Flashback Review: 2002 Jaguar “X308” XJ Sport, a bittersweet experience

As some of you readers have learned through egmCarTech’s first flashback review, my first car was a 1994 Mercedes-Benz W124 E320 Coupe and I absolutely loved it to death. But an unfortunate string of events happened and as a result, the Benz was sent off to the proverbial junkyard in the sky. So naturally, many of you probably thought that I immediately sprung for another E320 Coupe, or at least another Benz from the equivalent period. But because the late body W124 E320 Coupes were produced in so few numbers compared to its four-door sibling, a good low-mileage and clean example like the one I had is very hard to come by, especially for the price that I acquired mine for. Considering that some time restrictions were prevalent, I impulsively bought a 2002 Jaaaaaaaaag “X308” XJ8 Sport or “XJ Sport” after some long research. Immediately, many of you must be thinking that I may have bitten off a little more than I could chew. Yea, I did…So here’s the story.

Jaguar has had a very rough history as they’ve gone from making some of the most elite automobiles in the world, to making some of the worst in history purely from their troubled reliability. For quite some time and even to this day, Jaguar has been the buy word of “maintenance nightmare” and “pocket vaporizer,” especially after the British Leyland merger of equals in the 1970s. Despite this, by all means Jaguar made cars that looked great, were tastefully crafted and drove like the suaveness of Monica Belucci swimming in a pool of Bavarian crème. But after the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s of being owned and operated by British Leyland, the small (small in comparison to its competitors) Coventry firm was bought out by Ford Motor Company, ironically.

Now some think that this was a terrible and horrid mistake and that this led to the demise of the company. But truth be told, Ford did a grand job saving the battered brand. In fact, Jaguar wouldn’t be where they are now without them. Ford granted Jaguar millions of dollars so that Jaguar could independently engineer and design its cars in order to stay traditional to its roots. And the car that I bought to replace the Mercedes was one of the many cars built with Ford money that actually helped to save the distressed reputation of Jaguar.

But before I continue, I must clear one very big misconception between Ford’s ownership over Jaguar. I must emphasize that Ford did very little to provide in terms of actual physical parts for the X300 XJ (1994-1997) and the X308 XJ (1997-2003). The X308, much like its original predecessor, the X300, does not contain any actual Ford parts and was designed from the ground up by Jaguar.

This misconception is actually sourced from when Ford and Jaguar cooperatively worked on Ford’s DEW98 rear-wheel drive platform that underpinned the Jaguar S-Type, the first and current generation Jaguar XF, the last generation Ford Thunderbird, and the Lincoln LS. The only Jaguar cars that shared parts with Ford products are the Jaguar S-Type, the Ford Thunderbird and the Lincoln LS. The Lincoln LS came with an optional V8, which was actually just a 4.0L AJ-V8 carry over from the XJ8. The tenth generation Ford Thunderbird came with the 4.0L Jaguar AJ-V8 as standard. However, the American-placed AJV8s were rated at 3.9L as the methods of rounding differ here when compared to Europe. That said, many of the parts that came with that engine, were slightly modified to fit the Lincoln LS’s larger proportions. There are many engine parts that are easily swappable between a Lincoln LS V8 and any Jaguar powered by the 4.0L AJ-V8. But often, owners of second-hand 4.0L V8 powered Jaguars would source the Lincoln V8 parts as they were cheaper by name, but still worked on the 4.0L V8s powering nearly every Jaguar in the 1990s.

But getting back on form, Jaguar endured some quality years in terms of reliability and build quality. In 1997, J.D. Power and Associates awarded the 1997 Jaguar XJ6 as the third most reliable car to own at the time. And that’s because the X300 and X308 were very well engineered vehicles in many respects. The bodies and suspension parts were galvanized to prevent rusting. The electronics were designed and built by Nippon Denso—the same brand that builds the same electronics for Honda and Toyota, which certainly cured the brand from its dark days with the prince of darkness, Lucas Electronics. Early X300 XJ owners also benefitted from Jaguar’s legendary straight-six, often paired with robust four-speed transmissions. The later facelifted and updated X308 XJ however, was a rather different story.

