It's official: saloon cars are kaput. Think of them as cardigans. As worn by Victor Meldrew, not Sarah Jessica Parker.
Poor Volkswagen then? This summer, it launches the sixth Passat, a badge that's successfully glued 13 million bums onto VW driving seats. Its market, however, is wilting. Many buyers are jumping ship for softroaders and people carriers and VW admits that a flat-lining sales graph would be an achievement.
So if the Passat isn't going to be the VW Pass¯¿½, it has to be sharp. The previous car was the saloon's answer to the Labrador: solid, reliable, great with the kids but dull. And this one? Briefed to out-schmooze such repmobiles as Vauxhall's Vectra and Ford's Mondeo, it aims to loosen business collars and sex things up, its mission being to lure buyers who drool over the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz's C Class.
Check the sweeteners. All versions get an electronic stability system, snazzy LED rear light clusters, clever front headrests that cushion your head in an impact and - kiss goodbye to car park blushes! - a push-button parking brake which automatically unlocks as you move away. Reach for extras and you'll find his and hers climate controls, headlamps that search into the curve of the road ahead, cruise control that backs off when a mid-lane goon pulls into your path and a Dynaudio stereo that's beefier than Desperate Dan's lunch box.
Couture, however, is more important than contents. So VW wisely borrowed cues from its ¯¿½70k limo VW Phaeton, while the cherry on the design cake is a supersize grille that, apparently, signals the company's new face. It all looks fab.
Behind the wheel, the first change you'll notice is how taut and precise the steering feels. This model is, apparently, more than half as rigidly screwed together as its predecessor. So you have a velvet ride Lexus engineers would be proud of. Of course, this is no nifty hatchback but it's keen to grapple with a sharp bend, emerging unflustered (even if a touch more side support on the driving seat base wouldn't go amiss). A Mondeo slayer, then? Jump from this into the Ford and you'll find the Ford altogether more engaging. In their quest for polish and refinement, the Passat feels slightly aloof and removed from the road.
Four engine choices are initially available and the ¯¿½19,500 2.0TDI SE, as tested here, wins hands down. Against it, the wheedling 1.6-litre FSI petrol struggles like a shrew pulling a wheelbarrow, while the 1.9-litre turbodiesel, though better, lacks the bigger diesel's ease and finesse. And with a respectable 47mpg average, the TDI makes the 2.0-litre petrol look like a very silly choice. The 'plus-minus' gated auto DSG box adds ¯¿½1,000 to the price, but changes quicker than the manual, reaching 60mph in a respectable 9.8 seconds.
So is this Passat's swan-song? Hold the obits page just for now. For style and substance, the latest incarnation shows how good saloons can be. And given the whim of fashion, everything comes around again eventually. Just ask those cardigan manufacturers.