm, ensuring that the 4.2-litre V8 never feels particularly stressed. But it’s also more than capable of pinning your head to the seat when you do decide to give it some welly. Floor the throttle and you’re rewarded by the squeal of tyres and a booming chorus from the quad-pipe exhaust, which gives way to the whistling of the big Eaton supercharger as the revs rise.
While the blown XJR engine feels perfectly at home beneath the Jag’s gorgeous coachwork, its power – and the resulting pace it allows – can at times overwhelm the chassis, particularly so with the heavier and less rigid structure of the convertible version. Turn-in is precise, but the suspension set-up is clearly tuned for comfort rather than dynamism, and the car has a tendency to wallow slightly as a result.
At the time when Jaguar launched the XK8, Mercedes-Benz already had a well-established grand tourer in the form of its R129 SL. Like the XJS, however, it was a cruiser rather than a bruiser. A number of bonkers high-powered, low-volume specials emerged from tuning arm AMG during that period, including the 512bhp, V12-powered SL73 – which later donated its engine to the Pagani Zonda – plus the seven-litre SL70 and six-litre V8 SL60. Mercedes also tested the waters with a naturally aspirated V8 SL55, but fewer than 70 were ever built, making it rare in the extreme. It wasn’t until the R230 joined the fray in 2001 that punters could walk into a dealership and pull out their chequebook for a true full-production super-SL.
At the point it hit the showrooms, the SL55 AMG was one of the most powerful cars Mercedes-Benz had ever produced, comfortably eclipsing the SL500 on which it was based with a whopping 493bhp from its 5.4-litre V8, thanks in no small part to a centrally mounted supercharger that winds up to 23,000rpm and produces 0.8bar of boost. UK cars were limited to 155mph, but it’s rumoured that a German magazine once took a derestricted version to a 202mph maximum – faster than a Ferrari F40.
As well as being the most powerful, the SL55 is also the most technologically advanced of our set, with electronic wizardry ranging from heated – and cooled! – seats to a state-of-the-art folding hardtop roof, whereas its Jaguar and Maserati rivals make do with mere canvas. All of that technology comes at a cost, however, and the SL is comprehensively the heaviest of the trio, tipping the scales at 1955kg – roughly two passengers weightier than an XKR.
Even though the big German is carrying a bit of extra timber, you wouldn’t think it from behind the wheel. Slot the futuristic plastic key into the dash and the big 5.4-litre V8 – the largest of the three here – kicks into life with minimal fuss. Indecent amounts of torque allow town driving at barely more than tickover, and even when you begin to hurry the roadster it remains relaxed, the intelligent five-speed automatic gearbox offering more timely gear selection than that of the XKR. It’s lively, too: this model comes with the addition of paddle gear shifters fixed to the steering wheel, which allow you to hold on to ratios higher up the rev range to truly delight in the Mercedes’ fabulous soundtrack.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its greater weight, the Merc feels the most planted through fast sweepers, lacking the flightiness of the Maserati or the roll of the Jaguar. It takes the twistiest of Wiltshire B-roads before the clever electronically controlled suspension begins to struggle to hide the near two-tonne heft, which weighs heavy through more technical sections.
Perhaps the best disguise for the extra mass comes in the form of 493bhp and a colossal 516lb ft or torque, every pony and pound of which becomes evident when you really bury the throttle. In an instant, the SL’s calm and predictable road manners fly out of the window – the needle sweeps up the speedo, accompanied by an artillery barrage from the quad exhausts. The noise is even more impressive from outside, the hammer blows of its big V8 audible long before the Merc flicks into view – enough to draw the attention of military police, who stop to question photographer Baker mid-shoot.
Whether blasting along the autobahn or cruising with the roof down, the AMG is a lovely place to be. While it lacks the sumptuousness of the XK, it more than makes up for it with ergonomics: everything seems to be in the right place, from the wheel-mounted paddles to a centre console bristling with controls. The feeling is of bespoke luxury rather than parts-bin economy – you really do get what you pay for.
Much like Jaguar, Maserati became the beneficiary of increased investment in the 1990s. Fiat bought a 49% stake in the firm in 1988, followed by Alejandro de Tomaso’s controlling share in ’1993, but the company’s fortunes only tangibly began to improve after responsibility passed to Ferrari in 1997. The new era was marked by a six-month factory shutdown and refit under the supervision of Luca di Montezemolo, and the launch of a new, Giugiaro-penned coupé designed to recapture the glamour of the firm’s 1950s and ’60s heyday.
