LONDON - The Jaguar X-Type, to be unveiled this week at the Geneva auto show, is a different kind of Jaguar. It's so different, in fact, that the automaker's senior executives had to rethink the brand entirely.
'X-Type is the most important launch in Jaguar's history,' Managing Director Jonathan Browning told dealers at a special preview of the car in London earlier this month.
'When you look at X-Type, we're not just launching a new car, we're effectively launching a new company.'
The X-Type will be the first Jaguar:
With standard all-wheel drive
In the lower-luxury segment
Marketed to corporate fleets in large numbers
Targeted at young customers and women drivers.
In addition, the X-Type is the first Jaguar to put an accent on practicality. Although it is the smallest car in the Jaguar lineup, for example, the X-Type has the largest-capacity trunk in company history.
Unlike past Jaguars, the X-Type's styling incorporates a wedge shape. Previous Jaguars have a low rear end. The X-Type's is more elevated, which adds to the load-carrying capacity.
Ambitious sales goal
But most significant, the car's mission is to more than double Jaguar's annual sales to 200,000 in 2003 or 2004 from 90,000 last year.
Unlike past Jaguars, the X-Type is targeted mainly at European buyers. Sales in Britain and Europe are expected to account for half the worldwide total, followed by the United States at 30 percent and Japan at 10 percent.
The U.S. market traditionally has accounted for 50 percent of Jaguar's production total.
Jaguar officials know they face a challenge increasing volumes so dramatically with one car. For years, Jaguar has lived on past glories.
The leather interiors and elegant coachwork of its cars represented an image of traditional luxury. Jaguar has been a niche player selling a limited range of high-end sedans and sports cars into a luxury market dominated by Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Jaguar wants to challenge German core models such as the Mercedes-Benz C class and BMW 3 series. To do so, it must find about 100,000 new buyers. To reach its goals, Jaguar must sell more X-Types in a year than it has sold cars in its history - all models combined.
'Gone are the days when we focused on a narrow niche,' Browning said. 'Newer, younger customers have to be the core of the business.'
Jaguar owners are overwhelmingly male and middle-aged. That's not a recipe for growth - a reality Jaguar knows all too well.
To attract new customers, Jaguar has designed a car that breaks new ground for the brand. Most notable is the all-wheel-drive system.
Under normal driving conditions, the system distributes 60 percent power to the rear wheels and 40 percent to the front. But when the going gets tough - in rainy or icy conditions, for example - the X-Type's on-board computers adjust the power distribution to ensure safe handling.
The X-Type comes with two engine options, a 2.5-liter V-6 and a 3.0-liter V-6. Customers can choose five-speed automatic or manual transmissions with either engine.
The practical aspects of the X-Type will win over many buyers, said Susan Jacobs, president of Jacobs & Associates, an automotive forecasting and consulting firm in Rutherford, N.J. But the X-Type could cannibalize sales from Jaguar's other models, particularly the S-type, she said.
'Mercedes is the only manufacturer to bring products into a new segment and not cost them sales in another segment,' Jacobs said.
The X-Type is coming into the U.S. market at an awkward time, she said.
'They'll be coming into an overall luxury market that isn't nearly as buoyant as it was because the stock market has leveled off and eroded. The whole sense of prosperity that fueled luxury-car sales has evaporated,' Jacobs said.
In such a market, Jaguar could come under pressure to use price incentives at a time when it would prefer to focus on a strong brand message in its advertising, she said.
But analysts in Europe say the X-Type will be a formidable challenger in the lower-luxury segment because of its pricing.
'The X-Type will create absolute mayhem in the sector,' predicted Alan Myers, managing director of Emmox Carcost, a British firm that provides lifetime cost of vehicle ownership forecasts for corporate fleet buyers.
Fleet buyers are expected to account for a big slice of X-Type sales, especially in the United Kingdom.
But the X-Type suffers one major disadvantage. Unlike its competitors, it has no diesel engine option.
Nigel Trotman, central services manager and fleet buyer for Whitbread PLC, the English brewing company, said managers favor diesel C-class and 3-series models by a ratio of nearly 5-to-1 over gasoline-powered cars.
Jaguar officials say diesels will be offered in the future, but they will not say when. Ford's new diesel center in Dagenham, England, will begin making diesels for all Ford brands in a couple of years.
The X-Type is being built in Halewood, England, at a factory that made Ford Escorts until last year. The X-Type will be built by the same work force that built the Escort.
Jaguar spent $440 million refurbishing the plant and training employees. The 3,000 workers at Halewood went through 1 million hours of training getting ready to make the new car.
'The X-Type represents a major shift in the center of gravity for the franchise in terms of volume of customers coming through the dealership,' said Philip Wade, director of HWB International, a research and analysis firm in Warwick, England.
'It's a different type of customer, a different type of audience. It's a more crowded sector of the market. So it's got to be a good car to conquest sales.'