My purchase of a clean 2002 “XJ Sport” was my first experience ever owning a Jaguar. It was acquired with roughly 98k miles on it and was owned by two previous owners, making me the third. The XJ Sport was pinned just ahead of the base XJ8, which means it featured the same sport suspension, gorgeous 18-inch five-spoke alloys, short ratio steering, sport brakes and visual appointments as the early-X308 XJR minus the supercharged 4.0L V8. The next models offered were the long-wheelbase Vanden Plas, the aggressive short-wheelbase E39 M5-competing XJR and the Vanden Plas Supercharged (featuring the same supercharged V8 as the blisteringly fast XJR, which was renamed the Super V8 in the last model year). Back in the day, a brand new base XJ8 fetched $71,240 large. My 2002 XJ Sport was acquired for $8,000 even, a fraction of its original $70,000+ original sticker price. So yes, it did have the depreciation of a diseased goat. But, how did I like it?

Let’s start off with the looks. The year 1997 marked the final facelift of the original X300 XJ-Series after the much abominated and preceding XJ40, the X308 XJ won L’Automobile pie Bella del Mondo’s award for best styling. The facelift featured revised front and rear fascias, clear lenses for head and taillamps with optical reflectors, oval turn indicators at front, rounded foglights, and ¼ chrome trim instead of the X300’s former wrap-arounds. And, well, look at it! I’ve always said that Jaguar’s were class leaders in…classiness. After the XJ40 of the 1980s, Jaguar decided that a “retro” path was the way to go to style the X300/X308, and it truly was a case of evolution versus a revolution, unlike the current all-new XJ-Series. Because the design was loosely based off of the previous generation of XJ-Series, by the time the final facelift for the X308 popped around, many criticized the design for “being too old” nearing the final years. This was especially apparent since the at-the-time all new E65 BMW 7er, D3 Type 4E Audi A8 and the W220 Mercedes-Benz S-Class were launched in 2002 and 1999, respectively. But as a result, the X308 Jaguar attained the title as instant classic for its traditional design cues that reflected on XJs of the past. Complete with its wedge-shaped three-box design, long hood, quad-headlamps and wide kidney grills, the X308 XJ had as much presence as a Bentley of equal time and still does to this day. And although the equivalent BMW 7ers, Audi A8s and Mercedes-Benz S-Classes were also great lookers at the time, nothing could hold a candle to the charisma and character that the X308 portrayed. In a sense, you were almost very much unlikely to get pulled over in the XJ Sport for speeding because everyone thought that you were a world-renown surgeon on his or her way to a medical emergency.

The interior was also revised in the facelift featuring a similar “oval design” dashboard with matching door veneers that debuted in the introduction of the 1997 XK8 and XKR. But as aforementioned, because the basic design of the X308 was similar to that of the previous generation XJ-Series, the inside was and is still considered cramped when compared to its competition. Despite these drawbacks, many, including myself, overlooked the small interior in favor of the X308’s warm and comforting “Britishness” and “Jaguarness,” especially when compared to the dark, stoic and hard-assed interiors of its German rivals. And boy, what a nice place the Jaaaaaag was to sit. The seats hugged and supported as if the world’s best orthopedic surgeons got their hands on them. The interior had enough wood trim to build a house and the leather was as soft and delicate as Kate Beckinsale’s…you know. Regardless of the streamlined design, exterior visibility is very good and it was always easy to see where the car’s physical boundaries were. The center console however was a bit of a clusterf*ck. With enough buttons to even make Honda drivers lose their bananas, navigating your way around the radio and optionally equipped navigation was a bit of a challenge. So interior user-friendliness was obviously sacrificed in favor of style, especially with Jaguar’s much-criticized “J-Gate” shifter. However, a big non-issue as the elegance of the interior made up for the lackluster ergonomics. But don’t think that Jaguar skimped on the driving dynamics.

So let’s talk power. The turn of the year 1997 marked the introduction of Jaguar’s first ever production V8: the AJ-V8. The new eight-cylinder replaced the outgoing and legendary straight-six that helped Jaguar achieve the title as the world’s fastest production car several times throughout history early post-WWII. The results formed a 4.0L 90-degree angle V8 with a DOHC two-state variable valve timing system, 290hp and 290 lb-ft of torques and a 0-60 time of 6.3 seconds for a top speed limited to 155. The only other engine available was a supercharged version that powered the XJR/Supercharged Vanden Plas/Super V8. Listed as one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 2000, the early AJ-V8 was an uncannily smooth powerplant that gave its German competitors a serious run for the money in both power and refinement. It featured a single-chained timing chain as opposed to a duplex timing chain as found in the Germans to keep weight down. Mated to ZF’s 5HP24 five-speed automatic (the same transmission found in nearly every V8 BMWs and several Audis), shifts were provided with absolutely seamless action. The ZF cog swapper also came with a unique Sport mode, which held gears and weighted the steering for more feel and feedback.

