Jaguar has gone back to the future with the car that has been described as a make or break for the company.

The Birmingham-built XF sports saloon made its world debut at the International Automotive Show in Frankfurt yesterday.

The car received a rapturous welcome when a silver grey model was unveiled by managing director Bibiana Boerio.

Its reception at Europe's largest automotive show is likely to be closely observed by bidders who are circling Jaguar and its sister company Land Rover.

The two companies, which together employ 15,000 people in the Midlands, have been put up for sale by parent company Ford as the American carmaker looks to stem losses of $12.7 billion last year.

Private equity groups Cerberus, One Equity, TPG and Ripplewood are among the firms meeting Jaguar-Land Rover executives at present, along with Indian industrial groups Tata and Mahindra & Mahindra.

The XF, which was designed at the Whitley Design Centre in Coventry, is about to enter production at the Castle Bromwich plant later this year.

It is due to go head to head with the Audi A6 BMW 5-series and Mercedes E Class when it goes on sale in March, with prices starting at £33,900.

Jaguar is aiming the car at a new group of customers who were put off by the retro styling of the S-Type, which the XF is replacing.

Ian Callum, Jaguar's director of design, said the XF marked a radical styling and design direction intended to reverse years of falling sales.

Among the innovative features, Jaguar has done away with a gear stick in favour of a dial and padels.

To succeed, the car must become by far Jaguar's biggest seller.

Sales dipped below 75,000 last year, a performance which contributed to losses of £258 million in the UK alone, although Ford insists Jaguar is close to breaking even.

Mr Callum said by opting for a futuristic look, Jaguar was returning to the values held by its late founder, Sir William Lyons, and was exemplified by the launch of the E-type in 1962.

He said: "People forget that Bill Lyons always looked forward, never back. We shouldn't be seen as a quaint old English company; and we'd seriously like to sell some cars too.

"The cars produced by Jaguar were always very modern looking, so in a way we are going back to the future. This is a great example of what can be achieved in the West Midlands. It will be very successful and very profitable.

"My hope is that this gets people away from thinking a Jaguar is something their dad would drive to something they want to drive."

Geoff Cousins, UK managing director of Jaguar, said he wanted to see an end to the uncertainty over the sale of business which had hurt dealers.

But there had already been more than 4,000 inquiries about the car, which he was sure would be a success.

He said: "Previously Jaguar has had some of the emotional pull for our products, but this car gives the rational side as well. It looks beautiful but you can get five people into it. It has best in class residuals, and very competitive maintenance costs.

"For the first time we can give our Germanic friends a run for their money."

The car was also aimed at attracting new customers to Jaguar, whose average age is 52 at present.

"I believe this car will bring in younger people, as well as keeping loyal customers as well. Of course it is a make or break car. The XK started the renaissance of Jaguar, this takes it to a whole new level.

"It gives everybody at Jaguar, from the guy on the floor at the dealership to me at head office the confidence to say look at this. It's a brilliant car as good, as anything else on the road. Don't underestimate the confidence that gives people.

"It completely overwhelms any news about the company being sold. People cannot look at this car and fail to be impressed. I think the Jaguar brand is strong, this will lift it again."

One industry source, who asked not to be named, said: "Jaguar absolutely needs this car to be a success; if it fails there will be no more company or it will just become a niche player.

"But it is sufficiently good enough and bold enough to do it. It is too good to fail."