STELLENBOSCH, South Africa – Fine art grows on the admirer. It is subtle at first blush, but appreciation builds as more time is spent with it.

The analogy proves apt for the ’07 Jaguar XK 2+2 sports car that goes on sale in March in the U.K., and mid-April in the U.S.

The all-new sports coupe and convertible has been in the works for what seems like an interminable amount of time – in fact the prototype was completed before the show car unveiled at the 2005 North American International Auto Show. The concept was added for the show circuit to quiet skeptics impatient for a new design language for Jaguar under Design Director Ian Callum.

Jaguar ’07 XK coupe

When the concept, dubbed the Advanced Lightweight Coupe, finally bowed it met with some of the letdown that heightened anticipation can incite.

The look – long elegant hood, raked windshield and rear windows, minimal overhangs, high waistline and taut sheet metal pulling the rear in tight over powerful haunches – did not cause heads to swivel on the show floor.

Nor does the production model, which sees little change from the concept.

But put a small fleet of XKs on the road, with bright red and soft gold finishes drenched in strong African sunshine, and appreciation of the subtle beauty grows with every mile.

The car turns heads and trailing another XK becomes a joy with the new liftback design and narrow hatchback glass among the stronger features.

The oval front grille is pure E-Type – not Ford Taurus. The incorporation of the Jaguar name in the side sills is a new touch likely to become a signature going forward. The jeweled headlamps are deliberately sharp to add design discord and character.

Callum says he was mindful of Jaguar’s impressive lineage but not beholden to it in his pursuit of a minimalist but athletic design.

While there is a nagging feeling Callum wanted to push the envelope a bit further, this first step towards a contemporary new look for Jaguar should resonate with buyers disappointed by a lack of styling change in the 2003 redo that introduced the more powerful 4.2L V-8 engine.

The XK8 generation that was introduced in 1996 and ceased production in June 2005 was Jaguar’s fastest-selling sports model ever, putting pressure on the new ’07 to perform both on the road and in the marketplace.

The new XK is the most technologically advanced Jaguar to date, forged of second-generation aluminum-body technology for the bonded and riveted monocoque body structure.

Engineers were given a fence to straddle. The new XK had to be two cars in one: It had to retain the refinement of a grand tourer but advance the driving dynamics for true sports car performance that would appeal to a younger buyer.

Jaguar Cars benchmarked the Mercedes SL500, BMW 6-Series coupe, Lexus SC 430 and Cadillac XLR in the U.S. and Maserati and the Porsche 911 in Europe.

In ditching the steel body of the XK8 for all-aluminum, the second-generation XK achieves a curb weight of 3,671 lbs. (1,665 kg) for the coupe, while the convertible weighs in at 3,759 lbs. (1,705 kg), making them 5% and 8% lighter than the outgoing models, respectively.

Jaguar says the lightweight body improves by 10%-13% both the power- and torque-to weight ratios.

It means the 300-hp 4.2L Jaguar AJ V-8, an updated carryover from its predecessor with new fuel-injection technology, enables this spry cat to pounce from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 5.9 seconds as a coupe. It does the quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds, less than half a second off the pace of the previous supercharged XKR.

The convertible is no slouch either, taking only 6.0 seconds off the line to reach 60 mph.

Wide-open African highways showcase the quick acceleration from 50 mph to 70 mph (80 km/h to 113 km/h). Maximum torque of 303 lb.-ft. (411 Nm) develops at 4,100 rpm, with 85% delivered in a broad band from 2,000-6,000 rpm.

The beast is electronically limited to a top speed of 155 mph (250 km/h), and doesn’t show any signs of shaking loose until the highest speeds.

Both the coupe and convertible hold steady at speeds deemed legal in most countries, and even strong coastal winds here where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet can’t buffet them off-course in an open stretch of road.

Optimum throttle response via full drive-by-wire electronic throttle control calls up the required torque on a mountain pass with quick gear shifts, where the precise steering does well navigating sharp switchbacks.