Handling was just as impressive. Although my XJ Sport wasn’t equipped with Jaguar’s advanced adaptive CATS Computer Active Technology suspension, the XJ Sport cut corners like something nearly half its size. The active steering senses when you quicken up the pace and makes it heavier while it softens up around low speed parking lot maneuvers. It was brilliant, making the car a breeze to handle in almost any situation (also thanks to standard reverse sensors) and the brakes were superb if not slightly dead on feel when compared to more performance oriented vehicles at the time from say, BMW. Cool things down and the cat becomes a true Autobahn cruiser that makes the S-Class of equal time quiver. The stability and composure seriously rivaled that of the E38 740 Sport, only the latter being maybe a wee bit sharper in the corners. It was, in all seriousness, no harder to drive fast or normally than the aforementioned BMW 7-Series. It was an absolutely wondrous thing to pilot and yet, they accomplished it using their legendary independent rear suspension design that essentially had been the same since 1961. In fact, in 2001 Jeremy Clarkson—who was in a Jaguar XJR—kept up with Tiff Needell in an M5 in one of Top Gear’s specialty videos. That said, since the XJ Sport was basically an XJR minus the supercharged V8…well, you can put the two together. Ride was a bit compromised with the low-profile 18-inch wheels and lowered and stiffened suspension, even with the softer Michelin Pilot Sport Plus A/S all-seasons I equipped. Hit anything larger than a minor pothole and things did crash hard around town. Stretch the Jaaaaag’s legs on the highway though and it’s cruising central.

All this performance and coolness however, did come at quite a price. I averaged 24 mpg on my longest highway road trip while the V8 otherwise returned a heavy 16 mpg average with a requirement of premium. But that’s not the worst. Can any of you guess how long I had the car? Nope, you’re incorrect. In my ownership of just four short months and in the spirit of owning a second hand Jaguar, within the first two weeks the transmission failed and two month later after repair, the beating V8 heart had an attack…and the engine spun a connecting rod bearing at 102,000 miles. And immediately as this happened, I asked myself, how can a car with so few miles just go so wrong?

Well, to provide a little bit of insight, despite the accolades for driving and performance that the Jaguar XJ8 received when new, the X308 isn’t exactly a second-hand owner friendly vehicle. The ZF five-speed 5HP24 transmissions are widely cited as being problematic from premature failure of one of its major transmission drums from a flawed design. Combine that with Jaguar’s marketed policy of a “maintenance-free” transmission, and you often had complete and catastrophic failures, particularly with those who bought the car second-hand out of warranty. Why? Most mechanics will tell you that nearly all automatic transmissions benefit from fluid changes every 30,000 miles—much in the same way that the golden intervals for engine oil changes occurs every 7,500 miles. But because of Jaguar’s advertised policy, very few first hand owners gave the transmission the attention it needed over the course of its life. Jaguar owners weren’t the only ones to suffer as these same policies were advertised and enforced for nearly every other car equipped with ZF’s five-speed automatic. And because they were all equipped with the same 5HP24 five-speed, drum failures occurred on all these BMWs and Audis as well. If you remember, I mentioned that nearly every eight-cylinder BMW utilized this transmission, along with nearly every five-speed auto Audi in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Of course, ask any seasoned mechanic or car enthusiast about these advertised “maintenance free” ZF transmissions—there simply is no such thing as “maintenance free” when owning a vehicle long term, unless you insist on preparing yourself for a hefty bill in the future—or you plan on selling your left kidney. And to add injury to insult, the first generation AJ-V8 turned out to be very poorly designed, resulting in many engine failures below 120,000 miles.

