2019 Jaguar XE Project 8 review: Track test

Australian first drive

$325,000 $349,000 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
    6.7L
  • Engine Power
    221kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    153g
  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars

Jaguar's had a change of heart regarding the Project 8's availability in Australia, the baddest factory four-door Jag yet. That's great news... for elite collectors, at least.

As is so often the case with rare skunkworks specials, you probably already know a swag of essential details about the Jaguar XE Project 8.

You know that it’s the most powerful road-going car Jaguar has officially built, you know that its hand-hewn carbon and aluminium bodywork is almost entirely bespoke compared to the XE on which it is based, and you know that just 300 will be produced globally.

What you may not have known, until now, is that you can officially own one here via official channels, through Jaguar Australia. That’s a new detail too, but it’s conditional. Very conditional.

Aussie delivered Project 8s will arrive with their steering wheel on the left. Under current regulations that means they won’t be road-registerable here. Instead, the flagship Jag is positioned as a track-only special.

If you’re interested in one there’s a choice of two models, starting from $325,000 for the four-seat version with ‘performance’ front and matching ‘sports’ rear seats, up to $349,000 for the even more purposeful track pack, which ditches the rear pews in favour of a half-cage and fits a set of carbon-framed race seats and four-point harnesses up front.

Weigh it up and with a starting price of £149,995 in the UK (or AU$272,000) there’s a slight mismatch, though still not so much as some other cars in a similar price bracket.

Lurking under the bespoke bonnet lies jaguar’s familiar ‘AJV8’ a 5.0-litre supercharged unit shared with cars like the XJ limo and F-Type sports cars. In this instance, it’s been wound up further and sends 441kW and 700Nm to an all-wheel drive system via an eight-speed automatic.

Talking about the specs and stats (oh yeah, there will be more of both) doesn’t really tell the whole story though. Yes, the Project 8 is different from the XE it shares its basics with, but just how different isn’t revealed until you get behind the wheel.

To demonstrate, Jaguar Australia took one Project 8, one race track (Sandown in this instance) and chucked me the keys to undertake my own journey of self discovery. Bloody quick learning curve, that one.

Feed these numbers into your head first: 75 per cent of the exterior surfaces are Project 8 specific, with just the roof and the glass left untouched. Rear track sits 73mm wider than normal and the front has been bumped up by 24mm.

The styling changes give it real visual beef. It's a shame the older-style headlights and tail lights are used though, instead of the newer sleeker 2020 model year XE units.

Among the carbon bits, the bonnet saves 3 kilograms while the front carbon ceramic brakes save 18kg. The brakes measure 400mm up front, clamped by six-piston calipers, and ride height can be dropped 15mm for track use.

Michelin Cup 2 tyres represent some damn serious race rubber: they’re 265mm wide up front and 305m wide at the rear.

What does that mean, though? Well in just a few months time the regular XE range will get a mid-life update and a heavily revised range. (You can read our review here.)

It’ll come with a ‘P300’ engine making half the power (221kW) from half the cylinders. It’ll sprint from 0-100 kilometres in 5.9 seconds, 2.2 seconds slower than the Project 8. It wears tyres 40mm and 60mm narrower front and rear and it costs (in basic trim) around a fifth of the price, from $65,570 plus on-road costs.

Good numbers to reel off as a bit of pub trivia, all of them, but what’s it actually like?

For starters, it’s absolutely unmissable. No other mid-sized prestige car comes close for presence. A BMW M3 may have wider guards, but it looks like an absolute lightweight next to the ultra-wide Project 8.

An M3 isn’t a hand built, limited-numbers special though, and costs about half the price, so the Project 8 would want to demand attention!

Even though the car I chucked around Sandown had the full track-spec two-seat plus roll cage cabin, there’s a surprising amount of familiar XE-ness to the inside. Same dash, centre console, door trims and steering wheel.

The seats aren’t the same, though. These ones grip like a vice and you can’t just slide in and out – you position your bum over where you’d like to land, then drop in, locking yourself into position in the process.

Road car comfort becomes a distant memory. Sound insulation is blissfully absent (a phrase I don’t ever expect to use again) meaning not only is the variable titanium exhaust’s growling cacophony readily accessible, but even the raw unfettered gear whine from the reworked eight-speed auto becomes a part of the experience.