The 3200GT was an instant success, doing away with the boxy, angular designs of Maserati’s recent history in favour of sweeping lines and curves to rival the XK8. It had the power, too, with its twin-turbo, 370bhp 3.2-litre V8 featuring drive-by-wire throttle. The result was the 0-60mph sprint in 5.1 secs and a top speed of 175mph – not to mention vastly increased footfall through the Maserati showrooms.
Building on its success, the firm targeted re-entry to the American market, from which it had been absent for 11 years. The car for the job was the 4200 Spyder, which broke cover at the 2001 Frankfurt Show. It retained similar styling to the coupé, albeit with 22cm chopped from the wheelbase and the rear seats replaced by an ingeniously designed folding roof, which disappeared neatly behind a body-coloured panel sitting flush with the rear haunches. Under the skin, however, the car was completely different.
Strict Stateside emissions regulations necessitated dropping the turbocharged 3.2-litre unit in favour of a naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8, provided courtesy of Ferrari and boasting an extra 20bhp, in addition to being 20kg lighter. The dry-sump unit featured four valves per cylinder and an F1-inspired external oil pump, while both crankcase and cylinder heads were of high-silicon aluminium alloy. Sadly, though, the boomerang rear lights of the 3200GT were also sacrificed at the altar of US compliance.
The options list, meanwhile, included dystopian- sounding ‘Skyhook’ computer-controlled damping, which used six accelerometers to monitor steering angle, wheel position and toe-in, adjusting each damper up to 40 times per second. The system is most noticeable when you flick the car into ‘Sport’ mode, which firms up each damper and sharpens throttle response.
The question of whether or not this car even needs a ‘Sport’ button isn’t far from your mind as – accidentally – the rear wheels spin up, sending a shower of stones towards its owner, who’s just handed me the keys. The 4200 falls some way short of its German counterpart’s peak power, but you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite thanks to the lightning-sharp throttle response and frenetic delivery. The wheelspinning antics are partly a by-product of the rare six-speed manual ’box, but also a less intrusive traction-control system that seems to give you just enough rope to hang yourself. Even in second gear it’s easy to break traction under hard acceleration, the rear squatting before the car sends you hurtling down the road.
The whole experience is much more involved than that of its rivals. With just over 1700kg to keep on the road, it’s lighter, sharper and feels more accurate, with a sublime balance that encourages you to attack each corner. It’s scarier, too, and though usually benign it can also prove unpredictable – like a Rottweiler you don’t fully trust not to turn on you when you least expect it. There’s no doubt that the 4200 is a superb grand tourer, but it’s also the closest to a sports car of our trio: the Ferrari connection never feels far away, particularly when you hear its jewel of a V8 – the car’s best feature – screaming at full chat.
It’s difficult not to look at these three roadsters through a lens of classic acceptability. But it’s also easy to forget that around the time these cars rolled off the production line, the iPod was unveiled and Tate Modern opened its doors.
Visually, the Jaguar seems to hail from an earlier time. Though undeniably the sexiest of the trio, its bodywork now seems dated, its long overhangs at odds with modern design and bringing to mind the XJ220 supercar of the early ’90s. The SL55, meanwhile, strikes a more current chord. Give it a private registration and tell your mates it’s new, and they’d probably believe you – but design cues shared with the rest of the Mercedes range can make it slightly anonymous in the car park. The Maserati is perhaps the most ‘Marmite’ of the bunch – either squat and muscular or short and dumpy, depending on your outlook. Thanks to that glorious V8, it’s undeniably the sportiest, too.
Ultimately, which car you choose depends on how you intend to use it. For a slice of yesteryear glamour that will impress at the golf club, it has to be the bargain XKR. Diehard enthusiasts will no doubt be drawn to the exotic pedigree and enthralling – if at times terrifying – experience of the Maserati. But those who want something more understated, practical and reassuringly solid, it’s hard to see beyond the SL. It’s not only the best all-rounder, but also the biggest steal: a £90k, 500bhp drop-top for less than the price of a new 3 Series. What could go wrong?
Thanks to Hills of Lymington (01590 287908; hillsoflymington.co.uk); Dorset Sports Cars (01202 825911; dorsetsportscars.co.uk); Andrew Marshall