Jaguar XKR Convertible vs. Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG R230 and Maserati 4200 Spyder

Tony Baker and Drive-My

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.

Jaguar XKR Convertible vs. Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG R230 and Maserati 4200 Spyder

Jaguar XKR Convertible X100-Series vs. Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG R230 and Maserati 4200 Spyder Tipo M138

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;; Dorset Sports Cars (01202 825911;; Andrew Marshall


Tech and photo

Roadsters to buy now Bargain V8 drop-tops from Mercedes, Jaguar and Maserati go head to head.




Jaguar XKR Convertible road test
Jaguar XKR Convertible X100 road test. From top: discreet cues separate XKR from XK8, including grille, louvres and bigger wheels; cabin is cramped but cossetting; the XKR is rapid, but more cruiser than sports car.

Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG R230 road test
Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG R230 road test. From top: early cars have a more classic look, before 2008 facelift; despite its weight, SL has surprising agility; turbine-style wheels look great; cabin is superbly put together.

Jaguar XKR Convertible vs. Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG R230 and Maserati 4200 Spyder
Jaguar XKR Convertible vs. Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG R230 and Maserati 4200 Spyder engines. Above: a tale of three V8s, with supercharged Merc and Jaguar, plus Maserati artwork. Below: SL is by far the best looking with its folding metal roof up.

Maserati 4200 Spyder road test
Maserati 4200 Spyder road test. From top: the Maserati is the most exciting on a twisty lane; interior has a healthy dose of Latin flair – this car is a rare manual; slightly stunted looks work well in a metallic hue.


Sold/number built 1998-2005/13,895

Engine all-alloy 4196cc 32v dohc-per-bank V8, Eaton supercharger

Max power 390bhp @ 6100rpm (DIN)

Max torque 399lb ft @ 3500rpm (DIN)

Transmission six-speed automatic, RWD

Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear double wishbone/ upper driveshaft link, radius arms, coils, anti-roll bar Brakes 355mm front, 330mm rear vented discs

Weight 4001lb (1815kg)

0-60mph 5.3 secs

Top speed 155mph

Price new £60,005

Price now £8-25,000

{module Jaguar XK X100}


Δ Early cars had Nikasil cylinder liners, which can be stripped by modern fuel. If the file shows no remedial work/replacement, slow starting can indicate poor compression.

Δ Early examples had plastic timing-chain tensioners; the upper ones are prone to breaking. 4.0 and 4.2 units were affected, but later 4.2s got a steel replacement.

Δ The Mercedes ’box in 4-litres has weak output shaft and planetary gears, which can fail causing the gearbox to seize.

Δ Inspect the rear tyres for uneven wear, which can indicate tired suspension.

Δ Check for a knocking sensation through the steering column. That in pre-2000 cars is prone to wear, and the only option is a costly swap to a later column.


Sold/number built 2001-’2011/170,000 (all R230)

Engine all-alloy, supercharged 5439cc

24v sohc-per-bank V8

Max power 493bhp @ 6100rpm (DIN)

Max torque 516lb ft @ 2750rpm (DIN)

Transmission five-speed automatic, RWD

Suspension independent, at front by four links rear multi-link; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r, plus Active Body Control

Brakes 360mm front, 330mm rear vented discs

Weight 4310lb (1955kg)

0-60mph 4.7 secs

Top speed 155mph

Price new £97,100

Price now £15-40,000

{module Mercedes-Benz R230}


Δ Check the complex roof; its electric motor can fail due to water ingress. Lift the boot carpet and look for signs of damp.

Δ Where possible, test the car with below a quarter-tank of fuel. Lifter pumps can fail, manifesting in a ticking noise at this level.

Δ Inspect suspension pipes for corrosion, that the car sits level on both sides, and for unexplained fluid leaks. The ABC system has a habit of failing even on low-mileage cars, and repair can run into thousands.

Δ Ensure the lever moves smoothly between P, R, D and N – resistance/hesitation can mean the plastic peg preventing it from being put into reverse needs replacing.

Δ Check panels for dents and scrapes: many are aluminium, and costly to repair.


Sold/number built 2001-’2007/10,338 (inc Coupé)

Engine all-alloy 4224cc 32v dohc V8

Max power 390bhp @ 7000rpm (DIN)

Max torque 333lb ft @ 4500rpm (DIN)

Transmission six-speed manual transaxle, RWD

Suspension independent, by double wishbones, forged alloy links and hub carriers, optional Skyhook continuously variable damping

Brakes 330mm front, 310mm rear vented discs

Weight 3791lb (1720kg)

0-60mph 4.8 secs

Top speed 176mph

Price new £61,995

Price now £15-30,000

{module Maserati Coupé and Spyder Tipo M138 / 4200GT}


Δ Insist on a full service history and get an independent inspection; it could identify problems such as premature clutch wear.

Δ The electrics are typically Italian. Look for warning lights and check everything works, in particular the windows and hood, which can be slow when on their way out.

Δ Check online forums because many parts are interchangeable with other models: a new Maserati transmission pump is £1k, the same part for an Alfa can be 50% less.

Δ Most 4200s had the Cambiocorsa ’box, which was not well received initially. If your heart is set on paddle-shift, opt for a later car – it was improved for MY2004.

Δ Expect a 4200 to eat tyres. Mismatched rubber can be a sign of corners being cut.

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 115]}


Or you could have…

BMW 645Ci E6x-Series

The E63/E64 launch in 2003 heralded the return of a much-loved name not seen in 14 years: the 6 Series. It shared many parts and equipment with the 5 Series, including its chassis, while the styling was very much a product of the Chris Bangle era – you’ll either love it or hate it. Power came via a 329bhp, 4.4-litre V8, which was good for 0-60mph in 5.4 secs. The 507bhp V10 M6 came a year later, followed by the 362bhp 650i in 2006.

2004 BMW 645Ci Coupe E63

2004 BMW 645Ci Coupe E63


If you can live with left-hand drive, the C5 Corvette offers a lot of performance for comparatively little outlay thanks to its 5.7-litre LS1 V8. Though it employs outmoded technology – think overhead valves and leaf springs – the C5 is a remarkable performer, with 345bhp being enough to reach 60mph in 4.5 secs thanks to a svelte kerbweight of just 1500kg.

1997 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe C5

1997 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe C5


The SC430 was the first convertible to be designed and built by Lexus. It featured a retractable aluminium hardtop similar to that of the SL55, and a 4.3-litre V8 mated to a five-speed auto transmission. They’re well appointed inside, with lashings of leather and wood trim. Though it’s less powerful than its main rivals, its 288bhp engine is quiet and refined, and is capable of propelling the SC430 to 60mph in a handy 6.2 secs.

2001 Lexus SC 430

2001 Lexus SC 430


Those who prefer to live life away from the mainstream might be tempted by an Aero 8. Launched in 2001, it was the first all-new design from Malvern since the 1960s. The Aero 8 had an aluminium chassis and frame, and power initially came via a BMW-sourced 4.4-litre V8. The styling was challenging, to say the least: there’s no getting away from that cross-eyed look.

Morgan Aero 8

Morgan Aero 8


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