New model has revamped engine and slick electronics

Students of motoring arcana enjoy the catalogue of cars published each year at the Geneva motor show.

Among the most intriguing entries are those from countries relatively new to automotive mass production, some of whose products are old designs revved-up with an incongruous new nose in a bid to imbue some modernity. The Russian Volga is a good example. China's Volkswagen Santana is another.

It's tempting to add the new Volkswagen Passat to this list. Actually, every outer panel, bar the roof, has changed compared to the previous Passat, but only slightly. Windows and door apertures are the same, though, and so is much of the understructure: it's the kind of refreshment that created the latest Golf out of the previous one. Volkswagen calls this the seventh-generation Passat, but it's just a comprehensive facelift.

A Passat has never been glamorous. But since the mid-1990s it has hovered on the edge of "premium" territory. When the Passat was a differently bodied Audi A4 (1996 to 2005), the boundary virtually vanished. When it was re-engineered as a giant Golf saloon, its interior was cheapened to restore the automotive apartheid. Now the pendulum swings again: the latest Passat might at first seem little changed apart from that grille, but once you're inside it you find that the quality has come flooding back.

The basic interior components have changed little, but the finish and the details are set to tread on Audi toes again. Priced from £18,470, this would be a premium car were it not badged Passat. Electronics systems? One of these applies the brakes if you forget to do so and would otherwise crash into the back of the car ahead. It recognises metallic objects but not people, so it's less clever than the Volvo system, but it's still a good idea. Then there's the automatic parking system, now able to cope with end-on parking bays as well as roadside slots.

A clever device nudges the steering wheel back on track if you veer out of a lane. (Take your hands off the wheel and it stops working, so this is not quite the self-steering car, thank goodness.) And – as standard equipment – there's a warning in the form of a cup and saucer if the steering's enormous control brain senses that your movements are erratic and you're dangerously tired.

I like the new windscreen, too. It has a heat-reflecting film which can also pass an electric current able to heat the glass and so de-mist and de-ice it. But what's it like to drive?.

Painless, is the answer. It's quiet inside, partly thanks to the new windscreen's sound-absorbing ability, but not so much that the diesel versions hide their method of combustion. With optional adaptive dampers, the Passat copes amazingly well with speed bumps while still feeling precise and responsive. Normal mode is best most of the time; the suspension fidgets in Sport, but Comfort is good if you're feeling passive. The standard suspension resembles Normal but has an underlying firmness over smaller bumps.

The electric power steering is good of its type, and the latest engine range is as efficient as in other recent Volkswagens. There are various sizes and powers of diesel and petrol engines, all turbocharged and producing up to 210 and 170bhp respectively, but perversely my favourites are the most modest motors: the 105bhp 1.6 TDI with an amazing 109g/km CO2 score, which feels very willing despite its frugality, and the 1.4-litre TSI with 122bhp, an eager demeanour and very low CO2.

For the first time, saloon and estate Passats are launched together. More people buy the commodious estate, but the saloon better illustrates the new look. Both are civilised, comfortable, capable cars which light no emotional fires but do a fine job. In this nothing has changed.

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