Jaguar roars back with a sleek, new look and Ford keeps its options open

Frankfurt sees the debut of the stylish R-D6 and the Visos with selectable driving options

The biennial Frankfurt motor show - it alternates with Paris - is usually a fine display of German carmakers' might. DaimlerChrysler has a giant pavilion all to itself, a construction which looks a little like the Albert Hall, and BMW creates its own temporary edifice in one of the large squares that are partly the reason why this vast motor show takes a toll on feet like no other. A word of advice: if you ever visit the show, wear your toughest trainers.

But today's trend is for the details of important new models and significant concept cars to leak out pre-show, taking away their impact. Which is why it is a real pleasure to see unveiled something that we knew nothing about beforehand, especially when it points to the future of a marque's design.

Frankfurt had a fine line-up of concept cars, of course, but the two most significant were Jaguar's R-D6 and Ford's Visos. Neither, you will notice, wear German nameplates. Has there been a theft of Donner und Blitzen?

Jaguar has a problem. Its X-type has not sold as well as expected; total Jaguar sales volumes are under half of the company's 400,000 units a year manufacturing capacity, and its cars are stuck in a backward-looking design rut which younger buyers abhor. The new X-type estate, also revealed at Frankfurt, broadens the model's appeal, but is an entirely predictable piece of design. Where can Jaguar go to make its cars look progressive, yet still like Jaguars? BMW has already taken a risk with its angular new look, having also exhausted the old ideas, and public acclaim has been worryingly absent.

Jaguar's R-D6 is the best attempt yet at a convincing forward-looking Jaguar design. It looks keen, desirable, taut, expensive - so, what is the secret of its mix of future and familiar? "The forms are pure," says Ian Callum, Jaguar's design director, "and this car has stance and presence - more so than the other Jaguars here today."

So the front mixes the oval grille and four-headlamp face of an S-type with a welcome lack of excess lines and creases, the tail (Jaguar's first hatchback since the E-type coupé) is stubby, rounded and - unintentionally - a little like a Ford Puma's, and the rear haunches are emphasised in a way we shall see on other future Jaguars.

Mr Callum would love this car to go into production, even if it did lose the machined-aluminium and saddle-leather interior detailing, but no decision has been made. It is powered, incidentally, by the 230bhp of the new twin-turbo V6 diesel engine jointly developed with Peugeot-Citroën.

And the Visos? This is Ford of Europe's first pure concept car for a long time, intended to show a new design language of calmer, purer shapes. It is also a mélange of past Ford design snippets, not all of them obvious to a non-Ford eye. It would be easy to view this V6-engined coupé as the "new Capri", and indeed that pair of side vents is pure 1969 Capri XLR-spec, but Ford's European design director, Chris Bird, says that name and image belong in an unsophisticated Ford past, at odds with its new aspirations.

In concept-car form, the Visos takes the idea of selectable comfort/sport settings to new heights. In comfort mode it has an automatic transmission, soft suspension and plenty of systems information on the dashboard. In sport mode, any information not needed for a focused drive is not displayed, a manual gearstick pops up through the centre tunnel, the seats' bolsters grow firmer and the chassis' dynamics tighten.

Mr Bird says the Visos is 80 per cent feasible for production. But does it shout "Ford" at you? Jaguar is part of Ford's Premier Automotive Group, whose other arms also had Frankfurt stories to tell.

Volvo's new S40, based on the next-generation Ford Focus platform, looks like a miniature S60 but has an interior refreshingly unlike anything else. Its backless centre console is inspired by PDAs and flat-screen televisions.

Land Rover revealed a rendering of the putative Range Rover Sport, planned for launch in 2005 after the next Discovery; it has huge wheels and a low, racy roof-line, making it the first Land Rover majoring on style over function.

Aston Martin showed its DB9, which replaces the DB7 but seems to tread on the toes of the more expensive Vanquish. Beautiful as they are, today's Aston Martins are not easy to tell apart.

The Italians were out in force. Maserati revealed its Quattroporte saloon, a shrine to leather, luxury and pace. Alfa Romeo's 8C Competizione is an ultimate coupé with a Maserati-based V8 engine and a body of spectacular beauty; 1,000 will be built. And Lancia showed a neat little Fulvia concept car inspired by the eponymous coupé of the 1960s.

From France we had the Citroën C-Airlounge, a cavernous saloon with its own internal light show by fibre optic fabric and roof projectors, and Peugeot's 407 Elixir, whose low nose with a giant air scoop previews the look of next year's new 407 saloon.

And Germany? Naturally, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren dominated that round pavilion, but nearer to the real world the X3 semi-off-roader and 6-series coupé showed that BMW's new design direction is starting to make sense after all. Chris Bangle, its design chief, will probably take this as an insult, but the 6-series is perilously close to handsome.

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