Because the early AJ-V8s were designed with weight in mind—hence why they used a single chain timing chain instead of a duplex timing chain like many other European V8s—the timing chains are widely known to fail prematurely from various weak points. Their failure rate is so widely documented that even a class action lawsuit was attempted, but denied against Jaguar for these design flaws. That said, 1997-2002 Jaguar XJ8s and XK8s are often requiring extensive timing chain work upon second-hand sale, if not needing a completely new engine. More specifically, the timing chain tensioners, guides, and rails were made of a feeble plastic, making them solely responsible for the major headaches. Jaguar did issue a service bulletin to remedy the problem by introducing and implementing a fix free of charge under warranty. They implemented a change out of the entire timing chain system with “second generation” updated timing chain components beginning in model year 2001, before they were finally revised for a “third generation” in late model-year 2002. Unfortunately however, the second-generation tensioner components were found to fail as frequently as the first generation, though the third generation tensioners have been found to be far more durable than both the first and second. My XJ8, according to its manufacturer date, was assembled with the second-generation tensioners.

However, buyers of second-hand early AJ-V8 powered Jaaags were never SOL as long as they caught the problem in time and were good with tedious do-it-yourself work. Additionally, it can be a mixed bag as there are plenty of well-maintained early AJ-V8 powered Jaguars that received all of the mechanical updates, including an updated drum for the ZF 5HP24, which guarantees the life of the transmission for well over 200,000 miles as long as fluid changes are maintained. But seeing as the two major failing points for the X308 are all internal components, majority of the time, new owners of these second-hand Jaguars were stuck with the underlying fear and paranoia of just when would these failures occur, if the service history didn’t indicate the updates. Or even worse, new owners of these Jags didn’t know of these problems at all. Symptoms do tend to develop allowing for some decent warning time, but this is not always the case as my Jaguar XJ Sport gave me very little warning about its failures, despite having a documented service history.

Without making the rest of this review too winded, several extenuating circumstances and other factors in life did not favor my interest in keeping the Jaguar after the two biggest components took a dump in my time of ownership. Resultantly, I sold the Jaguar to an individual who bought it to swap in a modern Chevrolet LS V8, complete with its automatic transmission. Speaking of which, had the resources been available, I too could have also swapped in a modern Chevrolet LS motor, complete with transmission, for nearly the same price as the reconditioned transmission that I bought upon the original’s failure. Trust me, I kick myself every time about this.

But ultimately, I’ve rationalized that perhaps it wasn’t the time for me. I was deep in my collegiate studies and as of this review, I still am tying up my last bit of time at university. That of course, led me to purchase my 2011 Honda Accord V6 Coupe that I reviewed a couple years back for the sake of being sensible so I could prioritize my life a little bit more efficiently. And as much as the Jaguar left me in a financial pit, I swear to this day that it was by far one of my favorite cars to own. Altogether, it simply was a case of bad timing.

Despite the fact that I had been consistently drilled for being an idiot for buying a Jaguar during college, it simply was just one of those instances that non-car enthusiasts just don’t get. Sure, the Jaaaag did vaporize my wallets and did set me back in college a little bit. But in the end, it was worth it. And I will buy another one…and swap a Chevy 5.7 in it.

Details and Specifications

  • Year: 2002
  • Make: Jaguar Cars Limited
  • Manufactured In: Coventry, England, United Kingdom
  • Class: XJ
  • Model: XJ Sport
  • Chassis Number: X308
  • Engine Model: AJ-27
  • Engine Type: DOHC (Dual Overhead Camshaft) V8 with Variable Valve Timing, four valves per cylinder
  • Displacement: 4.0L/3996cc/243.8 cu in
  • Output: 290 hp @ 6,100 RPM/290 ft-lbs @ 4,250 RPM
  • Engine Redline: 6,800
  • Compression Ratio: 10.8:1
  • Transmission Type: ZF Transmission with Open Rear Differential
  • Number of Gears: 5
  • Transmission Model: ZF 5HP24
  • Front suspension: Wishbone front suspension with stabilizer bar independent with coil springs
  • Rear suspension: Wishbone rear suspension independent with coil springs
  • Brakes: Antilock Braking System (ABS)
  • Wheelbase: 113 in
  • Curb Weight: 3,938 lb

 – By: Chris Chin

Chris Chin

Chris Chin is the Editor-In-Chief of egmCarTech and is a regular contributor to Automobile Magazine.

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