In popular music, it would be Sheryl Crow, kd lang, even Barbara Dickson, although that may be going back a bit. In cars, it's the Volkswagen Passat. John Simister looks at the reinvention of a homely, capable car into a triumph of pin-point consumer targeting. A year ago, the Passat was the forgotten Volkswagen, worthy but dull, capable but colourless.

Look at it now. It's easy enough to do, because they are all around us and there is a four-month order backlog.

And the cause of this explosion of interest? The fact that the Passat was recently remodelled with a bold, new body, with engines and underpinnings borrowed from the Audi A4, then stretched to make more passenger space, and with an interior design of such quality and apparent material extravagance that the new Passat's purchase price seemed laughably low.

Here was a car as good as an Audi A4, and which felt much like an A4 to drive, for Mondeo money. All it lacked was a prestigious badge. Still, the world hardly regards the Volkswagen idea as cheap and nasty, so this was not much of a problem.

So far, so very good. And immediately after the London Motor Show next month, you will be able to buy an estate version. The previous Passat wagon was much less of a frump than the saloon (it was considered deeply cool in Italy, actually), but with today's new saloon looking so good in its metallic, Teutonic way, the new estate will have to be a very fine piece of design if it is to hold its own visually. I think it manages rather well.

That continuous curve from windscreen base over the roof to the boot lid has gone, of course, but in its place is a crisply defined aft end with a big bite out of the bumper where the tailgate closes. It emphasises the Passat's cargo-carrying ability. "Load me up," it invites. There is no extraneous decoration, just a happy conjunction of stark shapes.

It is also more capacious than the old version, itself a useful hold- all. Your chattels will be treated well, too, because the entire load bay is covered in tough but plush carpet and there is a selection of chrome eyes through which you can lash down items that might otherwise slither around. This interior design approach complements the soft-feel coating on many of the cabin's plastic mouldings, and detail delights such as the damped grab-handles above the windows abound. Pull them out, let them go, and instead of thwacking back into position they return in a gentle arc of movement.

To drive, the Passat Estate is much like the saloon, which is good news because it means that the rear suspension's enhanced load-supporting ability has not spoilt the ride comfort.

It is not the sportiest of cars - you feel too remote from the action for that - but it is highly relaxing apart from its desire to stand on its nose if you so much as brush the brake pedal. The brakes have far too much servo assistance, which makes a smooth drive hard to attain until you have learnt the required delicacy of foot.

This applies regardless of engine size, of which there are several. The range begins with a 100bhp 1.6, continues with a 125bhp 1.8 with 20 valves, and climaxes with a 150bhp turbocharged version of that same engine. From early next year there will be a different route to that 150bhp output - a novel V5 engine with 2.3 litres' capacity and an intriguing, warbling voice much like that of a Volvo V70.

A V5 sounds mechanically implausible, and I was not surprised that the example I drove had a pulsing vibration, but the VW engineers assured me a solution was in hand. We'll see; as it is the V5 feels less eager than the 1.8 turbo, and uses more fuel, but it does sound good.

Alternatively you can go the diesel route, with 90bhp or 110bhp versions of Volkswagen's muscular, direct-injection turbodiesel motor. These suit the Passat's relaxing but ultimately authoritative character well, because they provide surprising pace for little consumption either of your effort or of diesel fuel.

Finally, there is a 193bhp, 2.8-litre V6 engine, matched to four-wheel drive to create the ultimate Passat Estate, a car truly on the aspirational route that typically ends in an expensive Mercedes.

The Passat is that sort of car, more sensible and functional than its glamorous Audi A4 Avant cousin, and offering virtually Mercedes C-class attributes at a lot less cost.

At around pounds 1,000 more than a Passat saloon with equivalent engine and equipment, the Passat Estate is a remarkable buy. A 1.8 turbo SE would be my choice, at around pounds 18,750, but you won't go wrong with any of them.


Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SE Estate

Price: pounds 18,750

Engine: 1,781cc, four cylinders, 20 valves and turbocharger, 150bhp at 5,700rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: Top speed 135mph, 8.7sec 0-60

Fuel consumption: 30-35mpg


Audi A4 Avant 1.8T, pounds 22,640: A fine thing to gaze upon, equally fine to own, but you pay more and, objectively, you get less.

Ford Mondeo 2.0 Ghia Estate, pounds 18,805: Well made and well equipped, but not as solid as the Passat, nor as powerful.

Mercedes-Benz C200 Classic Estate, pounds 23,670: Designed and built with care, of course, but you pay heavily for the name.

Peugeot 406 2.0T Estate, pounds 21,580: Like Passat, uses light-pressure turbo for strong performance. Delightful but expensive.

Volvo V70 2.0 10V, pounds 19,965: Cheapest "full-size" Volvo estate is little bigger than Passat, and sparsely equipped.