Ford Mondeo (2011 mid-life update)

Ford has introduced a mid-life update for the Mondeo; the outward signs of change are few. The four-door saloon option, which accounted for only a very small proportion of sales, has been dropped in the UK, leaving a range that consists of a five-door hatch and an estate.

Front and rear styling have been tweaked but I think that most people would struggle to tell the latest version from its predecessor; I certainly do, despite having the advantage over the average punter of hearing Martin Smith, Ford's genial European design boss, who produced the legendary Audi Quattro, explain the changes in person yesterday. Inside, there is more evidence of a revamp; materials, tolerances and gaps have all been improved to the point where Mr Smith now believes that the Mondeo's cabin is fit to be compared with Audi's interiors – and he'd be in a position to know.

In general, this subtle approach to many of the Mondeo's mid-life improvements is fully justified; Ford's biggest mainstream European car already set very high standards in terms of ride, handling, comfort, space and quality, so major change would not have been justified, nor even, perhaps, desirable. Buried deep within the car, though are worthwhile drive-train improvements, including extremely impressive new top-of-the range diesel and petrol engines, which deliver performance that would have been unimaginable in mass-market cars a few years ago.

First, the diesel; the new 2.2-litre Duratorq turbodiesel engine turns out 200 horsepower, the sort of output that has previously only been associated with four-cylinder diesels in cars from BMW and Mercedes in cars such as the 123d and E 250 CDI. The Ford unit holds its own in that company not just in terms of performance but refinement as well. In our test car, it was paired with a pleasant six-speed manual gearbox, a combination that provides acceleration from rest to 100km/h (62mph) in 8.1 seconds (8.3 seconds for the estate) and combined-cycle fuel consumption of 47mpg. CO2 emissions on official tests are 159g/km for both body types. The 2.2 Duratorq's torque curve is very flat, with the maximum 420 Newton metres being available from 1,750rpm to 3,000rpm, and it only starts to fall away significantly at 3,500rpm, an appealing characteristic that is very apparent on the road.

The new top petrol engine delivers even stronger performance. The 240 horsepower 2.0-litre turbo carries Ford's EcoBoost branding, which is being applied in both Europe and the USA to a programme of down-sizing petrol engines while improving their performance and economy via technologies such as turbo-charging. In this case, the standard gearbox is Ford's new PowerShift transmission, a self-shifting twin-clutch six-speeder similar in concept to the Volkswagen Group's DSG technology. This, broadly speaking, combines the convenience of an automatic with the economy and responsiveness of a manual.

Top speeds are 153mph (five-door) and 150mph (estate) – not far short of the 155mph to which most serious German performance cars are limited by voluntary agreement. Acceleration from rest to 100km/h (62mph) comes up in 7.5 seconds (five-door) or 7.5 seconds (estate). Combined cycle fuel consumption is 36.6mpg and CO2 emissions are 179g/km.

One snag that sometimes arises with high-performance four cylinder petrol engines is that they can sound rather ordinary compared with the fruitier engine notes of the five and six cylinder alternatives fitted by some premium manufacturers. Here, Ford has worked hard to make using the 2.0 litre EcoBoost engine a more interesting experience with its so-called "Sound Symposer" system which "amplifies selected engine frequencies that convey satisfying engine sounds into the cabin by employing a purpose-designed link between the air intake manifold and the cabin's front bulkhead".

It's actually fairly difficult to tell how effective these measures are, because in practice the engine's excellent torque and the responsiveness of the PowerShift gearbox tend to keep revs, and therefore engine noise, down; certainly, there is never any sense of strain at all, even under hard acceleration.

There are improvements across the rest of the Mondeo's diesel and petrol engine ranges, as well as additions to the optional equipment list, such as a blind spot and lane departure warning systems and a rear view reversing camera.

Refamiliarisation with the Mondeo provides a reminder of the strides in quality and performance that have been made by the mainstream car-makers in the last ten years. On any objective assessment, the gap between the Mondeo and cars with premium badges has all but been closed; somewhat perversely, the cachet enjoyed by the luxury car brands compared with humbler badges such as Ford's remains undented, and may even be growing. It's harder to close the image gap than it is to close the performance gap or the quality gap – but strong products such as this revised Mondeo can only help.

Ford Mondeo (2011 mid-life update)

Price: revised Mondeo range on sale now from £17,295, top-of-the range 240PS EcoBoost and 2.2 litre Duratorq diesel go on sale in November.

Top speed: 153 mph (240PS EcoBoost five-door)

0-62mph: 7.5 seconds (240PS EcoBoost five-door)

Consumption: 36.6mpg (240PS EcoBoost five-door)

CO2 emissions: 179g/km (240PS EcoBoost five-door)

Also worth considering: Skoda Superb, Toyota Avensis, Vauxhall Insignia