Not so long ago, giving a company car driver a diesel was almost an insult. Being on the receiving end of one was akin to being given a ration book – such was the stigma of driving an 'economy' car.
Things have moved on since then and diesels now produced by French manufacturers and the Volkswagen Group, in particular, are refined, potent and economical. These new diesels are the key to modest fuel consumption, strong performance and, latterly, low benefit-in-kind tax liability.
And because of their strong performance, manufacturers think they can get away with marketing these cars with 'sporty' designations.
Step forward the Renault Laguna using a new 150bhp 2.2-litre common rail diesel. Choosing the Laguna in Dynamique trim, a fleet would pay just over £18,000. That brings it very close to the pseudo-sporty Ford Mondeo Zetec S powered by the 130bhp common rail 2.0TDCi engine.
Alternatively, there is the Volkswagen Passat 1.9TDI Sport, although clues to the car's performance potential are limited to a red DI in the TDI badge on the bootlid. It is also a four-door saloon, while the others are more versatile hatchbacks.
The biggest running cost for all three cars tested over three years/60,000 miles will be depreciation. CAP Monitor suggests that, in percentage terms at least, the Passat is slightly better than the Mondeo, which in turn is better than the Laguna.
However, with small variations in P11D prices favouring the Laguna over the Mondeo and the Passat, the Volkswagen's advantage is reduced. Our figures show that while the Passat still has the best depreciation record, costing 19.77p per mile over three years/60,000 miles, the Laguna comes within a penny at 20.65p, while the Mondeo lags in third place on 21.41p.
The Renault and Volkswagen also squeeze the Ford on service, maintenance and repair costs. With service intervals of 12,500 miles, the Mondeo costs 2.5p per mile, which sounds reasonable, but with 18,000-mile intervals, the Laguna costs 2.29p. The Passat is better still, with service intervals of up to 20,000 miles and a cost of 2.16p per mile.
Despite the Mondeo's extra cost in these areas, it still undercuts the Passat in the contract hire arena, with our sample rates giving it a £3 per month advantage. This suggests more support from Ford to help make the Mondeo more attractive to fleets. However, the Laguna seems to be receiving a higher level of support from Renault, with a £17 per month advantage over the Passat.
The Passat's impressive fuel consumption helps it maintain a convincing running cost advantage at 7.95p per mile. This is on a combined fuel consumption figure of 48.7mpg, but it is worth pointing out that on a 70-mile motorway run at a sensible 65-70mph, our test Passat had the trip computer showing a remarkable average of 61.7mpg at the end of the journey.
The Mondeo achieves a reasonable 45.6mpg, penalised slightly by the 18-inch wheels on the Zetec S model. A TDCi on smaller wheels has a combined fuel consumption figure of 47.9mpg – bear this in mind if fuel costs are a priority.
With 150bhp on tap, it is not surprising that the Laguna has the highest fuel consumption of the trio, although it is only just worse than the Mondeo on 44.9mpg. The emissions figures of these vehicles are reflected in the combined fuel consumption. The Passat is the lowest on 154g/km, making its driver's tax bill stable until 2004/05, when there will be a slight increase as the car moves up into the 19% benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax band.
The Laguna's P11D price advantage gives it the edge over the Mondeo in BIK tax for this year, but in 2003/04 the balance begins to swing in the Ford's favour.
This is because the Mondeo's lower BIK tax band compensates for its higher list price. The Renault also has a higher rate of vehicle excise duty than the other two by virtue of its higher carbon dioxide emissions, with an annual tax of £150, compared with £130 for the Volkswagen and Ford.
Ford Mondeo 2.0TDCi Zetec S
THE Ford Mondeo has had a 'honeymoon period' as the car with the best ride and handling in its class since launch in November 2000.
While that might soon be challenged by the Mazda6 and SRi and GSi versions of the new Vectra, the TDCi Zetec S has the measure of its two road test rivals here for ride comfort - and is streets ahead in terms of its handling prowess.
Put simply the Mondeo is a class act in terms of its steering response and cornering control, and trounces its two rivals on interior space – particularly in the rear. The TDCi engine does make its presence felt and heard when cold, but settles down nicely after a few minutes and is barely audible on the move. With a five-speed gearbox against six-speed rivals, the Mondeo doesn't feel quite as sprightly as the others, although its bursts of speed in the mid-range are both strong and smooth.
The Ford's interior is too solemn for some tastes, with black plastic in abundance, and although the quality appears better than in the Laguna, it is not a match for the Passat's sophisticated feeling materials. The styling changes for the Zetec S, which include small fog lights, a special front spoiler and skirts and its imposing 18-inch alloy wheels help set it apart from the run-of-the-mill versions.
Driving the Mondeo is always a joy, and the TDCi – at least until the introduction of the 3.0-litre ST220 – had been the pick of the range, offering a combination of smooth and refined performance with good fuel economy. The car is fun to hustle along country lanes and with the 18-inch wheels fitted to the Zetec S, it has an abundance of grip. It takes far longer for the Mondeo to let go at the front end and it is only unsettled under acceleration by the gushes of torque moving the front wheels. The Mondeo precisely communicates through the steering wheel about the activity of the front wheels and inspires a degree of confidence in the driver which is lacking in the other two cars.
Engine (cc): 1,998
Max power (bhp/rpm): 130/3,800
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 243/1,800
Max speed (mph): 124
0-62mph (sec): 9.9
Standard equipment: Quickclear front screen, electric windows and door mirrors, air conditioning, 18-inch alloy wheels, eight airbags, ABS with EBD and emergency braking assistance, electric height adjustable driver's seat, steering column mounted audio controls, height/reach adjustable wheel, CD/radio.
