The Volkswagen Passat is VW's idea of what a family automobile ought to be like. And VW is pretty much on target.

The car is large enough to meet the utilitarian demands of family use, but sporty enough provide some spirited driving -- as long as the sedan is not expected to be a drag machine.

Introduced in 1990 as Volkswagen's first entry into the midsized family car market, the 1991 Passat GL in sedan and wagon form are updated versions of the initial offering. It also is has profited from aerodynamic form and function courtesy of much wind tunnel work.

The automobile is the recipient of an uncluttered wedge-shaped design that features softer sheet metal lines than has been the custom with VWs. This has reduced wind noise and improved fuel economy.

It also has resulted in a four-door that is a pretty good-looking car. There is a lot of rake to the front end. The body's flowing lines extend from front to rear. On balance, the sedan possesses a definite European atmosphere.

In operation, there are some Teutonic features, although this has been subdued a bit to cater to the preferences of American motorists. The Germanic influence is strongest in the firm, chair-height seats. Volkswagen believes this reduces fatigue. And there's the radio that doesn't turn off with the ignition key.

The principal objection to the radio is that if the sound is turned down, you may get out of the car and leave it on. You don't have to be a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to visualize what happens to the battery if the car is parked overnight or longer with the radio playing.

Some condescending to the domestic market has been made to the ride, which is balanced between soft and firm. The Passat GL sedan that Britt Killinger, sales manager for Giganti Volkswagen-Porsche-Audi-Lotus, provided for a test car had a quite decent ride. And it handled rippling pavement without everything in the passenger compartment being shaken up.

The car's 2.0-liter, 16-valve engine lost a little edge via an optional four-speed automatic transmission. But a family car is supposed to be easy and convenient to drive, and that's more achievable with an automatic than with a five-speed manual gearbox.

The controls in the test car were all located conveniently, and I'd say they had a hint of Americanization about them. Also, the Germans finally have given in and installed a tilt wheel in the car.

All this complements some added room Volkswagen has managed to build into a midsized four-door. The automaker done it for less than $15,000, but lets owners go from there. A well-equipped Passat will lie in the lower levels of the luxury class.