Roger Bell pitches the Primera into the ring with Peugeot's 406
The three heavyweight monthlies of the motoring press fail to agree on the new Primera's standing. In three-car comparative tests conducted before the new Ford Mondeo's launch, the Sunderland-built Nissan collected a third, a second and a first. Confusing? Not really. Winner or loser, the verdict on the Primera was much the same: nice car, pity about the styling.

Technically, Nissan has excelled with its latest middleweight. In most key areas - space, comfort, refinement, handling, safety, build quality and performance - the Mk 2 is up with the best of the opposition. But what has Nissan done to the styling? The short answer is very little.

The indifferent sales record of the original Primera was blamed on a cash-starved launch soured by Nissan's dispute with the previous importer. With the backing of a pounds 15m promotion, better things are expected of its successor. But will it deliver? The Mk 2's appearance - neat, well-proportioned but dull - is so like that of the outgoing car it hardly reflects class- leading pizzazz. Nissan asserts that this deja vu conservatism promotes consistency of the sort that makes Audis and BMWs distinctive. Neutrals see only blandness.

Despite lacklustre looks, the new Primera really is a cracking driver's car. No rival has sharper, more incisive steering or crisper handling. The way this composed mainstream saloon/hatchback scuttles through bends and roundabouts would not disgrace a stiffly sprung sportster. New rear suspension has softened the ride without blunting the handling.

Inside, as out, the Primera lacks design flair, though it has pleasant decor, comfortable seats and nicely arranged controls. There's plenty of space for chums and chattels, and an excellent security system to protect them. Apart from its sticky gearchange, I found the test 2.0 SRi hard to fault.

So how does it compare with Peugeot's 406, the benchmark contender? Cars in the Mondeo class don't come much roomier than the 406. Legroom in the back is generous, the boot whopping. In gaining valuable inches, though, the elegant Peugeot has put on weight - and it shows. Acceleration of the flexible 2.0 is underwhelming unless you opt for the new 150bhp turbo engine.

Hush and tranquillity compensate for the 2.0's lack of straight-line zeal. Peugeot makes much of its quest to cocoon occupants, to isolate them from the outside hubbub, never mind from an undistinguished engine, rendered a mite fussy by low gearing. An overdrive sixth would not go amiss on motorways. Even so, refinement is the 406's strongest suit. Running it close is suspension - a Peugeot speciality that gives the 406 a supple, cushioned ride and handling that won't dispirit the serious driver, though it's not knife-edge sharp like the Primera.

Inside, there's no Gallic flair to polarise opinions. I have sat in better seats, fingered handier switchgear, but there's nothing seriously wrong with the Peugeot's roomy cabin. Safety (two airbags are standard) is another strength. The 406 is as good as it looks.

So which is best? For looks, smoothness and hush, the Peugeot romps it. Enter into the equation handling, zeal, security, economy and hatchback versatility, and the balance swings in the Nissan's favour. Emotionally, it's the elegant Peugeot that wins hearts. Pragmatists immune to style's seduction will choose the Nissan.

Nissan Primera 2-OSRi

Price: pounds 15,450. Powertrain: 1,998cc, 128bhp at 5,600rpm; five-speed manual gearbox (auto optional). Performance: top speed 127mph, 0-60mph in 9.4 seconds, fuel consumption 30-35mpg.

Peugeot 4O6 2.0LX

Price: pounds 14,605. Powertrain: 1,998cc, 135bhp at 5,500rpm, five-speed manual gearbox. Performance: top speed 123mph, 0-60mph in 11 seconds, fuel consumption 26-33mpg.