SANTA BARBARA, CA -- Jim Padilla is as American as apple pie. Mike Dale is as British as beef Wellington. Jim pronounces Jaguar "Jag-yer," Mike "Jag-you-are"

It really doesn't matter how they say it: the Yank and the Brit are working to restore one of the world's best-known automotive brands to its former glory as a leader in the prestige segment where image is everything.

Although they have quite different jobs, each has Jaguar in his blood. Ironically, Mr. Padilla spends most of his time in Coventry, England, where he is Jaguar's executive director for engineering and manufacturing and the Ford Motor Co.'s top American official at the British subsidiary, while Mr. Dale, a native of Birmingham, England, has spent 23 years with Jaguar in the U.S., the last six as president of Jaguar Cars of North America.

They're getting a shot of adrenalin from the early reviews of Jaguar's new XK8 sports car, which was introduced to the press here recently and goes on sale in the U.S. next month.

Successor to the venerable XJS coupe and convertible that becomes history after 21 years on the market, there's no mistaking the XK8's heritage. The first Jaguar developed entirely under Ford since the U.S. automaker purchased the famed British company in 1989, the XK8 also is the first Jag ever to be powered by a V-8 engine-and it's Jaguar's first all new engine in 40 years.

The all-aluminum 4L, 290-hp powerplant was developed by Jaguar engineers and will be used exclusively in Jaguar cars. Annual capacity at a new plant near Coventry is 50,000 engines.

A 200-mile (320-km) test drive in the twisty hills above this southern California coastal city, with the top down, lives up to the promise: sure-footed cornering, exceptional and reliable power when you need it, and a confidence that lets you enjoy the sunshine and scenery.

And it's not priced as dearly as you might expect. The convertible is stickered at $69,900, the coupe at $64,900. Both are higher than the models they replace, but Jaguar insists they remain well below their major competitors.

If the XK8 lives up to Jaguar's claims, as the marque's flagship, it could add important new impetus to a resurgence that has been quietly mounted during the past few years and win some doubters back to the "Leaper."

Amazingly, even those who niggle about Jaguar's once-chronic problems such as faulty electrical systems -- who wants a prestige car that won't start? -- and poorly fitting body panels, still speak reverently about the brand.

Mssrs. Padilla and Dale now must convince folks that Jaguar can deliver reliable automobiles that live up the image Jaguar has built since the "S.S." race car -- the first Jag ever -- debutedd :at the 1935 London Motor Show: prestige, passion, refinement, elegance, exceptional performance and faultless, confident handling.

By practically any measure Jaguar has made huge strides backed by Ford's cash -- an estimated $1.5 billion so far, in addition to the original purchase price of $2.5 billion -- and manufacturing expertise and components bin.

Led by Mr. Padilla, whose home base is Ford's Rear-Drive Car Vehicle Center in Dearborn, its plants have been gutted and refitted using Ford's advanced processes combined with lean manufacturing techniques honed by Japanese automakers.

Components supplied by Ford and its global suppliers have been gradually incorporated into Jaguar cars where they make sense. Nippondenso Co. Ltd., Toyota Motor Corp. affiliate and long-time Ford supplier, for example, is the lead source for the XK8's electricals and heating/cooling systems from its British factory

Armed with this new firepower, two years ago Jaguar introduced a new line of sedans to replace the trouble-plagued XY40 range introduced in 1987, reviving styling cues of the original line introduced in 1968 and updating powertrain and other technology.

The new series includes the XJ6 and XJR, the first Jaguar powered by a supercharged engine. A further spinoff, the extended-wheelbase X330, was introduced in 1996. With their pride restored, Mr. Padilla says morale throughout Jaguar has soared.

"The talent was there all along," he tells WAW "All we had to do is provide the resources and let it loose. I'd say that today everyone is a brand manager at Jaguar"

Mr. Dale, an accomplished pilot, has been along on Jaguar's bumpy ride and sees clearer skies ahead. "Now when you (the press) tell us something is wrong, we've got the ability to change it," he says.

Mr. Dale is buoyed by rising ratings in J.D. Power & Associates quality and customer satisfaction surveys, a 50% reduction in warranty claims in the last few years, rising residual values, and Jaguar's ability to weather the Japanese onslaught on the U.S. luxury market combined with a resurgence for the German luxury brands.

Because it lost some momentum in phasing out the XJS and bringing in the XK8, Mr. Dale expects relatively flat U.S. sales this year: 18,500 vs. 18,085 in 1995, which was a 19% jump from 1994. He looks for 19,100 sales next year, including 12,400 sedans, 1,300 XK8 coupes and 5,400 XK8 convertibles.

Big volume, if that's the proper term for a niche marketer like Jaguar, comes when the new smaller "entry-level" Jaguar arrives around 1998 to compete in the mid-$30,000 range.

Ford won't confirm it, but it's a fairly safe bet the new "Junior Jag" will be powered by a version of the XK8's new V-8 to distinguish it from a small Lincoln that's being developed by the same DEW98 project team in Dearborn.

As for a Jaguar sport/utility vehicle to compete with similar models coming from Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln (Navigator spun off the new Ford Expedition), the new Lexus LX 450 and other luxury SUVs, Mr. Dale says no dice.

"Dealers want that kind of car, but who gives a damn?" he tells reporters. "It just doesn't fit with our brand image."