It's perverse, but the fact that people want large family hatchbacks like the Ford Mondeo a little less every year is making cars of this kind better. Rather than shopping for Mondeos, Vauxhall Vectras, Renault Lagunas and Peugeot 407s, buyers increasingly prefer upmarket equivalents such as the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C Class, or four-wheel-drives like the Land Rover Freelander and Honda CR-V. This has forced the makers of these fading mainstream models to build better cars, none more doggedly than Ford. This third iteration of the Mondeo - always a capable, well-rounded car - lifts the bar further with an impressive blend of space, civility, convenience and quality. And it continues the Mondeo tradition of being an excellent steer.
Its biggest problem remains its humble heritage - for all its virtues it's still a Ford, with all that this implies in terms of social standing. But the fact that it costs thousands less than the equivalent BMW 3 Series makes such objections easier to overlook. The Mondeo 2.0 TDCi 140 Zetec costs £18,395, for instance, whereas the BMW 320 is £24,235. The BMW wears the classier grille and projects a classier aura as a result, but the Ford is a handsome design that bears a striking resemblance to the popular and mildly more upmarket VW Passat. Which is no accident.
The new Mondeo has grown bigger, swelling width-wise by five inches, making it harder to place in your average urban parking bay. Inside, there's ample space up-front, almost lounging room in the rear and a capacious boot. Soft-touch plastics abound, lifted by splashes of aluminium that lend this cabin a quality aura; if it's not quite up there with a BMW cabin, neither is the price - and the difference in finish is not great.
On the road, the Ford often has the advantage. It's actually a pleasure to drive over demanding roads, its near-sporty handling and composure far better than you'd expect in a car of this kind. Its ride is above average for comfort, as are the seats. It's also quiet, especially at motorway cruising speeds. Acceleration is brisk when required but betrays that this engine is a diesel. But its distant clatter is not intrusive. Indeed, there's little to irritate in this car, so polished are its manners.
It's also decently equipped, the mid-range Zetec sampled here providing dual-zone air conditioning, sports seats, electric windows all round, seven airbags, anti-whiplash head restraints, a trip computer and a leather-bound wheel. You need add only satellite navigation for a very complete car - a bargain against its more upmarket competitors. This is one Ford that has the measure of a BMW for functionality and sophistication - and costs thousands less.
Ford Mondeo 2.0 TDCi 140 Zetec
Max power: 140 bhp
Max torque: 236 lb ft
Max speed: 130 mph
0-62 mph: 9.5 sec
Fuel consumption: 47.9 mpg
CO2 emissions: 156 g/km
BMW 320d ES £24,235
Mondeo beats this - bar the name, a higher-class cabin and quieter motor.
VW Passat 2.0 TDI 140 SE: £18,950
Much the same package as the Ford but without the driving enjoyment.
Richard Bremner is editor of the Clean Green Cars website - www.cleangreencars.co.uk.