A CAR has little chance of succeeding in the executive market if it does not look right, and each manufacturer pours immense resources into trying to make sure that its contender does. Indeed, there are few people in the motor industry more nervous, as a public launch approaches, than those who created and signed off the exterior styling.

Pre-launch clinics cannot be guaranteed to confirm in advance the reception given by the broader community of potential customers.

There is great emphasis these days on the ``face'' a car presents. It is that aspect of the Ford Scorpio which provokes so many arguments. Jaguar lost the place a few years ago when it went for rectangular headlamps on the XJ saloon series, which now looks much more refined again, with four round lights.

Previously thought of as fairly stodgy in saloon styling, Mercedes took a deep breath when some of its models adopted four sloping headlamps. The company, most unusually, mounted an advertising campaign which majored on that front-end look rather than on engineering, build quality, security or performance.

A car's outward appearance can give a strong message, and perhaps counteract some unrelated criticism of its predecessor. The Peugeot 406, for instance, not only is but also looks more substantially built than the 405, largely because of the metalwork height of its doors and the solid-looking curve of their ``shoulders''.

German cars in the executive class are usually clothed in bodywork which implies high technical quality underneath. Japanese designers are more tentative. Cars like the Lexus LS400 provide impeccable engineering. But Japanese manufacturers in this class do not seem to want their cars to stand out, just as a few decades ago the Fiat 130 was deliberately styled so as not to draw attention to itself or its presumably well-off occupants.

On the other hand, the Mazda Xedos is an example of Japanese design going away at a tangent. Here is a car which is unabashedly retrospective in front-end styling.

Sometimes a Japanese design team will let rip on a single aspect of a car's appearance, perhaps linked with a particular technical requirement. A prime example of this is the very powerful Toyota Supra. It needs a rear spoiler, and the way that item curves high to keep out of the way of the rear-view mirror is unexpectedly audacious.

Alfa Romeo always had a splendid V6 engine in the 164, although other elements of the car have not always provoked applause. The current body style, altered only in modest details, plays its part in helping to boost the 164's quality image.

For the new 5-series, BMW has created a bodyshell of very attractive proportions and line. It relays a clear message about the car. On the other hand, if you look at a Citroen XM you wonder if this is this the last throw of the Citroen eccentrics.

But the XM is a fine motorway cruiser, with unexpectedly good handling around the lanes, and masses of space for passengers and luggage.

Rover has developed a distinctive ``family'' look around the grille and bonnet, although it is happier on bigger models like the 800 and 600, and does not transfer well on a smaller scale to the 200. Of all Rover's cars, the high-performance, lowered-suspension 800 Vitesse still appears remarkably businesslike.

Vauxhall's familiar ``V'' motif is now incorporated in its grilles, where it looks better on smaller models like the Astra than it does on the Omega, whose front-end styling impact it seems to reduce. Otherwise, especially as an estate, the Omega is impressively presented.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley have no styling impact problems. If you cannot identify one of these cars coming towards you, you need your eyes tested. Volvo is moving away from its traditionally strict and rather Lutheran lines, while Saab managed the difficult trick of making the current 900 seem a fresh design without losing too many of its predecessor's styling cues.

Audi has created a ``family'' of bodyshells which do not need the historic four-linked-rings badge to identify them. Whether what looks good on long and medium wheelbases can be comfortably transferred to the forthcoming and dumpier A3 is very much open to question.

Renault's exteriors, in its bigger cars at any rate, are less adventurous than some of its cabin designs. Honda, Nissan and Mitsubishi follow the general Japanese trend and play stylistically safe in their executive ranges, which are neverthless advanced in engineering detail. While the Subaru Impreza is an ``in your face'' car altogether, the larger Legacy potters on without much year-end updating.

So far none of the UK, European or Japanese executive car manufacturers has quite socked it to us in the way the Americans used to do. However, the more discreet Chrysler New Yorker is now available here in left-hand drive form, and it will be interesting to see if any styling references to it appear by the end of the decade in cars designed on this side of the pond.