Introducing the all-new Nissan X Trail: it's big, boxy, sensible – and strangely reminiscent of the old X-Trail...

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I know they are asphyxiating the planet, that they kill and maim thousands every year, and just you try driving to The O2, but few could argue the motor car was not the single most important and revolutionary invention of the past century and a bit.

As well as moving us about and stuff, the development of the car was one of the driving forces (stop me!) behind the advancement of global industrial design and manufacturing. For more than 100 years, car companies led the way with revolutionary production techniques such as Henry Ford's Model T line in Detroit, or Toyota's Just in Time system; with innovative use of technologies (electronics, hydraulics lighting and the spring-loaded, damped-action cup-holder); and the pioneering use of new materials in large-scale mass production (aluminium, glass fibre, the matted, artificial hair used in furry dice). And, on the engineering front at least, things are continuing apace with the development of hybrid drives and the quest for clean power sources. They still haven't quite figured out where to put the spare wheel, but it's early days yet.

It's strange then that, as far as car design is concerned, things appear to have ground to a halt. These days new cars seem to fall into one of three categories: retro-cute, Asian counterfeit, or, as is increasingly the case, an exact replica of the last model.

In recent months I've tried the new Audi TT (a slightly stretched version of the last one); the new Smart (a slightly bloated version of the old one); the new Volvo V70 (exactly like the old one); and the new New Mini (did you notice they changed the headlights a bit?). Volkswagen's design team have been reassigned as crash-test dummies, and I have heard a rumour that Kia's is staffed by androids.

This weeks "new" Nissan X Trail offers more of the same. The only reason I have to believe it actually is an all-new car is that Nissan's press office tells me so. It looks precisely like the last one – boxy, sensible, big; it's built to the same, admittedly excellent quality standards, and drives like every other mid-range 4x4 – that is, well enough for you to be pleasantly surprised, but nowhere near as nicely as a bog-standard estate car.

Nissan defends its laurel-resting, citing its own research that said customers were so happy with the old car that they didn't want it to change a thing. Of course they didn't! They're Nissan owners, for Christ's sake! Have you ever met a Nissan owner? Doesn't matter, you wouldn't remember if you had. Asking a Nissan owner if he would like anything changed is like asking a Neanderthal if he is happy living in a cave. Of course he is, he hasn't seen Changing Rooms! When JFK was deciding whether to send a man to the Moon, do you think he canvassed Nissan owners for their views?

Mark my words, if we leave the design of our cars to the fate of focus groups peopled by Daily Express-reading, Tory-voting Bhs customers, it will mean nothing less than the end of industrial and technological progress as we know it. Either that or quietly sensible cars.

It's a classic: Lancia Aurelia B20 GT coupé

This is more like it: a good example of a truly radical design that had a huge influence for years after its launch.

You can bet your life the Lancia Aurelia B20 GT Coupé was designed without having to ask Aprilia (Lancia's previous model) owners what they wanted. Though you would never guess from its stark, simple lines that it was designed in the late 1940s and launched in 1951, following the launch of the saloon a year earlier. It boasted an all-alloy V6 of uncanny, smooth refinement; equally innovative suspension; super aerodynamic bodywork designed by Ghia and built by Pininfarina; and a top speed of almost 100mph.

Lancia made nearly 17,000 Aurelias in coupé, saloon, limo and convertible form, and all are highly collectible, the most valuable of them all being the Spyder, which can fetch more than £250,000.

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