Motoring: The birth of a meritocrat

Roadtest: Volkswagen Passat

Unlikely though this may sound, Volkswagen's new Passat represents the dawning of a new motorised meritocracy. Up to now, there have been medium-size saloons of the silver-spoon variety (BMW 3-series, Mercedes- Benz C-class, Audi A4). There have been those of more proletarian bearing (Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Vectra, Peugeot 406 and others). And there has also been, lurking colourlessly in the background, the Volkswagen Passat, a car of practical virtue and sound quality but entirely lacking the class- transcending charisma that surrounds the smaller Golf and Polo.

Now, though, the Passat is born again. The new one has pricing to match the proles, but airs and attributes to equal the aristocrats. It's a Passat with attitude. And the guardians of upmarket auto brands have reason to be worried.

That's because the new Passat is effectively an Audi A4 with a longer body, more room and exactly the same approach to Germanically sculpted design and high-quality construction. The design was brought about through the Volkswagen/Audi group's efforts to rationalise parts and cut costs, but the result, ironically, is a more desirable car. It's a striking- looking vehicle, with a profile dominated by a continuous curve from the base of the windscreen to the bottom of the back window.

Behind the unfashionably big front grille, the engines, too, are from the A4. You can choose from a 100bhp 1.6 (the cheapest "E"-trim Passat so powered costs just pounds 13,385), a pair of 20-valve 1.8s (one with a turbo), a 2.8-litre V6 matched to Synchro four-wheel drive (it is Audi's Quattro system, really), and a pair of direct injection turbo diesels of either 90 or 110bhp.

The E may be a bargain buy - even this lowly version has two airbags, anti-lock brakes and electric front windows as standard - but it's the SE-trim, non-turbo 1.8 that's likely to prove the most popular Passat. Its engine delivers 125bhp and willing pulling power across the speed range, and it never spins less than sweetly. The only snag is the engine's unwillingness to lose revs quickly when you take your foot off the accelerator, which makes smooth upward gear changes difficult to achieve.

Over bumps and around bends, the Passat outscores its Audi cousin thanks to weightier, more confident steering and the flatter ride that goes with the longer wheelbase. But it's not quite as capable as a 406 here, because the nose rises and dips too much as you speed up and slow down. And, sad to say, right-hand-drive versions are afflicted with the same hypersensitivity to the brakes that can make the A4 a tiresomely snatchy drive.

Inside, you're faced by a fascia of Audi inspiration, but just a touch more Bauhaus. The detailing is delightful, including air vents whose slats fold flush when shut to resemble tongue-and-groove panelling, and if you go for the Sport version (an extra pounds 626) you get some technical-looking aluminium embellishment to go with the fatter alloy wheels and the more enveloping seats.

The previous Passat's one remarkable feature was its rear leg-room. The new one lacks its predecessor's limousine-like lounging space, but is still roomier than most rivals, including its Audi relation. And considering that the Passat 20V SE is, at pounds 15,869, about pounds 4,000 cheaper than the equivalently powered and equipped Audi, the Volkswagen looks hard to resist. What price brand values now?

VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT 20V SE

Specifications

Price: pounds 15,869. Engine: 1,781cc, four cylinders, 20 valves, 125bhp at 5,800rpm; five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed: 128mph, 0- 60 in 10.6 sec. Fuel consumption: 31-36mpg.

Rivals

Audi A4 1.8 SE, pounds 20,605 on the road: More perceived prestige, less room, higher price.

BMW 318i SE, pounds 18,920: Same applies here, except that the engine isn't so powerful.

Ford Mondeo 2.0 Ghia, pounds l5,995: Just revamped with huge headlights, but lacks VW's class.

Nissan Primera 2.0 SLX, pounds 16,155 on the road: New car that is fun to drive, but looks just like the old one.

Peugeot 406 2.0 GLX, pounds 16,520 on the road: Best ride and handling, well built, roomy, not so quick.

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