MOTORING / Outclassed? At pounds 21K, the Passat VR6 is no match for some rivals: Auto Biography - the Volkswagen Passat VR6 Saloon in 0-60 seconds

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CALL me old-fashioned, but I still have trouble with the idea that virtually the only new cars you can buy for a four-figure sum are decidedly lukewarm 'hot' hatches. I can just about handle the idea of the 'family car' damaging the personal economy to the tune of 15K, but there are limits. Somebody approached as I was disembarking from the VW Passat VR6, and speculated: 'How much for this one, 19K?' 'Nah,' I countered, with the good-humoured contempt of the specialist. I scrambled through the price list for confirmation - then scrambled to regain my composure: 'Oops, sorry. It's 21.'

Twenty-one? Now, maybe it's obvious to any motoring type with a sparkplug for a brain that this roomy, well- built, agile and practical saloon would fetch a price like this - especially when upgraded with VW's smoothest and finest engine. But compared with similarly-priced rivals like BMW's 5-series, the Passat VR6 doesn't quite make it. Its trim is cheapskate, its interior dull, its switchgear flimsy and ugly-looking - and the general sensation inside the cabin is a good few thousand pounds adrift of the number on the price-tag.

The virtue of a Passat, from the model's earliest days, was workaday practicality; you could fit a lot in, and that's still true. The car is a genuine five-seater with room for the belongings of all five, which isn't so easy to say about the average BMW. It's comfortable, handles and rides well, and with the VR6 engine acquires all the smooth momentum that VW's other models have gained with this brilliantly conceived compact-six unit. But the weight of this car hampers engine performance, and you find yourself dropping out of fifth on a motorway incline.

The advantage of the VR6 version of this otherwise anonymous car is the equipment level - anti-lock braking, an electronic traction-control system to monitor wheelspin, all the usual electrical bits that open and close, and VW's highly regarded and exhaustively tested security-locking system. This also allows you to close the electric windows with the key from the outside.

But for all that, this Passat will fight hard to pull the business from its more charismatic, if less practical, six- cylinder rivals. The very roomy estate version might be a better bet - though its price-tag is closer to pounds 24,000.

GOING PLACES: Smooth power from fine VR6 engine, but inert and awkward gearshift. 0-60mph in 8 secs.

STAYING ALIVE: Typical VW rigidity, crumple zones and safety features. Anti- lock braking, electronic traction control. Good handling and ride. Brakes good. Childproof locks on doors.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Comfortable five-seater, though cabin not inspired. Seat height-adjustment available, good leg room at rear, excellent boot space with split-folding rear seats, electric windows, sunroof.

BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, alloy wheels, ABS, traction control, double-

action central locking. Electric windows, sunroof, mirrors. Price: pounds 20,995.

STAR QUALITY: Practical, untiring long-range saloon for five occupants. Good spec. Excellent engine.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Too expensive, dull to look at. Trim details and switchgear not up to standard for this price range.

AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 520i ( pounds 19,245) - the name's enough. Great performance and handling, though much less roomy; Vauxhall Carlton V6 ( pounds 21,890) - more people- and-load-swallowing still, good equipment level, comparable handling and performance; Mazda Xedos 6 ( pounds 19,240) - state-of-the-art car aesthetics, very refined, not as spacious; VW Vento VR6 ( pounds 19,995) - a cheaper rival from the same stable, with comparable performance and practicality. Not so well equipped, but better conceived inside.