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The Only puzzling aspect of the launch of Volkswagen's sleek new Passat, with its pursuit-of-perfection marketing and boffins-with-clipboards tech-cred, is that they didn't get around to calling it something else. Just about every other feature of this fifth- generation Passat is different from its forebears, and a name that sounds like somebody wrestling with hay-fever somehow doesn't square with its reinvented character. The Passat's shape now undulates somewhere between the graceful lines of a Vauxhall Calibra and an Audi A4. It's pretty roomy, very comfortable, relaxing to drive and its finish is classy inside and out.

The Audi A4 connection isn't coincidental. The Volkswagen group's upmarket sibling unveiled one of its most attractive models of recent times with the A4, and the Passat is built on to the same underpinnings, in a bid to cut this quality-conscious company's massive development bill. The new car is aimed not simply at the market space occupied by the Ford Mondeo, Peugeot 406 and Vauxhall Vectra, but also seeks to be a cut-price version of the Audi A4 itself - and it's already hauled in a bulging catch of awards across Europe since its arrival.

Does it warrant the plaudits? A week with the 1.8 20-valve petrol version in both urban and rural driving produced a pretty resounding affirmative to that question, because the Passat is remarkably quiet, eats up big mileages easily, and is comfortable and absorbent over most road surfaces. As well as Audi buyers, it could even convert the long-time Rover fan, with its polished woodwork and feel-the- quality cabin materials.

The typical BMW owner, though, may expect a touch more sharpness to the steering feel, a little less roll to the body and fractionally more alertness in the balance. The Passat will be a family car and a fleet car and therefore more of a compromise - though a compromise that VW has negotiated brilliantly. Only the absence of a hatchback model might deter the family buyer.

Everything has been figured to ease the burden of road-travel on the driver and passengers, from the flexibility of the engines, to the adjustability of the driving position, the head and legroom, boot-size and equipment levels. There are even niftily concealed cup-holders at the front and back. At not much more than pounds 15,000 for basic 1.8 models (ours was a higher- spec turbo), and likely to hold its value better than most cars in this class, the new Passat is a hot ticket in a competent but lukewarm sector of the market.


Price: pounds 17,740

Going places: refined and flexible 20-valve engine, giving 0-60mph in approx 9 seconds; slick gearshift action; excellent pulling power under load

Staying alive/hanging out: terrific build-quality, powerful (if slightly over-sensitive) brakes, stable handling and cornering with an unobtrusive tendency to roll, twin airbags (side airbags optional), anti-lock braking as standard

Creature comforts: supple and absorbent suspension, excellent driver's seat positioning, more rear legroom than a Mondeo or Peugeot 406, front electric windows, central locking, heat- insulating tinted glass, height and reach adjustable steering; split- folding rear seat, arm-rest, rear electric windows, remote central locking and electric sunroof or airconditioning available in SE trim

Bangs per buck: high equipment levels even in basic form, resale values likely to be good, 12 months unlimited-mileage warranty, 3 years paint, 11 years anti-rust

Turkey quotient: performance of non-turbo models a shade sluggish, steering light, petrol economy not sensational at an average 30mpg

Star quality: superbly engineered and built, Audi-like classiness for considerably less outlay, very comfortable, relaxing to drive

And on my right: Ford Mondeo 1.8 GLX (pounds 16,285): sharper on the road than VW, recently revamped, not as elegant; Peugeot 406 1.8 GLX (pounds 16,445): still the one to beat for handling and ride, refined too, but not quite as roomy as VW; Audi A4 1.8 SE (pounds 20,460): Passat's nearest relative, and looks it, but less space and much more cash