Passat raises its sights
The man beside me in the church refused to shake my hand. We were at that juncture of Mass where we offer one another peace -- even if we forget about it for the rest of the week. Let's be honest, the way some of us drive, that handshake means nothing.
Anyway, the man in the church saw my puzzlement as I awkwardly swayed with outstretched hand. He started to gesture. Aha! He had just sneezed in his hands and didn't want to pass on the microbes -- and whatever else (no, I don't want to think about it either).
Now wasn't that a far more thoughtful and understanding gesture than so many of the half-hearted, limp shakes that punctuate our gatherings as once-a-week Christians?
So I wished him peace, and he me, and we got on with it.
You never know what goes on behind cupped hands, closed doors, drawn curtains, or car outlines do you? We all put up a veneer to mask hidden depths.
Now it is a long way from a bony pew to a well-cushioned seat in a new car, but believe it or not there is a parallel between my wish for peace and what Volkswagen have done with their new Passat.
Put it this way, you'd want to be up close and personal to notice much of a difference from the old one. Talk about an outer veneer. The only difference with this Passat, and indeed with Volkswagen generally, is that we've come to expect that. Evolution not revolution.
And, I beg your forgiveness for the pun, but I wouldn't sneeze at it because they've nearly always worked on that basis.
So I have to tell you the new Passat is quite ordinary to look at. I had to dig deep to find why it can be called 'new'.
We'll start with the cabin where they have made three obvious decisions: to get technology to drivers' fingertips; make it as comfortable as possible; and upgrade the materials.
The seats in my test car (Highline 2.0TDI DSG) were particularly comfortable and I blessed them because, despite my fervent prayers, the old back pain lingered like a long sermon.
My test car also had what I term twin-gearchange: it's called DSG and you can leave it in automatic or up and down the gears yourself without having to use a clutch.
On the third element, they haven't done anything mad to the cabin except the feel and quality of the materials are much better.
It is in this quality that I believe they have shown their intent and where one can pinpoint the sea change -- to move further into the realms of executive motoring. Their target market was always simple: company execs who use the car a lot and large families. We may be in the middle of a recession but one thing we continue to demand is better equipped, more luxurious cars, regardless of the name.
This goes that bit further and now has the wherewithal to include the likes of the BMW 3-series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 within the ambit of its ambitions. Don't laugh: the cabin is as good as many of them, believe me.
Add in plenty of space -- five adults were not cramped -- and a huge luggage area and it begins to add up to a serious piece of work. I put up a fair bit of driving on this and was impressed by the poke in the 2-litre diesel.
But it is not all good news.
The more I drove it, the more I realised it did not match the newly revised Ford Mondeo on handling and ride. Indeed, the rear felt a little light around corners. Now that might seem a relatively small criticism but the margin call between one car and another at this level can be tiny.
By the same token, I think I should point out that estates do not normally handle as well as saloons so maybe I am not comparing like with like. This is a car designed for the long journey for those on business, parents behind the wheel, and children wondering if they are there yet. They won't be bothered by Cunningham's complaints about boring looks, because it has the structure and chassis to do that sort of work.
And the extraordinary thing is that despite its spread of engines -- from 1.4-litre petrol all the way to the 2-litre 170bhp Bluemotion -- all its models fall within the emissions limits of the extended scrappage scheme (up to 140g/km). That is extraordinary for a car of this size.
There is no doubt the Mondeo beats it in one or two areas but, as a package, the Passat now seriously knocks on the door of premium executive.
Peace be with you this year -- on and off the road.
Volkswagen Passat estate 2-litre diesel (1,968cc, 140bhp), front-wheel-drive, CO2 of 135g/km; VRT is 16pc. €156 annual road tax.
From €24,865 (saloon) €27,795 (estate). Highline 2.0TDI 140hp DSG version on test costs €37,030. Delivery, related charges extra.
Families, companies/fleet, executives.
Big step up in quality, equipment, room, technology, engine.
Looks so like old one, need 2-litre engine for pep.
Start/stop system, climatic air con, electric windows, radio/CD with eight speakers, MP3 player, electric parking brake, electromechanical power steering, daytime running lights, electric/heated door mirrors, ESP, dual front, side and curtain airbags, front/rear fog lights.
Others to consider
Ford Mondeo, Toyota Avensis, Mazda6, Opel Insignia, Peugeot 407, Renault Laguna, Skoda Superb, Citroen C5
Star Rating: 81 / 100