Jaguar takes the fight to Detroit

The new lightweight coupé is sleek, sporty and just the boost Jaguar needs. John Simister reports from the North American Auto Show
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Americans love Jaguars. So British, so svelte - but perhaps just a little backward-looking of late? Day Two of the 2005 North American International Auto Show - or the Detroit Show, as it is known - promised to be quite an occasion. And so it was, as the Advanced Lightweight Concept coupé, the car that will become next year's XK8, eased onto the stage amid lasers and clouds of dry ice. Then my heart, which retains a vestige of battered patriotism as regards the British motor industry, sank as I contemplated what would shortly be buzzing around the car world's telephone lines and airwaves.

Americans love Jaguars. So British, so svelte - but perhaps just a little backward-looking of late? Day Two of the 2005 North American International Auto Show - or the Detroit Show, as it is known - promised to be quite an occasion. And so it was, as the Advanced Lightweight Concept coupé, the car that will become next year's XK8, eased onto the stage amid lasers and clouds of dry ice. Then my heart, which retains a vestige of battered patriotism as regards the British motor industry, sank as I contemplated what would shortly be buzzing around the car world's telephone lines and airwaves.

And yes, I'm doing it now. I'm as guilty as anyone else. But I cannot ignore the fact that the Advanced Lightweight Coupé's right-hand headlight was mysteriously dark when its counterpart was lit. We all know how dimly the Americans used to perceive British car electrics (overly harshly, in my view). And the Cyclops-Jaguar must have reawoken those doubts.

Still, the show went on. (It turns out that the lights in this hand-made, electric-powered full-size model were untried, and a step on the ramp up to the stage dislodged a connection. The moral, according to the Jaguar's designer, Ian Callum: don't trust anything you haven't tested.) And the fact is that the Advanced Lightweight Coupé - resplendent in pale metallic blue redolent of an early E-type colour because Callum wanted neither silver nor green - is a fine-looking car that goes some way towards giving Jaguar a future as well as a past.

Its nose hints at its predecessor and the E-type icon, while the tail, with its teardrop lights, suggests the recent RD6 concept car, which gave direction to the new design. That said, the rear haunches do have a strong flavour of the Aston Martin Vanquish, another Callum design. Bridling at the inevitable Aston comparison, Callum does concede: "It's part of the GT genre."

The new Jaguar, with its soft, luxurious and wood-free interior, will be made of aluminium like the XJ saloon, and will share the V8 engines and some structural components. Production will be at Jaguar's Castle Bromwich plant, near Spaghetti Junction, and this car is just the tonic Jaguar needs after all the tales of doom. Let's hope all the lovely detailing around the air vents and exhaust pipes makes it to production.

This public unveiling was the climax of Ford's Premier Automotive Group slot, but the Range Rover Sport made a high-profile entrance too. And it was clever of Land Rover to show us the 2005 revisions to the regular Range Rover first - with a Jaguar V8 engine in place of the BMW unit - if only to emphasise that the Sport is indeed lower and racier than its parent. Sit inside and apart from the height of seat above ground, it's almost car-like.

Other non-American introductions included the Volkswagen Ragster and Bora (still called Jetta in the US), the Nissan Azeal, the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, the Audi A6 Avant and the Ferrari Superamerica, an open version of the 575 Maranello, whose electrochromic roof flips back through 180 degrees to nestle, upside-down, in a depression in the rear deck. The roof can be tinted in five stages, a world first. Also unveiled were the Mercedes M-class, said to have much better road manners than its predecessor, and a much more crossbred SUV, the Saab 9-7X, based on a Chevrolet/ Cadillac chassis - expedient for US dealers perhaps, but the application of superficial "Saabness" brings a tear to the European eye.

The two concept cars in the previous paragraph are significant for different reasons. The Ragster is, in effect, a low-roofline coupé, with a full-length fabric sunroof (hence 'ragtop' and 'speedster') of the forthcoming Beetle with a facelift, the main visual change being flattened, planed sides. The Azeal is intended as a no-frills entry-level car for American youth. That it has a 2.5-litre turbocharged engine emphasises one of the many differences between the US and Britain.Imagine getting a 17-year-old insured for one in the UK.

Jaguar apart, this show belonged to its homeland. The world's largest carmaker, General Motors, had three outbursts of on-stage razzmatazz, beginning with a lot assertions about driving with a conscience and sustainable mobility. Opel's Astra diesel-electric hybrid had been brought over from Germany, its two electric motors and ability to reach 60mph in under eight seconds impressing the Americans, even though the diesel engine's future, especially in California, is bleak in the longer term. US environmentalists have a hatred of diesel that no amount of technology can assuage. That's why American carmakers are so keen on petrol-electric hybrids.

