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Limited-run super-saloon looks bred for the track, but Jaguar's Project 8 delivers on the road as well

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Almost a year has passed since Jaguar first showed off its steroidal arch warrior at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. We’ve seen videos of it tearing around race tracks, most notably that long and wiggly one in a hilly corner of Germany, where it set what Jaguar says is a saloon car lap record.

Finally, we get to find out what it’s actually like to drive.

For all its stench of racing chic, Jaguar’s most hardcore passenger car works surprisingly well away from the flat expanse of a race track

The XE SV Project 8 is a limited-run super-saloon (of sorts), with just 300 set to be built. It’s been developed — and will be built by — Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations, the division that’s responsible for high-performance SVR-branded Range Rovers and F-Types, as well as low-volume specials such as the 2015 F-Type Project 7. The Project 8 will be left-hand drive only.

It shares its basic body-in-white with the everyday Jaguar XE, but just about everything else is new. Every body panel but the roof and front doors are bespoke, the suspension has been entirely reworked and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres feature on a Jaguar for the very first time.

The familiar 5.0-litre supercharged V8 that serves across JLR has also been shoehorned in. Here, it develops 592bhp and 516lb ft, making the Project 8 Jaguar’s most powerful road car to date.

The aero package is bespoke, too, of course, and capable of generating 122kg of downforce at 186mph. The optional Track Pack, which costs £10,000 and saves 12kg, swaps out the rear seats for a half-roll-cage and adds carbon-backed bucket seats up front with four-point harnesses.

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Is Project 8 purely a track car, or can it cope on the road?

The XE SV Project 8 still looks far too track-focused to possibly work on the road. Don’t be misled. For all its stench of racing chic, Jaguar’s most hardcore passenger car works surprisingly well away from the flat expanse of a race track.

With springs that are four and a half times stiffer than those fitted to a conventional Jaguar XE, the ride is, of course, tight and firm. Sitting in a BMW M5 or Mercedes-AMG E63 immediately after driving a Project 8 would be like floating in a swimming pool on a lilo.

Importantly, though, the Project 8’s ride isn’t too unyielding for the road. In fact, despite the clanging firmness of those springs, there’s enough compliance and bump absorption to deal with most road surfaces. The damping really is exceptional; it skilfully prevents a firm ride from ever becoming overbearing.

That’s the first surprise. The second is how well-mannered it is in wet conditions. There are a number of high-performance cars out there that would be close to undriveable on Cup 2 tyres in wet weather, but the Project 8 makes them work. There is good turn-in grip and very stable, consistent cornering grip, meaning you don’t feel at all nervous leaning on the chassis in bends. Traction is very strong, too, thanks to the intelligent four-wheel drive system.

What those spring rates guarantee is a very stable and solid platform, a level of body control that no other super-saloon can come close to and astonishingly sharp steering response. There can be no tougher test of a track-focused car than a wet and hideously bumpy back road, but even in those most challenging of conditions the Project 8 gives you the confidence to press on.

On a dry track, meanwhile, it’s clear within two or three corners that this car is unlike any other super-saloon. But of course that's true; no other super-saloon is this aggressive or this expensive. In fact, you very quickly realise that to discuss the Project 8 in super-saloon terms is to somewhat miss the point. It isn’t one. It’s much more akin to a Porsche 911 GT3 RS or BMW M4 GTS. It just happens to have four doors.

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The adaptive dampers remain more or less unchanged as you flick between Comfort and Dynamic modes, but in the Track setting they switch to a much more aggressive map. Suddenly, there’s even less roll in the car, far less vertical movement and even tauter responses. On those sticky tyres, the Project 8 finds enormous levels of grip, while the steering is intuitive and uncannily precise. From corner entry and through the apex, the car is perfectly balanced.

In quick fourth gear corners, you feel it rise onto the balls of its feet and sweep through from start to finish in the subtlest four-wheel drift, both axles slipping across the tack surface at the exact same, infinitesimal rate, like an old racing car. It’s one of the sweetest sensations in driving.

Away from a corner, there’s simply no power oversteer. If you unsettle the car on the way in and stand abruptly on the throttle pedal, you can make it drift, but it doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t slide very willingly even in Track mode, which favours the rear axle right up until the point it starts to lose traction.

Has Jaguar done enough to make Project 8 stand out from its rivals?

What the Project 8 really wants to do is slingshot itself away from the bend with no loss of forward momentum whatsoever, its 592bhp and 516lb ft rocketing the limited-edition car's 1745kg towards the next corner with eye-widening ferocity. Track driving is torture for most road cars, but the Project 8 is built for it.

The engine almost has as much character as it does power. We’ve become so slavishly accustomed in recent years to twin-turbocharged engines whomping out peak torque from 1500rpm, so to drive a very fast car today with a supercharged engine that feels more energetic the harder it spins is like rediscovering a forgotten favourite album. Shouldn’t it always be this way?

And, finally, the gearbox isn’t the quickest or most responsive automatic, but it does its job well enough.

You will probably have more fun driving a 911 GT3 RS on circuit, but not so much more that the comparison is moot.

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The XE SV Project 8 is unique in being almost as rewarding as a single-minded sports car on circuit, very usable on the road and — if you resist the draw of the Track Pack — more practical than anything else on its radar.

It demonstrates what a small, hopelessly enthusiastic group of car guys can achieve when they’re left to get on with it.

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Jaguar XE SV Project 8 First drives