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Motor Show `98: Focus is on Ford design

PEOPLE DON'T moan any more that all cars look the same - except those who can't be bothered to look. Take the new Beetle, the Mercedes A-class, the Peugeot 206, and the Jaguar S-type, which are all massively different.

There are two main design directions now, the adventurous and unsettling, and the cautious and predictable. Which new car adopts which approach tells you a lot about the company, the country and the culture. Two of the best new examples have very different European credentials: the Ford Focus and the Honda Accord.

Honda is a Japanese company, obviously, but it prides itself on its European outlook with a big factory in Britain and a research and development facility in Germany. And it's in Germany, largely under design manager Martin Glotzbach, that the Euro-Accord was styled. Japan and the US each get different versions.

And yes, it does look Euro. In fact it's an agglomeration of safe styles: from the side it looks like a slightly shrunken Vauxhall Omega, complete with curved side-window outline and that crease running just below the rising waistline. Move round to the back, and it becomes an Audi A4, convex between the rear lights with a little lip-crease at the rear edge of the bootlid's upper surface.

Round to the front: good thing it has a big chrome H-badge because otherwise the Accord could be a Toyota Avensis (another Japanese car designed to be European).

So, why is the Accord such a melange of me-toos? Car design reflects the feelings in the country of ultimate origin, and Japan has been feeling pretty down lately. The result is that its mainstream products are cautious and risk-free, because it's better to sell steadily than to take the risk of frightening people away.

Not that Mr Glotzbach will hear of such accusations with his German-penned Accord. "There are only a few ways of achieving the result we require," he says. "The shape of the tail, for example, is designed for efficient aerodynamics. We think the new Accord looks very European." Relatively, yes. Absolutely, no. Cue the Ford Focus.

The Focus looks really odd. You might love it, hate it, admire it, abhor it, but you can't fail to notice it. Ford has softened us up with the Ka, the Puma and the big-eyed Mark Two Mondeo, and now we have "new edge design", as Ford calls it, in full force. The Focus is as radical as the Ka - maybe more so - yet it's designed to be a big seller. Isn't Ford taking a huge risk?

Ford says not. In a world of lookalike, buyers need something emotive to go on. "We had to make the Focus stand apart from its rivals," says John Doughty, chief architect of the tall, slashed, slightly gangly shape. It also had to be instantly recognisable as a Ford, to have a strong identity. The result is a remarkable conjunction of curved lines joining lights to windows to air intakes to everything, and some of the biggest wheel- arch accent lines since the days of mudguards.

At a time when caution and even retro are rife, it's good to see something so forward-looking. It's practical, too; lots of headroom, a high driving position, high and easily-seen rear lights - and good aerodynamics.

You won't get anywhere by being you're cautious.