And the 4.2L was engineered beautifully to growl like a sports car in sport mode and upon acceleration. The genius of the Semi-Active Exhaust system with acoustically tuned tailpipes is the ability to revert, under cruising conditions, to cabin quiet.

Jaguar threw convention to the wind in deciding to design the convertible first and improve on it for the hardtop, which was to be distinctively a coupe.

The bodies were engineered at the same time.

The result is the new convertible is as stiff as the outgoing coupe and 48% stiffer than the XK8 it replaces. No cowl shake here. And the new coupe is 31% stiffer than the old model.

Dimensionally, the new cars have a longer wheelbase, wider track and taller roofline, which makes for more head, shoulder and legroom.

The suspension is a combination of those found in the S-Type and the XJ, creating a new version of Jag’s Computer Active Technology Suspension or CATS, with a 2-stage adaptive damping system that effectively controls roll as well as pitch.

The new Jaguar Sequential Shift 6-speed automatic transmission system has shift paddles on the steering wheel for manual gear changes.

The sporty image would be far advanced with a true manual, but the paddles work seamlessly – there is no torque interruption or perceptible correction of any sort with this system’s rapid shift response. And it goes into permanent manual operation in sport mode.

There are downshifts not available on some automatic systems. Hard braking triggers downshift to at, or near, red line. In manual mode, it will upshift automatically rather than sit in the redline area. It also will rest in second gear unless the driver requests first.

The ergonomic front seats are surprisingly comfortable for a sports car. After 375 miles (600 km) in the coupe on the first day of test drives here, drivers are no worse for the wear.

The 2+2 seating only accommodates the smallest of backseat passengers, preferably for short distances.

Callum says the first clay model was longer, creating more room in back, but was rejected by potential customers who wanted the car to stay compact.

The convertible sticks with a classic soft top (opens and closes in 18 seconds), so as not to further infringe on this limited space.

The fully-lined triple-layer roof does an admirable job of warding off wind and road noise, the windblocker keeps hair from muss and the rear window has heated glass.

The interior is clean and elegant, as opposed to opulent. The mix of leather and choice of wood (burl walnut or poplar) or aluminum plays well to the ability to create a Teutonic look in the coupe with the metals vs. a pampered warmth in the convertible with richer woods and colors. A higher-quality headliner would have better completed the look.

An earlier design that evoked the notion of an airplane wing was discarded for a straight cockpit feel.

A large center console touch screen for most commands is intuitive but can be hard to read in the bright sunshine. To keep eyes on the road, an icon near the driver’s finger enlarges to make it easier to depress blindly.

Much effort went into safety engineering, including double skin to prevent intrusion from the powertrain into the car, and cross-car links to keep the sides from folding in on impact and better dissipating energy in a side impact, especially in the convertible.

A rollover protection device has two aluminum hoops that deploy when sensors detect the vehicle is at extreme angles. The hoops fire straight up, through the glass if the top is up.

The new vehicles have a full menu of airbags, traction and stability control (that can be turned off to get the back end moving sideways) and a head-restraint system to prevent against whiplash.

Features also include adaptive cruise control, parking assist and optional active front lighting. The new XK’s white light-emitting diode reversing light is an industry first.

Pricing, including destination and handling charges, is $75,500 for the coupe; $81,500 for the convertible; positioning it between the higher Mercedes and lower Lexus and competitive with BMW and Cadillac.

Canadian prices are C$103,995 ($90,820) for the coupe and C$113,995 ($99,553) for the convertible.

The new XK should be able to carve out its own path in the segment. The sports car purist may pass it up for the 6-Series, but the Jaguar more than holds its own.

The true beauty of the Jaguar is its ability to cruise and corner with ease, in comfort, while imparting fun and making drivers of all skill levels feel like an enthusiast. Or perhaps an amateur art dealer.Â

apriddle@wardsauto.com