Motoring: The verdict - All cisterns go

OK, its grille does look like a loo seat, but do our readers think Jaguar is going down the pan? By Michael Booth
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The car you see here represents the most significant change in direction for Jaguar in 30 years. With the new S-Type - available in three- litre V6 manual and auto, and V8 auto - Jaguar hopes to quadruple sales, seduce a new, younger market, and engage BMW, Mercedes and Audi in a fight for the ultra-competitive executive car market.

It is a market where image is everything. Round one to the Germans then. For us Brits the name Jaguar may conjure images of Inspector Morse, but elsewhere much damage was done by the humiliating quality catastrophes of the Eighties and the all-conquering perfection of BMW. That said, since Ford took over, Jaguar is no longer a by-word for hard-shoulder angst, and the company came a triumphant third in this year's influential JD Power survey of customer satisfaction (from a low point of second bottom a few years back). So things are looking up.

With luck the S-Type will continue that trend. It feels well-enough put together, and nobody this side of Bentley does wood and leather so convincingly, but there are some appalling "white goods"-quality plastics inside the car and too many of the switches are glaringly Ford. If I'd just upgraded from a pounds 16,000 Mondeo to pounds 41,000-worth of V8 S-Type (or even the entry level pounds 28,000 V6), I'd be livid.

Performance is everything, too (see, told you it this was an ultra-competitive market). With 240bhp powering the rear wheels and a top speed of 146mph, the S-Type is powerful enough but is still beaten by the 528i, its closest rival from BMW. Acceleration is particularly muffled at low revs and the steering isn't exactly a paragon of feel and precision either (becoming slightly vague at motorway speeds), but I don't expect that will bother S-Type buyers. The truth is, most people will sacrifice a little responsiveness at high speed for a smooth ride around town. And here, the S-Type is as smooth as a silk worm's underwear.

Doesn't sound too bad does it? Well take another look at the photos. Does this car seriously look like a BMW 5-Series beater? Or is it a top-of-the-range Daewoo? It's a matter of taste - this I know from the countless envious (at least I think they were envious) glances the car received, but elements of the styling make me squirm with embarrassment. In profile it may be graceful, but its details - from the wavy bonnet to the droopy tail - make it look like little more than a cynical caricature of Jags gone by. And look - there's a loo seat stuck on the front of it!

As far as enticing a younger, hipper buyer, the truly style-conscious 35-year-old would choose the original S-Type of 1964 any day. Retro-modern design has had its day, and scavenging the past is no way for a company like Jaguar to be facing the long-term future.

However much I wanted this to succeed, the new S-Type Jaguar was a disappointment - a mock-Tudor Ford designed to pander to Americans. Ford's economies of scale undoubtedly saved Jaguar and its workforce from extinction, but you have to ask yourself: is this a fate worse than death? A journey in a Jaguar used always to be something special. This isn't. Jaguar is dead, it seems. Long live Ford.

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

Mary Wigley, 35, part-time computer company administrator, from Emsworth, Hampshire. Currently drives a Ford Mondeo

"This wouldn't be practical for me, I'd never get a travel cot and a pushchair in the boot. The front is quite striking, I don't mind it at all, it looks like a Mercedes. The gear change isn't as precise as my car's but I really like the position of the gear lever although knee space isn't very good in the front. It feels a much heavier, more substantial car than my Ford but not as sporty. It's very easy to reverse though, visibility out of the back is good and although it is a big car it seems smaller when you manoeuvre it."

Angela Glenn, 40, barrister, and her husband Gary Leonard, 41, solicitor, both from Southampton, Hampshire. Currently drive a Toyota Rav 4 and an MGB roadster

Angela: "I prefer the image of a BMW, I've always thought of Jaguar as a middle-aged man's car. But this is pretty smooth, very quick, I like the feeling of having a nice big engine. The gears are easy to get on with but the brakes are a bit soft, I prefer more feel."

Gary: "I've always fancied owning a Jaguar ever since my grandad owned one in the Sixties. I like the interiors but my recollection is of them being better quality than this. That electric rear blind looks like the type of thing that will break in three years' time and cost pounds 300 to fix. The legroom in the back is OK, but generally it is smaller than I thought it would be."

Lee Mariner, 55, furniture agent, from Liss, Hampshire. Currently drives a Ford Mondeo V6

"I don't like this new retro styling, it's a bit quirky. It's strange that they make cars that don't need grilles but then put them on afterwards. I'm not keen on the baronial-dining-hall wood and leather interior either, the inside of a car should look like the flight deck of an aeroplane. It is quiet though, one of the quietest cars I've ever driven, definitely a luxury car ride, and roomier than my Mondeo although those front pillars limit visibility. You do need to stir the gears around to drive it enthusiastically. I recognise a few Ford switches but that doesn't bother me."

Laurence Alster, 52, teacher, from Cowplain, Hampshire. Currently drives a Fiat Uno

"This is the lap of luxury, but it's not terribly discreet. It's lovely and smooth and the seats are nice and comfy. It's got much more oomph than anything I've ever driven before. It feels like a very nice piece of engineering but the interesting thing is that this would be some people's holy grail, and yet, once you get used to it, it doesn't seem that special. I can't say I aspire to something like this and tend to think that spending tens of thousands of pounds on a car is wasteful."