Renault Laguna 2.2dCi Dynamique
THE Laguna's main selling point has been its safety features which helped it become the first car to achieve a maximum five-star Euro NCAP rating for occupant protection.
It was also a pioneering car in terms of the technology it offered, and other manufacturers have seemed to follow.
It comes with keyless entry with a credit-card type piece of plastic that goes into a slot on the centre console. The car is then started or stopped with a button. However, it has still not been satisfactorily explained why the card set up is better than a key.
The Laguna also has tyre pressure monitors, automatic headlamps, electronic stabilisation programme (ESP), traction control and a trip computer.
Our test car's trip computer was a little out of sorts, showing a long-term average of 97.4mpg and a touring range of more than 600 miles on slightly less than half a tank of diesel.
The Laguna is a comfortable car in which to devour the motorway miles. Its six-speed gearbox has slightly longer gearing than the one used in the Passat, and its does the best job of the three cars in suppressing the diesel engine vibrations.
It purrs along at a lazy 2,000-and-something rpm at 70mph with barely a whisper from the engine and provides the most comfortable ride in our group.
It isn't the best to tackle country lanes in though and its front tyres always seemed to be the first to lose grip when pushed hard.
The Laguna also leaned from side to side as it carried speed through faster corners, with more body roll than the Mondeo and lifeless steering.
In spite of this the Laguna is a pleasant driving environment, with sports seats in the front and a reasonably roomy rear compartment. And although it would not be the first choice of the driving enthusiast, its ability to swallow great motorway distances without batting an eyelid should not be underrated.
Engine (cc): 2,188
Max power (bhp/rpm): 145/4,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 236/2,000
Max speed (mph): 135
0-62mph (sec): 9.8
Standard equipment: Keyless entry, CD/radio, air conditioning, electric windows and door mirrors, under-seat storage, 17-inch alloy wheels, height/reach adjustable steering, steering column mounted audio controls, ABS with EBD and emergency brake assistance, six airbags, tyre pressure monitor.
Volkswagen Passat 1.9TDI Sport
THE Volkswagen Passat still feels a class above the rest when it comes to build quality. Much as the other manufacturers have tried to catch up, they are still not quite there.
The materials the occupants come into direct contact with always feel like they are from a premium manufacturer rather than a volume maker and this will always make the Passat a pleasure to be in.
It isn't much fun to drive hard though. Its ride quality is fairly comfortable, but not quite at the level of the Laguna, while it rolls even more than the Renault when cornering hard.
Its 1.9-litre TDI engine feels the most responsive of the three, but the Passat shows its age with poorer noise insulation than the Mondeo and Laguna. When you put your foot down in the Passat you can really feel and hear the buzz of the engine. Its six-speed gearbox is slick and precise and the brakes feel positive and bring the car to a halt briskly.
The Passat is the most sober-looking of the trio, but now, more than six years after its launch, it still looks classy and while it doesn't match the hatchbacks for versatility, it does not seem to have harmed the Passat's popularity over the years.
As well as the standard equipment listed below, our test car also came with optional bi-xenon headlamps, curtain airbags, radio/navigation system, a parking sensor, solar powered sunroof (which also uses sunlight to power the ventilation while parked), insulated rear glass and double-glazed rear screen and a third rear three-point seatbelt.
Although the standard equipment list is generous, we feel that there should be steering wheel audio controls – as a safety aid – and side curtain airbags which are standard on the Laguna. The centre rear belt should be a three-point belt now as a matter of course, and fleet managers should demand it as standard on this class of car.
Engine (cc): 1,896
Max power (bhp/rpm): 130/4,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 228/1,900
Top speed (mph): 129
0-62mph (sec): 9.9
Standard equipment: ABS and electronic stabilisation programme, climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels, electric windows and mirrors, sports suspension, radio/cassette with CD autochanger, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rear view mirror, four airbags.
THE running costs argument favours the Passat over both the Laguna and the Mondeo, the Ford Seeming to take a distant third place. However, the situation changes when you look at how easy each car is to live with day-in, day-out.
The Mondeo will always be the favourite when your driving takes you away from the motorway.
Its ability to tackle B-road twists and turns in a fuss-free, yet involving fashion is unmatched in this test, and although the ride in the Zetec S is a little more unsettling than the standard car thanks to its 18-inch wheels, it will give no cause for complaint under most circumstances.
It offers more room for rear-seat passengers, while its 2.0 TDCi engine is as smooth as they come.
The Laguna offers the best balance of performance and refinement from its 2.2- litre dCi engine, giving it supreme cruising ability.
There is also an impressive level of standard equipment for the price, with features found on the options list of the other two cars.
The interior quality is not a match for the Mondeo or the Passat, but it is a pleasant driving environment and the Laguna is easily the best looking car of the three. A clear winner for whole life costs, the Passat is just not as desirable for the enthusiastic driver.
Although the level of equipment is generally very good, there are some disappointing omissions.
Its engine noise is more intrusive than the other two, but the Passat certainly does not lack straight line performance. And the Volkswagen badge is still more desirable than the blue oval or the Renault diamond.
Despite the extra expense the Fleet News recommendation goes to the Mondeo, because it is the best all rounder. As for the other two, we think the solidity of the Passat would make a more compelling choice than the design flair of the Laguna.