Thirty years or so ago, sports cars went fast and handled well, looked sexy and broke down a lot - unless they were MGs, in which case they went slowly, handled badly, looked sexy and broke down a lot. They also leaked when it rained.

In a similar vein, family cars were big and roomy and extremely dull to drive. Compare a popular family saloon of the era - say, an Austin 1800 or a Ford Cortina - with a popular sports car of the day (the E-type Jag) and it's easy to see that, apart from four wheels and an alarming propensity to rust, the cars had little in common. For starters, the E- type went twice as fast. Sports cars did one job, family cars did another.

Things aren't so clear-cut now, as recent drives in some of the best- selling family saloons have shown. Excitement sells, so does "image", and, as an upshot, many family cars nowadays not only lug kids around, but also get the juices flowing. Many family cars will do over 120mph, accelerate as fast as a hot hatch, and some even look great (although progress has been a little slower on this front).

The first big surprise in store was the V6 Vauxhall Vectra. Despite being launched on a "car for the new millennium" platform, the Vectra is well known for serving up about as much fizz as a week-old glass of lemonade. But recent mods, aimed at overturning its sensible-shoes image, have substantially improved it. It now handles and steers better than any E-type ever did and has a honey of a V6 engine, which gives the one-time dullard more performance than most 30-year-old sports cars. Pity it still looks so nondescript, at odds with recent good design work that Vauxhall has done (Corsa, Tigra).

Less of a surprise was the new Ford Mondeo. Unlike the Vectra, the Mondeo was more or less right first time. The new Mondeo is even better. The V6 version is the real sports car in drag: like the Vectra V6, it's not only quick enough to humble most old sports cars, but it can sprint past quite a few new ones as well. To boot, the latest Mondeo has beautifully direct steering and handles in a fluent and dignified manner.

It may be the spiritual successor to the old Cortina of the Sixties and Seventies in terms of market segment, but in most other ways the Mondeo is more of a BMW than a traditional family Ford. Even in four-cylinder guise, the engine, once such an old slugger, revs sweetly. It now sounds and feels like a collection of components in harmony rather than a mish- mash of mechanicals at war.

Last week, I had another go in what is probably the best family saloon, the new Volkswagen Passat. This time it was a turbodiesel model, so there was little chance of sprightly sports-car-busting performance. But what there was, in abundance, was fine handling and steering, and a real feeling of driver/machine interaction. There was also a plethora of clever design: the new Passat looks better than most sports cars on the road, a masterpiece of refined understatement, like a good suit. Its nearest rival for best car in class, the Peugeot 406, looks even better.

Back in the Sixties, dull-looking big-selling family cars just wafted (Austin 1800s) or jolted (Cortinas, all Vauxhalls) on their ways. In either case, they were objects of transport rather than instruments of pleasure. They were about as much fun to use as a fridge.

Since then, learning a lesson from prestige makers like BMW, all mainstream family cars have upped the level of driver appeal (as well as comfort, refinement and just about every other tangible, including rising cost of ownership). Some makers certainly do it better than others, but all have improved.

The irony is that, as cars get better to drive, go faster and handle more sweetly, so roads have become more clogged. Which means there are fewer places to enjoy them. Maybe the crafty car makers, mindful of gradually rising traffic levels, planned this all along! After all, if we had to endure hour-long traffic queues in a car as uninspiring to use as an old Cortina, we'd all go by train.

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