In a way it was good that a family crisis kept me away from the Irish launch of the new Volkswagen Passat, in the Powerscourt Hotel, at the beginning of the month. My colleague, cub reporter Martin Brennan, was a more than adequate stand-in and his report is here on the right. The test car therefore came new to me, without the PR and marketing hype from the launch night, some of which would have been delivered by Paddy Comyn, son of the previous incumbent of this page, and who has often gone hunting with me and his pet stoat.
Gosh, the new Passat has gone up-market. I always liked following the old Passat, which once had the best rear in the business. The new car, while being slightly shorter overall, is bigger inside, looks trimmer and much sharper all round. The interior leaves the new Mondeo in the halfpenny place.
While changes to the car's weight, lower centre of gravity and traction have made it a better drive - faster and more agile - the snow and ice that was threatening when we went into the Dublin mountains last weekend meant I would have preferred the Mondeo's pure, confident driveability. Also, the hatchback big Ford is more practical for load lugging than the, admittedly, big-booted Passat.
The very upright chair - more of a throne, really - which I had to deliver over Christmas to someone who had broken their hip, wouldn't have had a chance in the Passat. That said, the interior of the VW is closer to the upmarket, premium marque cars from which it hopes to take sales. The general impression across all departments is of a car trying to stake a claim to a place at the high table.
Whether it can, while still being called a Passat, is a different matter. It takes a leap of faith to imagine the conversation between three buckeroos, one of whom is boasting of his BMW, while another tells of his Audi and the third trumping them all with talk of his brilliant Volkswagen Passat. Volvo yes, VW hmm.
Yet the car I was driving had an on-the-road price of €40,146. Of course, it had the Highline spec, was powered by a 2.0 TDi 150HP and came with a navigation system, sports pack, metallic paint and high-beam control, which added €4,636 to the normal €35,510. Like the top-of-the-range Mondeo I was driving over Christmas, this was very heady stuff but on the other hand it is very easy to buy a Golf that costs well into the middle €30ks.
However, once bought, very low emissions and outstanding fuel economy across the range makes the eighth-generation Passat very easy on the pocket.
The car is very important to VW, as around one million Passats, in all its guises, are sold every year. Safety packages on the new model are really first rate.
It isn't just about Passat v Mondeo, or Passat's premium pretensions. Cars like the Opel Insignia, Hyundai i40 and Mazda 6 are very important players. Yet for all their massive specifications, greater economy and improved handling I felt that the VW and Ford models were like two old jewel-encrusted prize fighters slugging it out. They were both great but I have driven more interesting and better value cars - both bigger and smaller, more expensive and cheaper than them. You can too.
Strangely, a glass of the new Dingle gin after I had taken Sam for a walk the other night put it all in perspective. There is a touch of wildness and adventure, even poitin, about that new spirit.
The Passats and Mondeo will fill the corporate car parks, but they won't make you feel special. And after spending more than €40,000, you deserve to.