Volkswagen Passat, which already has raised the bar for mid-priced, mid-sized family sedans, now throws down another challenge: all-wheel drive.

Sure, the all-wheel Subaru Legacy is out there, especially its lively GT model. But VW's new 4Motion system is something else again, providing a strong performance edge to the already sure-footed Passat, as well as making it amenable to winter drives into snow country.

None of Passat's strongest rivals - Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Ford Taurus - come with anything but front-wheel drive, leaving the four-wheeling to their brands' truck and SUV models. All-wheel drive was tried on sporty Japanese models such as Mazda MX-6 and Toyota Celica, but the systems were never big sellers and therefore short lived.

Passat's 4Motion system arrived this spring. Comparisons to upscale sibling Audi and its pioneering Quattro system are obvious since Passat offers many of the same attributes. Available on both the GLS and high-end GLX model, but only with the free-revving V-6 engine, 4Motion is a seamless addition, unnoticed most of the time, even when it's electronically compensating during acceleration and cornering.

Try zipping through a sweeping corner under acceleration, and you can feel the system work, shifting power side-to-side, fore and aft. Instead of the usual front-wheel-drive scrabbling and understeer, the 4Motion Passat digs in and seems to lean into the curve, the rear wheels grabbing and pushing it through with balance and predictable handling.

In the test car, 4Motion is a pricey addition to an already pricey version of the Passat, dangerously crossing the $30,000 threshold, treading close to Audi territory. But for those who want the extra handling edge plus the snow-going capabilities, it could be a reasonable alternative to an expensive SUV. The system is also available on the Passat wagon.

Aside from 4Motion, Passat remains my favorite of the moderately priced sedans. Beautifully styled and nicely finished with responsive steering and excellent handling, Passat has carved a niche that appeals to drivers who want something more than look-alike sedans that may be high on quality, but low on panache. Passat is priced higher than the Accord-Camry-Taurus crowd but still a bargain compared with the smaller models of Mercedes-Benz, Volvo or BMW.

Passat shares its platform with the Audi A4, a richer and sportier sedan, and the pedigree shows in the VW's quiet ride and fine road manners. Softer than the Audi, with more body sway, it's still a good compromise for those who need a family sedan but still want to enjoy the drive.

The interior is nicely finished in VW's solid, utilitarian fashion with excellent seats and a well-organized, attractive dashboard. Passat is fairly roomy, though the sloping rear window steals from rear-seat headroom. The cupholders remain surprisingly cheesy and ineffective. The Monsoon s tereo sounds great, but the switches and buttons are a bit hard to manipulate.

The test car, already a fully loaded GLX, included only two options: the 4Motion system and a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission.

The GLS Passat, with prices starting at $21,450, has a standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine that churns out 150 horsepower, which is plenty for most purposes.

Volkswagen Passat GLX 4Motion

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, all-wheel drive.

Base price: $27,655.

Price as tested: $30,905.

Engine: 2.8-liter V-6, 190 hp at 6,000 rpm, 206 lb-ft. of torque at 3,200 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Curb weight: 3,502 lbs.

Wheelbase: 106.4 inches.

EPA mileage: 17 city, 24 highway.

Highs:
• Responsive handling.
• Solid, quality feel.
• Sharp st yling.

Lows:
• Cheesy cup holders.
• Difficult stereo controls.
• High price tag.