Racing start for Jag

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THE NEW Jaguar S-Type has been launched successfully, putting the British luxury car-maker firmly on track to compete with Mercedes and BMW.

By Friday, Jaguar dealers had taken 20,000 firm orders worth some pounds 650m at showroom prices; they had received a further 35,000 inquiries. This means Jaguar is set to produce 80,000 cars this year, following record production of 50,000 cars last year. The company expects to achieve its goal of selling 40,000 S-Types in 1999, a figure that should rise to 55,000 in 2000.

Officially launched last September, the S-Type has been widely praised, particularly in the North American market. The sports saloon is crucial to Jaguar's plans of quadrupling sales to 200,000 a year by 2002. While this figure may seem modest compared with BMW's sale of 700,000 cars and Mercedes' sales of 900,000 last year, it represents a massive performance surge for Jaguar and a vindication of Ford's patience.

"During the past six years, we have rebuilt the company, transformed our manufacturing facilities, rethought our production processes and listened to our customers. The S-Type is the beginning of a new period of growth," said Nick Sheele, the outgoing Jaguar chairman.

Mr Sheele has been replaced by Wolfgang Reitzle, the former BMW director who will head Ford's luxury car brands, now including Volvo. During a recent visit to Jaguar's works in Coventry, Mr Reitzle stated he wanted Jaguar to be the fastest-growing luxury car brand in the world.

Jaguar boasts three models in the luxury car segment: the existing V8 XJ Series saloon, the XK sports car and the new S-Type. The new model extends Jaguar's range and takes it out of a rarefied, expensive niche.

The S-Type competes head-on with the BMW 5 series and the Mercedes-Benz E class and costs around $40,000 (pounds 27,000) in North America, compared to $60,000 for existing models. The car shares its underpinnings with the 2000 Lincoln LS and takes advantage of the econ- omies of scale offered by Ford.

The next step for Jaguar is the transformation of Halewood, currently building Ford Escorts, to build a smaller Jaguar that will take on the BMW 3 series and the Mercedes-Benz C class. A skills and training programme is being targeted at Halewood to improve performance and ensure that the plant can produce luxury cars to Jaguar standards. This is said to be proceeding satisfactorily.

The entry-level "Baby Jag", internally called the X400, is predicted to sell 100,000 a year and will be priced around pounds 20,000. This four-door saloon with four-wheel drive will give Jaguar a full luxury-car range and turn it into a top competitor in its market.

Jaguar will also launch its first estate car, a luxury model based on the S-Type. This will compete with models built by Mercedes and BMW and be based on V6 and V8 engines. A small sports coupe is being planned too.

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