In the pecking order of luxury cars, one would have to say that Rolls-Royce still rules the roost.

Mercedes-Benz comes in second and enjoys the advantage of cutting-edge safety and performance. The image of bulletproof glass (and the need for it) sometimes comes to mind with Mercedes for some reason.Beneath Mercedes is an assorted bunch of high-performance, highly impressive luxury brands, including the Japanese parvenus Acura, Infiniti and Lexus.

Mercedes' German rivals BMW and Audi are great cars but so stylistically subdued as to barely attract notice. And Cadillac, the synonym for domestic luxury, is swapping its big land yachts for more understated, compact, Catera-like designs in a quest for younger buyers.

If you've got it and want to flaunt it without spending a king's ransom on the Rolls, put an asterisk beside the Jaguar Vanden Plas.

A loaded version of the new XJ8 sedan series, Vanden Plas retails for $64,380, including destination charge. And, yes, you can go higher with options.

In redesigning the XJ series for 1998, Jaguar replaced the V6 engine with two gradations of a powerful V8. The power train, suspension, electrical systems and interior were all revamped, just three years after revision of the ancestral XJ6.

But Jaguar wisely kept the body styling close to the previous generation's.

The British brand has struggled with reliability in the past but still produces the sexiest car around. Even Rolls-Royce can't compare with the sheer beauty of the Jag.

The lunging hood ornament ranks as the coolest emblem ever to ride sheet metal. Jag's low profile, well-tailored curves, trademark grille and four round head-lamps express confident poise.

Chrome can seem tacky when overused, but Jaguar has applied the gleaming metal to its best advantage inside and out. Slip inside the Vanden Plas and the white leather upholstery, wood trim and handsome dash invite you to stay awhile.

The new instrument panel features a redesigned gauge cluster with small, round speedometer and tachometer. A traditional analog clock sits in the middle of the dash. The steering wheel incorporates switches for the cruise control, audio system and an optional cellular phone.

The 12-way-adjustable front bucket seats are comfortable, so take the Vanden Plas there. Maybe you'll live to tell about it. From a dead stop, this Jag pounces to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds.

The Vanden Plas wears power disc brakes on all fours, backed up by an anti-lock system. But the brake pedal feels mushy and presses pretty low to the floor, nothing like the firm, authoritative brakes of the German cars.

Fuel economy ranges between 21 city miles and 24 highway miles per gallon. The fuel tank holds 21.4 gallons of premium unleaded.

The throttle controls are electronic or "drive-by-wire." First used in the XK8, the new system is meant to balance engine responsiveness and driving comfort. Combined with Automatic Stability Control, the electronics limit wheel spin on slippery roads by controlling ignition, fuel injection and throttle.

Electrical systems, once an Achilles heel for Jaguar, underwent an important advance with a new multiplex electronic system that reduces wiring, connectors and overall complexity.Air bags are packed in the sides as well as the front of the passenger compartment.

Now owned by Ford Motor Co., Jaguar is making strides toward improving its reputation and the resale value of its cars. Sales of the XJ sedans are expected to hit 15,000 in North America this year.

WHAT'S NEW: Redesigned sedan; V8 engine replaces V6.

PLUSES: Styling, comfort/ roominess, power, luxury ambience.

MINUSES: Price, fuel economy, past reputation, lack of standard CD player, brake pedal feel.

BOTTOM LINE: World's most beautiful car is making a comeback.