But not all is lost. For a start, Ford's big car starts from a very good platform, as it has plenty of space, is well built and is a superb drive. Surely an improvement in interior materials, a new gearbox and some specification upgrades will give it more weight to its punch.
From the outside, changes to the Mondeo include a chrome grille, a new front bumper and revised front foglamps. The tail lights have been changed, albeit minimally, and there is some more chrome on the doors. Subtle would be the watchword here.
The changes to the inside are more obvious. Gone is the simplistic centre dash switchgear and stereo which looked like it was designed for toddlers to use, replaced by a more modern-looking set-up and a Sony stereo system. The Ghia model tested comes with a six-disc CD changer as standard.
There are also rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights as standard on Ghia models and Ford has re-introduced cruise control, which it had previously deleted as an option.
For the uprated 2004 model, Ford has added a six-speed gearbox in order to make the most of the TDCi engine's full spread of torque. The car we tested is not Euro IV-compliant yet though – they will arrive in October with marginally higher emissions at 159g/km and a combined fuel economy of 47.1mpg.
The gearbox is a big improvement, helping to flatten out that huge big dipper wave of torque that arrives in each gear and giving a much more linear, refined shove.
In a long run from the UK to Germany and back along motorway, autoroute and autobahn, the Mondeo's long sixth gear proved to be a useful ally. While there is not much of a surge if you push the accelerator hard, it will cruise happily at barely more than 2,000rpm at motorway speeds. The engine is relatively quiet for its sector and there is still plenty of performance in the lower gears should you need it.
We ran a long-term Mondeo Zetec S for a year until recently and its superb handling and cornering ability was frequently commented upon.
But it goes to show what a difference a couple of inches can make, as that model ran on 18-inch wheels and very low profile tyres. The Ghia model tested here was fitted with 16- inch 205/55s, and the first couple of roundabouts shocked me, such was the body roll and lack of feel through the steering wheel. Not the kind of Mondeo I've become used to.
That said, the ride was massively improved over the fidgety low profilers of the Zetec S, but a compromise, as we suspected with our long termer, would be tyres on 17-inch wheels.
As for the seats, no change there. They still fall away under your thighs, which doesn't feel quite right. Interestingly, after a five hour blast from Calais to Frankfurt, I got out feeling fresh and ache-free.
Ford Mondeo 2.0 TDCi 130 Ghia
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £18,590
CO2 emissions (g/km): 154
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 18%
Graduated VED rate: £135
Insurance group: 9
Combined mpg: 48.7
CAP Monitor residual value: £4,975/27%
Depreciation (12.78 pence per mile x 60,000): £13,056
Maintenance (1.79 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,398
Fuel (9.59 pence per mile x 60,000): £4,710
Wholelife cost (24.16 pence per mile x 60,000): £19,224
Typical contract hire rate: £374
Three rivals to consider
None of these cars is short on equipment – the Passat is probably the least laden of the lot and it still has six-CD player, climate control and sports suspension. The Avensis and the Mondeo both have rain-sensing wipers while the Ford gets automatic headlights and a heated windscreen. The Vectra is well-specced for the cheapest price, although the P11d value has to offset its high emissions. Sat-nav and traffic avoidance in the Avensis is the trump card.
All these cars are cheap to service and repair, costing about £1,300 over three years. The Passat squeaks ahead, proving that Volkswagens are not as expensive to service and maintain as some still believe. The Vectra is surprisingly the most expensive at 2.58ppm, making it a couple of hundred pounds more than the Passat, but the figures are so close to make very little difference in real terms.
Three of these cars are all the same on the combined fuel economy figure. However, in real world motoring the six-speed gearboxes will give the Mondeo and Passat a slight edge over the Avensis if a driver is doing a lot of motorway cruising. However, the Avensis is Euro IV-compliant and when Ford introduces its version, it will be returning 39.2mpg, which is way off. The Vectra loses out with its engine and would cost about £160 more in fuel over 60,000 miles.
None of these cars is particularly strong on depreciation. The Passat's value is starting to slip – a reflection of its age perhaps – losing nearly £12,000 over three years, while the Mondeo has the lowest residual value here at 27%, according to CAP Monitor, suggesting the revisions will have little effect on its second-hand price. The Avensis, the newest car here, retains a healthy 34%, while the Vectra loses less per mile than the Passat, despite a lower percentage prediction (29% against the VW's 31%).
The Mondeo cannot recover from its poor residual value prediction, despite competing in other areas. The Avensis is strong in all areas and would cost more than £2,000 less than the Mondeo over three years/60,000 miles. The Passat and Vectra are neck and neck and would cost about £18,000 in total in depreciation, servicing, maintenance and fuel. The Avensis would end up at just over £17,000 for the same period, representing a significant saving.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
The Avensis is yet again at the top of the table as it has a Euro IV-compliant engine and therefore forgoes the 3% benefit-in-kind supplement for diesel engines. It also has the second lowest P11d value here. For a 22% tax-payer, that means a bill of £589 this year, while the Mondeo costs £736, the Passat £729 and the Vectra £738. That is a resounding victory for the Avensis, although the competition will hot up once Ford brings its Euro IV engine out in October.
There is only one winner here and it doesn't take a fleet expert to spot it. The Avensis stands head and shoulders above the others. True, it has the advantage of being the newest car so Toyota can react to what the others are doing, but it is the first with a Euro IV engine and also the only one with satellite navigation as standard. However, if drivers want a car that handles well the Mondeo is best, and the revisions and extra equipment have given it a shot in the arm.
At a glance