MOTORING / Two halves and a whole: Is it a Golf, is it a saloon? John Fordham on the dual-personality VW Vento

THERE used to be a macabre Frankensteinian technique favoured by less reputable used-car dealers called 'cut and shut'. The reasoning behind it was this: if you have two wrecks on your hands, identical save in being damaged at opposite ends, why not stitch the good front half of one to the rear end of the other? Make a nice discreet weld around the midriff, cover it up with a drop of filler, blow it over in a nice blue metallic - and Bob's your uncle.

All this was fine until the unsuspecting purchaser did something imprudent, like go over a humpback bridge at speed. It was not unheard of for driver, engine and front seats to keep barrelling on towards their intended destination while the rear section headed back home.

It seems sacrilegious to talk about such indifference to morality - and metallurgy - in the context of a company like VW-Audi, which makes some of the safest and most soundly-built cars around. But the Vento brings these disrespectful thoughts to mind because it looks as if somebody has chopped a Golf in half and added something else - like the back end of a Mercedes 190. You just can't help seeing this car as an attempt at a Golf saloon.

But the Vento is far more than that. To begin with it handles better than a Golf, generating almost as much confidence on undulating roads as a BMW. It also has a torquier and more flexible engine than most of its rivals, high specification levels, good fuel economy and one of the smoothest and fastest gearshifts I've ever encountered.

So what's the problem? To be truthful, the Vento looks utterly ordinary: all the squat, boxy qualities of a Golf dissolved into a bland, fleet- car anonymity - if anything worsened by the contours of its longer boot. But once you're past the aesthetic appraisal stage and on the road, the deceptive strengths of a fine automobile emerge.

The standard Vento engine is the 2.0-litre, which gives it a lively performance. There are also 1.8 and diesel versions. The test car had the remarkable VR6 engine, developed for the Golf and the charismatic Corrado - an innovative design that splits the two banks of cylinders so that the whole lot can be shoehorned under the bonnet of a snub-nosed front- drive car. This is quite an achievement for an engine of close to 2.8 litres displacement. If a more traditional unit were used, either the Vento's neat bonnet dimensions would need stretching, or the front crumple zones that absorb crash impacts would have to be compromised.

But it is in the handling that the Vento really springs its surprises. The front suspension is a Golf's, but the rear set-up is adapted from the surefooted Corrado. This imparts a little more rear-wheel steer, and a small but detectable effect on the car's cornering agility.

Steering weighting is all but perfect - a powered arrangement that feels like an unassisted system in its expressive relationship with the road, but makes you think you've grown stronger in the forearms, like Popeye. Low-speed turning requires no effort, nor is there any sacrifice of road feel. Grip is tenacious.

The brakes are great at doing what they're supposed to, though anti-lock is still only an optional extra. The only snag is that they have a soft feel, which can be disconcerting for some drivers. Safety, as in all VWs, is state-of-the-art. The company spends a lot of energy and cash hammering its products into immoveable objects. The results of this research are robust side-impact beams in all the doors, computer- conceived crumple zones at both ends, a plastic fuel tank and twin front airbags to cushion you and your passenger on impact (these for a premium of pounds 600).

The interior doesn't quite match the Vento's on-road performance. VW has altered the instrumentation to make the cabin seem less Golf- like, but the instruments are still set so far into the binnacle that looking at them is like peering through a neighbour's window. The fascia just looks boxy. There's plenty of seat adjustment for drivers of all dimensions, but the steering tilt can't be changed - not an ideal state of affairs on a car that isn't noticeably cheap at pounds 19,824. Boot room is terrific for the class, and can be extended by a 60/40 split rear seat cushion - but it encroaches on rear legroom, which might cause a problem or two for the taller passenger.-

Auto biography

The Volkswagen Vento

VR6 in 0-60 seconds

GOING PLACES: Superbly conceived and engineered small V6 engine in top-range model, excellent torquey Golf-derived units in the others; one of the smoothest gearshifts on the road; 0-60 in under eight seconds on VR6, approximately 10 seconds for 0-60 and 30- 70 in standard models.

STAYING ALIVE: Usual VW safety standards, and more: door- beams, extensive crumple zones (though anti-lock braking and twin front airbags are optional extras). Visibility excellent, handling superb. Modified Corrado back suspension improves cornering; open- road flexibility delightful. Power- steering well-weighted, giving plenty of feel of the road.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Unexciting interior, but soberly well-conceived - as for the Golf. Only minor detail variations from Golf cabin, including instrumentation and steering wheel. Comfortable at front, a little cramped at rear because of voluminous boot. Driver's seating position flexible, but not steering column tilt. Trip computer includes service indicator.

BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, alloy wheels, central locking; electric windows, sunroof and mirrors standard throughout the range. Fuel consumption OK considering the engines - around 22mpg in town, 32mpg at constant motorway speeds. Price: pounds 19,824.

STAR QUALITY: Deceptively sensational handler, with the kind of flexible performance that makes town driving tireless, and quiet refinement that eats up distance without making your ears hurt.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: That body styling. Its only virtue is that it makes the Vento's performance for its class seem all the more remarkable for being hidden inside it. Anti-lock brakes ought to be standard at this performance level, particularly for safety-conscious VW.

AND ON MY RIGHT: The Nissan Primera 2.0 ( pounds 13,200) - bland looking but very accomplished car that sounds as if it will go on forever; the Peugeot 405 1.9 ( pounds 14,315) - much improved leader in this category, with responsive handling and good engines; the Vauxhall Cavalier 2.0 ( pounds 14,000) - been there, done it all. The Cavalier knows this market inside out, is recently improved, but lacks chutzpah.

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