The gas-guzzling Jaguar has always been a thirsty beast. And Nonie Niesewand says it's unlikely to go green

WHEN the Deputy Prime Minister was puffing his way up Downing Street for a photo-opportunity, sending two black despatch boxes ahead in his Jaguar while urging businessmen to walk to work, car designers at the Royal College of Art were unveiling their ideas for new versions of the marque. They were asked to identify a potential future Jaguar product. Were their prototypical cars green, neat, low on fuel and small? Not a bit of it. They were all styled like gas-guzzling batmobiles.

Owners of expensive cars love the sleek, shiny speed of a car like a Jag, however much they endorse the worthy ideals of those who want cars to be remodelled in such a way that they have a less detrimental effect on the planet.

Mr Prescott's beloved Jaguar Sovereign 4-litre long-wheelbase, for instance, might thrill its owners with its ability to accelerate from 0-60 in 7.8 seconds, and reach a maximum speed of144 mph, but Friends of the Earth give the pounds 46,000 vehicle just three out of 10 in its green index.

"It is a gas-guzzler," said a spokesman. Someone in his position should be setting a better example by driving a smaller car giving out fewer CO2 emissions. Jaguar points out, though, that its cars' catalytic convertors are set to Californian exhaust emission standards, the world's most stringent.

As Royal College of Art professor Ken Greenley, who designed a Bentley, points out, you can't sell in the all-important US market if you don't sell in California. So Jaguar, like any other export brand, abides by current conventions on fuel consumption and emissions. Technical designers will sort out all the low-emission new engines in parallel with the designers.

Far more important for sales than any attempt to be green is the styling of a car. Ninety per cent of Jags are bought by people who like the way a particular model looks. Jaguar, unlike its rivals - Mercedes, Audi, and BMW - never had a generic family look: Jags are driven by heroes and villains.

Geoff Lawson, Jaguar's chief styling guru for the past 15 years, blames legislation for the cloning of cars, because it determines the position of everything from lights to bumpers and airbags. So designers are asked to look at the design motifs of Jaguar, the shoulder lines, the number of windows, the slopes and wheel arches, the rounded headlights and the wheels, to translate all these historical motives into a modern design. In fact, nothing which is planet-saving.

Keith Helfet, principal stylist at Jaguar and one of the judges, admitted that classic Jags are hard acts to follow and that, "in other words, it was a bloody difficult project". The Royal College of Art winner, Martin Kropp, 33, from Sweden, managed to "pull together most of Jaguar's marque values" with a compact sporting saloon whose proportions return to the Mark II.

This brilliant futuristic car looks like a snail on acid, crouching at the back, with a long, long bonnet and deep lozenge radiator. Kropp's design, inspired by the classic Mark II, has headlights like predatory eyes and a strong feline graphic on a retro-modern salon. It gives what the designer calls a "longitudinal flow towards the delicate tapered rear end."

This is as close to the big cat - the Jaguar that's not extinct - that we are going to get until the new Jaguar X200, a BMW series-5 sized car, is unveiled at the Birmingham Motor Show in October. Due to go on sale in 1999, this modern interpretation of the MK II Jaguar is designed to broaden the marque's appeal from the luxury market to the executive car market. Professor Christopher Frayling, rector of the RCA, who drives a BMW 5, points out that Jaguar drivers have an older profile. That's because it costs pounds 50 to fill just one tank on the XJ8.

With the top-secret baby Jag, codenamed the X400, and due to go on sale in 2001, Jaguar plans to go down in size even more and appeal to the BMW 3-series drivers. Ford Motor Company, Jaguar's owner, announced last month that it would assemble this model at the Halewood plant in Merseyside and the Government has pledged pounds 400m.

The students who down-scaled their cars without sparing the stylistic flourishes also reflected the neuroses of our times in their designs. More secure, less open, maybe they are a reaction to the particularly British problem of car break-ins and attacks through windows. Common to all were small windows. Low and sleek, the glass area on Jags is usually not large, but these cars by the 15 first-year post-graduate students taking part in the competition had very little glass, and much more voluptuous bodywork curving protectively around the screens.