GM's Sequel concept car contains far-reaching ideas. It's a "sequel" to the HyWire concept of two years ago, and uses a similar "skateboard" chassis and drive-by-wire controls, including the steering. This time, though, the body is that of a sleek SUV instead of a semi-saloon, and the fuel-cell powertrain has twice the range and twice the acceleration. GM's alternative powertrains chief, Larry Burns, predicted a commercially viable fuel-cell car in five years - with the provision of a good hydrogen supply infrastructure.

Act Two of what GM billed as "The Journey" involved the Saturn Brand, whose cars originally had plastic panels, techy styling, built in their own socially-experimental factory and sold in a consumer-friendly, haggle-free environment. Sadly, these cars-as-white-goods have lacked the crucial asset of any discernable image, and GM is about to change that. To do this, Saturn has plundered the riches of GM's European culture, and the cars will henceforth be remarkably similar to Vauxhalls and Opels.

The two show introductions made the point. The Aura saloon, full of Astra and Vectra design details and based on a Signum/Vectra estate platform, was styled at Opel and would make a fine Omega replacement should Vauxhall/Opel be so minded (it is not). And what's this? GM's North America chief, Gary Cowger (or a stunt double), has jumped off the parapet and landed in a Saturn Sky sports car, which he drives out from behind a screen onto the stage. "Bet you can't wait to jump into one of these," he says, faithfully following the autocue in line with other performing execs.

The Sky is last year's Vauxhall VX Lightning concept car, designed by Simon Cox in the UK, minimally adapted for its new identity. No one ever guessed it would end up as a Saturn, but it will come to Europe as an Opel and probably, albeit in left-hand drive, as a Vauxhall. Act Three, the next day, brought us another GM sports car, this time the fastest and most powerful the company has built. The Corvette Z06 extracts 500bhp from its seven litres, could do 190mph and has a lightweight aluminium and magnesium structure where the regular Corvette uses steel. Beware, it's coming here.

Not to be outdone, Ford had the Shelby GR1, a delicious V10-engine, polished-aluminium coupé GT, inspired by Carroll Shelby's Cobra Daytona racer of 1965. When Ford has stopped making the fabulous GT40-inspired GT, this could well take its place. Large and muscular engines characterised a pair of pick-ups (America's favourite vehicle form), one a special-edition Harley-Davidson F150, the other an unfeasibly butch concept preview of the next Explorer. Similarly scornful of onlookers' sensibilities was the SynUS, a cuboid creation "synthesised" as an "urban sanctuary". This has a rear door like that of a giant safe, and shutters to cover the windows while the occupants chill to the sound of a DVD or MP3, even as the riots continue outside. More gentle were two cars built on the Mazda 6 platform, of which the parent company Ford will be making much use in the next few years. The Fairlane concept car looks like a corrugated Range Rover but has a lovely, open-plan, light-wood and basket-weave interior, while the Fusion has nothing to do with Europe's Fiesta on stilts. Instead, it's a smooth-looking saloon that would be entirely at home in Europe, with a relative in the Lincoln luxury-car division called, yes, Zephyr. American buyers can expect a hybrid Fusion, part of which will be a five-car Ford hybrid offensive. The Escape Hybrid (the car we know as the Maverick/Mazda Tribute) is apparently selling as quickly as Ford can build it.

Let us finish, though, with Chrysler, always guaranteed to put on a good show. Day One brought us the Firepower, a handsome GT with a potent, 6.1-litre version of the Hemi V8 seen in the 300C (and voted America's car of the year). It's built on a Dodge Viper chassis and is seriously considered for production.

And then the stage vibrated to the thunder of two more Hemis, with loud exhausts. The Jeep Hurricane resembles a full-sized radio-controlled toy, but has the added trick that its wheels can turn in such a way as to let it rotate about its own length. Or you can spin the wheels on one side the opposite way from those on the other, and flick the Hurricane round on a loose surface. It sounds like fantasy, but the US military might be tempted.

And Day Two? The US once had an iconic musclecar called the Dodge Charger, last built 28 years ago. As the rock band reached its climax, we were treated to the arrival of a brand new Charger but not quite as we had expected. A NASCAR race version (the US's premier saloon-race series) drove on stage with a suspicious bounce, and a team of race mechanics swapped its racing wheels for more modest roadgoing items. Then, by sleight of hand and trick of eye, the Charger's body was lifted off in one piece to reveal the road car beneath. It looks brutal enough for its role, but US musclecar experts rue its four-door bodystyle and truck-like nose. Actually it's a rebodied Chrysler 300C, and it will not form part of Dodge's imminent European entry. Full marks for the show, though.

And the biggest puzzle of Detroit? Lexus showed a handsome GT car (a popular theme this year), called the LF-A. It's a concept only, and apparently could have either a V8 or a V10 engine, according to the configuration of Toyota's Formula One car at the time of the LF-A's production launch (possibly in three years' time). Eight or 10 cylinders. So why does it have three exhaust pipes?

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