Unusually, that’s where the driving experience is perhaps most obvious. It’s a powerful engine, sure, so it comes as no surprise to find it goes hard when you mash the accelerator.

What you don’t really expect is the brutality of the ‘Quickshift’ auto. At full noise, gear changes arrive with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Pull the paddles to downshift ahead of a corner and mechanical sympathy seemingly vanishes.

This a transmission with performance at its core. The quickest shifts occur in 200 milliseconds and transmission logic allows non-sequential gear changes rather than counting back through each gear for maximum downshift effectiveness.

The drivetrain, complete with sport-tuned electronic differential, torque vectoring by brake and variable all-wheel drive is also a work of motorsport necessity. I expected something a little wild and cantankerous; the Project 8 was almost the polar opposite.

Big grip from big sticky tyres helps, but 700Nm is enough to turn even the widest rubber to liquorice straps laid onto tarmac. The Project 8 is far more settled than that, using its advanced systems to maximise traction, bolster stability, and squeeze the air your of your lungs as it clamps you firmly into your seat.

It’s not entirely without a sense of humour, of course. Above a regular Jag’s Dynamic drive mode the looser Race setting allows the rear to squirm as it fights cornering forces. Brave souls could turn that into lavish drifts, me I just giggled at the rampant outlandishness of turning a perfectly respectable luxo mid-sizer into something that feels more like a GT3 racer.

As for the engine, it’s a genuine menace.

It kills me a little inside each time think about how both the M3 and RS4 ditched perfectly outlandish free-breathing V8s for equally capable, but less enticing turbocharged six-cylinder engines. The AMG C63 keeps a light burning brightly for bent eights (with turbos, of course) and its octo-cylindric celebration is another reason to cheer.

In development terms the Project 8’s eight-banger is closely aligned to the one found in the F-Type SVR, same 700Nm but that car’s already prodigious 423kW gets a jump up to 441kW in this application.

If you stuck your head under the bonnet you’d be able to hear the supercharger whine, but from the driver’s seat the death-metal roar of the wide-open exhaust drowns out most other sounds.

This thing practically flashes danger signs all over the place, yet there’s a surprising depth and dimensionality to how it performs. You can treat it gently through pit lane and nudge the speed up and down via the throttle.

You can lean on the surfeit of torque between 3500 and 5000rpm at mid-throttle, or you can go chasing peak power at 6500rpm, slam though the next gear, and watch maniacally as numbers on the projected head-up speedometer scroll up quicker than you can register.

Going is one thing, but stopping is another altogether. Plenty of race-ready cars give you a rock-hard pedal with all-or-nothing adjustability; the Project 8 give you a short stroke, but lets you pick the rate of retardation. You can stop in a hurry and that’s barely half the potential you can also jam hard on the pedal and torture your rib cage against the four-point restraints over and over without any real signs of failure.

Some of the all-round credibility comes from the suspension, adaptive dampers remain, but their tuning, along with the setup of springs and bushes, is specific to the Project 8. Alongside a garden-variety XE, the difference is night and day.

The regular car is a dynamic gem, but put it alongside the tautly controlled Project 8 and it may as well be a Citroen 2CV. There’s seemingly no roll, no float, and no recovery. The buttoned down 8 simply keeps everything shiny-side-up with humourless efficacy.

Perhaps the oddest bragging right is the claim that the Project 8 is the lightest V8 sedan in Jaguar's range... It's also one of only two sedans fitted with a V8, the other being the much larger XJ limo. Weigh-in is a still-hefty 1745kg, with a 12.2 kg weight saving for the track pack version.

Like the F-Type derived Project 7, the Project 8 shows that Jaguar’s Special Vehicles division contains no shortage of lunacy. Unlike the Project 7 though, and its 10 car allotment for Australia the Project 8 has no upper limit for Down Under.

Of the 300-car production schedule, 200 are already spoken for internationally. That leaves 100 on offer, and while it’s unlikely more than a single-digit amount will end up here, Jaguar Australia doesn’t yet know if any will find a home – such is the newness of the decision to sell them here.

Far and away the biggest disappointment is that buyers may go to the effort of getting a Jaguar Project 8 here, and lock it away in as an investment, rather than mercilessly wringing the neck of what could be Jag’s best-ever road-legal race car that’s not actually road legal.

More’s the pity, really.

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