Huge sighs of relief all round. Jaguar may now be owned by Ford, but its new baby, while perhaps not a classic, is undeniably a worthy addition to the stable. By Roger Bell
Two questions hung over the international press launch of Jaguar's new S-Type in posh Biarritz. Was the car competitive with the German opposition? And had the input of parents Ford denied it those qualities that make Jaguars uniquely special? The short answers are: yes it is; and no, they have not.

So we have new class leader, then? Well, not exactly.

Jaguar could not have survived, never mind embarked on a product-led programme that will double its model range (and quadruple sales, from 50,000 to more than 200,000), without the massive financial and technical back-up of Ford.

Two new models will account for this remarkable expansion. One of them, still two years away, is a "small" saloon aimed at BMW's 3-series. The other is the S-Type, which is not so much a new breed of middleweight Jaguar as the reincarnation of an old one.

Although unmistakably a Jaguar, the newcomer is not to my eyes an unqualified success aesthetically. The visage, for example, calls to mind a gasping goldfish, and the flanks and tail are on the heavy side of svelte.

To drive and ride in, though, the new Jag just about lives up to expectations - and that's the problem. To beat the very best of the opposition, notably BMW's 5-series, it needs to exceed them.

Never mind that, in the interests of cost-cutting rationalisation, the chassis and suspension are shared with a Ford-made Lincoln or that the V6 engine that will power most S-Types is also American-made, for all have been thoroughly "Jaguarised".

The drive-by-wire engine is not only state of the art but exceptionally powerful for a non-turbo 3.0. Smooth and quiet, too, if not a paragon of refinement. If the V6 wails discreetly when extended, it is not out of character for what Jaguar describes as a sports saloon. If the noise offends, there's always the whispering V8 (made at Bridgend, Wales) as an alternative.

I drove two models in southern France - a 3.0 V6 manual with a slick- changing Getrag gearbox and an uncharacteristically light clutch; and a 4.0 V8 with five-speed automatic transmission, also sourced from Germany.

Subjectively, there was little to choose between them on zap (Jag's own claims back this up). Both had acceleration that felt swift rather than scorching. Each reeled in motorways with long-legged ease while whooshing more than they should around the screen pillars.

I liked the firm feel of the brakes, the clean, composed handling, and the positive feel of the steering. Twisty roads betrayed no untidy heave or lean, bumpy ones induced minimal disturbance from the firmly set suspension.

The excellence of the ride/ handling compromise upholds a Jaguar tradition. Pity, though, that the short-cushioned front seats do not offer sufficient under-thigh support.

There's nothing adventurous about the swish cabin, which is adequately roomy rather than spacious. The same goes for the boot. Jaguar has stuck to wood-embellished decor - base cars get cloth seats, the swanky ones leather - to instil a traditionally opulent ambience. Flair is a quality you will not find in abundance.

However, there's no shortage of high-tech accoutrements. You name it and it is probably there on the spec sheet, if not as standard then certainly as an option.

Even the cheapest pounds 28,300 manual V6 gets air conditioning, powered seats, skid-preventing anti-lock brakes, traction control, side and front airbags, "smart" security and lights that come on automatically.

Spend a bit more and you can be playing with satellite navigation, adaptive suspension, rain-sensing wipers, even voice-activated control over the hi-fi, air-con and phone.

The S-Type will lure far more buyers from the opposition than it does from siblings. It gives middle-managers a whole new Jaguar stratum to choose from below the chairman's larger (but less roomy) XJ8.

Prices are keen, and maintenance charges, fixed for 60,000 miles, are low. According to (contentious) forecasts, resale values will be higher than those for comparable German cars.

So, although I have reservations about its appearance, inside and out the S-Type is in heart and soul worthy of the Jaguar name it bears. It is a fine car, if not yet the best of its type. Rule Britannia (with thanks to Uncle Sam).



Make and model: Jaguar S-Type

Price: from pounds 28,300 (3.6 manual) to pounds 37.610 (4.0 auto)

Engine (3.6): 2967cc V6, 24 valves, 240bhp at 6800rpm

Transmission: five-speed manual (or five-speed auto), rear-wheel drive

Performance: max speed 146mph, 0-60mph in 6.9sec, fuel consumption 25.4mpg

Audi A6 2.8SE, pounds 29,920: Fine car, beautifully sculpted and built. Trades some performance for economy.

BMW 528SE, pounds 30,880: Great engine, sophisticated, agile, but pricey; flagship 540i expensive compared with V8 S-Type.

Lexus GS300S, pounds 31,225: Japan's much-improved answer to the S-Type is exquisitely made by Toyota, but lacks presence. Mercedes-Benz E280 Classic, pounds 33,480: Big price for top name, especially as 280 is slower, worse equipped than base S-Type.

Volvo S80 2.9SE, pounds 30,780: Roomy, sophisticated, handsome, S80 is the closest thing yet to a Swedish Jaguar. Nice detailing, very safe - but not worth pounds 2,500 more than S-Type.