Road test : Ford Mondeo

Four years ago, Ford was being roasted by the motoring press for complacency. As the products of cynical that-will-do design, its mainstream models were at best paragons of mediocrity. That the Fiesta and Escort were also top sellers in Britain had more to do with Ford's huge dealer network and fleet business than product approbation.

Ford has made mistakes since - the gruesome styling of the spurned Scorpio, for instance, and the wimpish image of the slow-selling Terrano - but the company's standing has risen immeasurably since the launch in March 1993 of the Mondeo, which marked a turning point in design philosophy.

After the Sierra's replacement - the best Ford in years - came a programme of model rejuvenation that saw the Fiesta elevated to class-leading status, and the Escort turned into a worthy rival for the Peugeot 306. New models like the Galaxy (the best of the new-wave MPVs), and the Fiesta-based Ka (the boldest tiddler since the Mini) espoused design and engineering ideals.

Under this welcome new regimen, the acid test for Ford was always going to be a Mk 2 Mondeo. It was one thing to sweeten a lemon like the early Fiesta, something else to make the excellent Mondeo much better. But better it is, and by a significant margin.

Gone, for a start, are the anonymous, globular looks. There's no mistaking the newcomer's bold face or voluptuous rump, though the flanks in between remain largely unchanged. Ford has addressed criticisms of limited space in the back with a little more legroom. Safety, comfort, refinement, economy, security, emissions and running costs also came under the microscope in a comprehensive and effective makeover.

Mondeos were always good to drive. The engineer who supervised their design and development, car enthusiast Richard Parry-Jones, had a hand in the originals' nifty handling, incisive steering and good grip. So did former world champion Jackie Stewart.

The Mk 2 drives even better. You sense through firm suspension that a little ride comfort has been sacrificed for agility, but no one's going to complain too much about that. Excellent front seats and a driving position that can be fine-tuned to suit most shapes offset any mild jitterbugs. A big-buttoned radio served by remote controls is one of several facia improvements. Even the gearchange benefits from a new linkage.

Refinement was always a forte of the quick and luxurious V6s - so vocally sonorous. Ford has made no attempt to muffle them. And it's the more popular four-cylinder models that have gained from Ford's assault on its old enemies of N, V and H - noise, vibration and harshness - making the incoming cars sweeter, smoother and quieter than the ones they displace.

Even in a class of high achievers, the Mondeo is once again the family car to beat. Here's how the 2.0-litre opposition shapes up against it at pounds 15,000-16,000.

Citroen Xantia Good looks and self-levelling suspension main attractions. Rides and handles well. Turbo-diesel combines zap with economy. Dreary interior.

Nissan Primera Great to drive, boring to behold. Masks talents under drab suit. Well made and finished, competitive on most fronts. Recommended

Peugeot 406 Elegant, spacious, refined, smooth riding qualities that make the 406 special. New 2.0 turbo answers criticisms of indifferent performance.

Renault Laguna Styling and comfort - of seats and ride - are strong points of five-door Laguna, undistinguished on performance, economy, refinement.

Rover 420 Looks good, goes very well, pleasant to drive. So what's the catch? Lack of space in a car that's too small to trade punches with the Mondeo.

Vauxhall Vectra 2.0

Disappointing deja vu styling. Strong, powerful engine, long legs, decent economy. Lacklustre handling to be addressed by new suspension tweaks.