If cars were bought for commonsense reasons, we'd all be driving Toyota Corollas. But what we drive depends on our prejudices and, just as important, our tastes.

Style sells. Research suggests that, aside from previous experience, it is a car's looks which now matter most to car buyers. Leading the charge to make cars look more beautiful is Pininfarina, the Italian design house responsible for most Ferraris, various Peugeots (including the 205) and the odd failure (the unsightly Rolls-Royce Camargue comes to mind).

I have just driven Pininfarina's latest creation, the Peugeot 406 coupe, and I think it is the most beautiful non-Ferrari I have driven in years. As with all great design, it does not achieve its beauty through gimmickry or mere detailing. It is the overall proportions of its shape which enchant.

The nose - the "face" of the car - could hardly be simpler. Yet combine the slimmest of headlamps with a shark-like mouth, and you have a face that stands out in the traffic maelstrom. Just as important, the cabin is handsome, too. Too many car makers try to cheer up other road users with their style, forgetting their own customers, stuck in characterless, plasticky cabins.

Pininfarina has long made lovely, if pricy, cars. But many mass makers are now following. Audi is one of the best. Its two-year-old A8, crafted from aluminium, is probably the world's most handsome saloon. This is partly because of its stance, and partly from its muscular body: skin stretched tight over the mechanicals. As with the 406 coupe, there is nothing gimmicky about it; it's the shape that counts. The new A6, although more controversial, with its rounded edges and bunched-up tail, is also visually superb.

Renault's design boss, Patrick Le Quement, has long pushed publicly for good and harmonious car design. And he has done much good work, never more than for the latest Renault Espace and, on a much smaller production scale, the wacky Renault Spider sports car.

And what of Citroen, at one time the world's most innovative car maker? Since being taken over by Peugeot, it has been neutered. It now makes dull, if dependable, re-bodied Peugeots.

Ford is probably the most improved car maker in Europe, and not just in terms of drive, dynamic appeal and technical initiative. Fords now look special. Some may be ugly (such as the Scorpio) while others are controversial (the Ka). But you now look at a new Ford with admiration rather than pity.

What an extraordinary world - one of dull Citroens and exciting Fords! Even Toyota has been forced to play the style game. Toyota saloons used to look dull (though they still sold). Toyota was the M&S of motoring. But the new Corolla has a noticeable face, and street presence. It appeals to those high in sense, as well as sensibility.

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