But on performance, the Insignia has the ignominy of being both the most powerful and the slowest-accelerating car here. Its torque converter transmission seems to misplace a good 10 per cent of the engine’s power and won’t be hurried when delivering ratio changes. The transmission works better at a laid-back pace, but at all times the engine is relatively noisy, coarse and willing to return only about 40mpg in mixed use. Both the A3 and the S60 will approach 50mpg.
The S60’s eight-speed automatic gearbox seems to transmit drive more efficiently than the Insignia’s six-speeder. Its engine is much quieter and, in actuality, feels more potent.
It’s at its best managing shifts smoothly at busy-road cruising speeds – exactly how Volvo would want it, no doubt. But as with the Vauxhall, the Volvo’s powertrain feels a little clumsy when you hurry it, particularly away from a standstill.
Although it’s not an entirely fair comparison, the Audi’s punchy 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine and slick six-speed manual gearbox combinevery effectively. The most surprising thing about the A3 is how well it plays the zesty little sports saloon. Feeling not only fast but also responsive and even a little engaging, the Audi’s grippy, balanced chassis does it great credit.
Our test car had its S-line sports suspension deleted. Although firmly sprung and a little hollow-riding, it’s not without compliance. Its steering has a familiar lack of feedback, but there’s also consistency of weight and enough directness and response to involve.
The Insignia and S60, by contrast, both seek to reassure, cosset and couch. The bite of the Audi’s handling is substituted for high-speed stability, absorbency and isolation – to more convincing effect in the Vauxhall than the Volvo. Whereas the Insignia retains decent steering feel and a fairly fluent ride, the S60 steers with unnerving lightness and some traction-related directional interference. Worse, its ride feels wooden and heinously underdamped over bad surfaces traversed with anything but patience and caution.
The Mondeo and Passat
Into which melee enter the new Mondeo and Passat. Completeness and integrity gush forth from both debutants like crude from a freshly drilled oil well. Both are handsome objects, the Ford as newly curvaceous and coupé-like as the Volkswagen is smart, sharply cut and expensive-looking. You’d be proud to own either – possibly the Passat more so, on account of its visual class and the desirability conferred by its badge.
The Passat decimates the Mondeo on cabin ambience and quality. If it wasn’t so steadily conventional, it would give the A3 a run for its money, too. Its fascia is all brushed aluminium and gloss black punctuated by satin chrome, the effect convincing enough to outshine most premium options this side of a Mercedes-Benz C-class.
The Mondeo’s cabin leaves a bit to be desired. Its materials are plainer, the fit, finish and attention to detail on show are nowhere near as meticulous, its ergonomic layout isn’t as good and its multimedia system looks and feels much less sophisticated.
Occupant space is generous in both the Ford and the VW, with the Passat shading the contest here, too. The Ford hits back on usability, though, its liftback set-up making its 541 litres of boot space so much more accessible than the VW’s 586.
But value for money argues as hard for the Mondeo as apparent substance does for the Passat. There’s just over £3000 between the cars on list price – more when you correct for standard equipment. But the difference is greater still for the contract hire-paying company car driver. Our sources suggest that the Passat will set you back more than £380 a month on a typical three-year, 36,000-mile lease, whereas the equivalent Mondeo is opening for business at less than £320.