The 2001.5 Volkswagen Passat awaits. I open the door and slide inside. Umm. Nice leather. More than enough legroom. And what's this? A swing-down center console with a pop-top for storage and a pair of cupholders. Nice little lights over each door that go on with the door but can also be controlled with a rocker switch. Two audio speakers in each door. Storage pockets. No searching for the seat belts and buckles. Nice grab handle to ease entry and egress. And this is the back seat! This car is earning checkmarks right down the line, and I haven't even sat behind the wheel.

VW says it made some 2,300 changes for this midyear change of model, and, not only did it hit the bull's-eye, it managed to make the total far more than the sum of those changes.

The Passat is more than a winner. It is at the forefront of midpriced modern automotive design and arguably the best value on the market for under $30,000. I love Maximas and Accords, and own a Camry; however, I'd put this Passat in my driveway in a heartbeat. Our last car of choice in this price range was the Acura 3.2 TL. It's been my standard for comparisons for two years now. The Passat just took over that parking space of the mind.

After I got out of the back seat, I checked the trunk. Wide and roomy, with a stainless-steel lip protecting the bottom edge and a big handle to access the full-size spare (with matching alloy rim). A strange thought crosses my mind. The combination of trunk space and rear-seat legroom would make this a wonderful taxi.

A look under the hood doesn't reveal much - everything is shrouded, in Audi and BMW fashion. The oil dipstick and windshield washer and brake fluid containers are readily accessible. But there are two neat touches: When you pop the hood release from inside, the secondary latch handle pops out from under the hood lip. No blind groping before actually lifting the hood. And, there is a stainless-steel hydraulic cylinder that holds the hood up.

OK. Time to slide into the seat - the driver's seat this time. This Passat is a top-of-the-line GLX sedan with the 2.8-liter, 30-valve V-6 engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. It was front wheel drive with both an antislip reduction system and standard traction control tied into the antilock brake system. 4Motion all-wheel drive and automatic will cost you $3,000 and push the price tag to about $32,000.

The V6 puts out 190 horsepower and 206 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,200 rpm. It is nicely responsive for all driving needs including highway passing, on-ramp acceleration, and climbing big hills with four adults aboard.

Rear-seat passengers uniformly approved of the ride, the room, the sound system, the looks, and performance of this VW.

A year ago, I had the opportunity to drive the last Passat - a V-6, automatic with VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system.

The difference is startling. This VW is more rigid (built on an extended Audi A4 platform) and the suspension and balance push the handling toward BMW land.

The five-speed is smooth and quick with a nice, long, pull in first gear. The rack-and-pinion steering is as quick and smooth as you could want, and the suspension was equally at home on corner, highways and our rutted, pothole-strewn roadways. Inside, there is a cornucopia of amenities. It's easier to note what isn't there - navigation system, heated steering wheel. The only options are automatic transmission, single or 6-disc dealer-installed CD player and specialty metallic paint.

This VW acquitted itself nicely during our late-winter, early-spring snows and late-night slippery driving.

VW's red-and-blue dash display takes some getting used to, but it's consistent across the dash and even to the lighted controls on the armrest. Digital clock, outside temperature, onboard computer. It's all there.

And, if you're not driving, the back seat isn't a bad place to be riding, either.

Likes:Interior room. There's plen everyone, plus storage.

Annoyances:It took some searching to find one. It got noisy driving wit.