Jaguar had to do something. Sales are free-falling, the company is losing money, and Ford was considering selling the works. The reality is likely this: Buyers don't want to spend a lot of money for a car that is high tech underneath but decidedly old school on the surface. Cutting-edge aluminum construction can't compensate for outdated designs.

Borrowing from Ford's crisis playbook, the next Jaguar has to be bold and move the brand forward. The C-XF concept car unveiled at the Detroit auto show marks the biggest change for Jaguar in 30 years, and it predicts the style and presentation of the S-type replacement, the 2008 Jaguar XF.

Ian Callum has been director of design at Jaguar since 1999. His credentials include creating the fetching figure of the Aston Martin DB7 of the previous decade, but he has not been able to make his mark on Jaguar, which has remained steadfastly on the road of familiar, conservative design. What is apparent, although unspoken, is that management would not accept breaking with tradition. Until now.

The concept borrows from the Mercedes-Benz CLS in that it is a so-called four-door coupe, and it comes with a low roof, raked windshield, high beltline, small greenhouse, and seats for four. Mechanically, the concept gets the S-type R model’s supercharged 4.2-liter V-8, making 400 horsepower.

The real thing, in the shape of the 2008 XF, will not be as dramatic as the concept. Although it will preserve the wedge profile and the muscular proportions, it will have a higher roof, larger side windows, and seating for five. Jaguar says, "With only one body style for the XF sedan, we can't afford to make the compromises of the CLS." Nor will the production car have concealed door handles, or the avant-garde interior with "burnt wood," which is ash charred black with a blow torch.

The front end is the shape of things to come. Jaguar is finally moving away from its obsession with four individual headlamps and flush grilles. The new face will have a more modern headlight cluster and a three-dimensional mesh grille with a new Jaguar badge set deep inside it. Combined with the complex curves of the hood and the deep-set chin spoiler, the new Jag looks unlike current Jaguars. In light of current sales, that is likely a good thing.

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