Class struggle - Alfa 159 v Peugeot 407 v Renault Laguna v VW Passat

Think European prestige and it's Benz, BMW and Audi that come to mind. The biggest reputations and the most badge cred make them a statement of success for many aspiring car buyers. Thankfully, as well as reputations, they build some decent cars, too.

Jostling behind the big three are a bunch of other Euro-brands trying to sell the same sort of message without managing the same panache or swagger. Pretenders to the throne, or maybe just pretenders altogether, they emerge from all corners of the continent eager for their slice of the premium cake. So, prompted by the arrival in Australia of Volkswagen's interesting Passat CC, we've assembled four of these would-be-if-they-could-bes together to judge their worth as bona fide buys for the upwardly mobile.

Alongside the VW there's the substantially new third-generation Renault Laguna released here mid-2008, the recently and significantly uprated Ti (for Turismo Internazionale) version of the Alfa Romeo 159, and the not-so-recently-revised-or-upgraded Peugeot 407.

Given the Pug has been around for some years and has never been near the top of the Wheels must-have list, you might be wondering why it lobs here. It was actually something of a ring-in. Originally, the Citroen C5 was targeted for this test, but lack of availability saw the 407, in an effort to retain the Gallic theme, get the call-up.

Talking of themes, what else do our test cars have in common apart from their continent of origin? Well, they all power their front wheels via intercooled turbo-diesel engines and all have at least four doors and four seats.

But the details separate them significantly. The Passat's CC name denotes it is a 'Comfort Coupe' in VW-speak - as opposed to the industry's generally accepted folding hard-top Coupe-Cabrio interpretation. The CC has a permanent roof, albeit much more svelte than the standard Passat, sacrificing some headroom and the centre-rear seat while retaining four doors. Its obvious inspiration (in all but pricing) is the Mercedes-Benz CLS.

The Laguna is the only hatchback here, while the Alfa and Peugeot offer the traditional three-box sedan body-style and five seats.

Under the bonnet the VW and Renault both employ 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines, the Alfa's 2.4-litre is a rare five-cylinder while the Peugeot gets the excellent 2.7-litre twin-turbo V6 co-developed with Ford. Transmissions are traditional six-speed torque converter autos for all bar the CC, which employs the VW Group's twin-clutch DSG.

The connection between our foursome stretches almost to breaking point when pricing is considered. The top-spec Laguna Privilege is the cheapest car here at $49,990, the VW $5000 more expensive at $54,990, while both the 407 SV and 159 Ti are $62,990.

That money delivers some common ground on equipment. Everything gets front, side and curtain airbags, ESP, leather trim, dual climate control, parking sensors and heated front seats (in the rear as well in the Passat), while only the Alfa misses out on xenon headlights. The Peugeot and VW have electronically adjustable suspension dampers, the 159 and 407 a driver's knee airbag. The VW alone comes with Continental puncture-resistant tyres (but retains a full-size spare anyway).

But the really big ticket items like sat-nav are noticeably optional or absent altogether. So value for money? Well, the Alfa looks worth every cent just standing there finished in fiery red and riding on 19-inch wheels housing red Brembo brake calipers. It looks like it has just blat-blatted its way into pitlane. All that's missing is the Nomex and leggy brunette, and it's the sort of car that would attract the latter pretty quickly...

Meanwhile, even at $13,000 less, the Renault looks over-priced. Its shape is anodyne, its long front overhang out-of-sorts with its chopped rear-end. Even riding on 18-inch wheels the Laguna still looks underdone. There's no sense of aspiration here, it looks like a fleet car dressed up - which in effect it is.

The 407 has similar issues. Its derriere rides too high, the gaping grille dominates the long nose and there are gaps between tyres and guards Zinedine Zidane would stroll through. The overall shape is somewhat more pleasing than the Renault, but is it really $12,000 better?

The CC is clearly the most elegant shape. Its chiselled body is adorned by a roof that travels in an almost continuous-radius arc from the bottom of the A-pillar to the end of the boot. The details are sweet; from its prominent chromed snout, through to the frameless windows and upswept and perfectly integrated lip spoiler.

Inside it's equally well-resolved. There are new-design sunken gauges that glow white rather than trad VW-blue, a chunky, nice-to-hold steering wheel and a dashboard swathed in a broad band of brushed aluminium with a large touch screen at its centre. The impression is that the only cheap thing here is the price.

And yet for sheer interior cohesion the Laguna outdoes it. Dowdy as a dustbin outside, it's bright, shapely, minimalist and contemporary inside. Controls are grouped sensibly, the materials are quality and look good. No touch screens, no mouse controllers and no button forest.

The 407 doesn't manage the same internal salvation. There's a clumsy stepped dashboard and a profusion of indiscriminately laid out buttons festooning a centre stack backed in plastic that would look cheap in a 207. There are luxuries, like the notably pliant seats and powered steering-wheel reach and rake control, but the Peugeot - unsurprisingly - feels and looks the most aged here.

Step from the 407 to the 159 and the difference between tired and traditional becomes obvious. The driver-centric dash, the three air-con vents set in the centre stack, the three ancillary gauges, the Momo-esque steering wheel with black leather and red stitching, the deeply bolstered sports seats. It's been renovated for this Ti upgrade, but there's a familiarity here that works, and the bits that don't ... well (shrug), it's an Alfa.

Trouble is, there's been a lot of shrugging and justifying in recent years because Alfa's a sporting brand that hasn't been able to deliver convincingly sporting cars. But the Ti is more than a look. Alfa has recognised the need for improvement and there's been a concerted effort to lose weight, revive and refine the suspension and boost the engine's performance with more power and flexibility.

And it works. The 159 is far and away the driver's car of this group. If a feeling of connection through hands, feet and seat is what you seek, then the Alfa is for you. But be warned, that connection is unstinting and not always enjoyable: it crystallises in the roar of the Pirelli P Zeros and the guttural clatter of the big five-cylinder oiler.

The engine's combination with the Q-Tronic auto (another target of this update) is usually seamless and there's only the occasional stumble or laggardly thought before action. The raw acceleration figures are nothing special, but the response, courtesy of 400Nm between about 2000 and 4000rpm, certainly is. This is a car better at conquering cross-country trips than, as we learned, country airstrips.

There's a dynamic balance that nothing else here achieves. The 235/40ZR19s grip surely, there's quick and light hydraulic steering, and a feeling of confidence that extends deep into the geometry and tune. There's precious little tram-lining over rough surfaces or under brakes. Nor does the steering wheel buck and kick in the hands, or the ride on the 20mm lowered suspension prove unnecessarily harsh. This latter achievement is perhaps the most impressive of all because it means the Ti is not only liveable as a day-to-day proposition, it's enjoyable. That's with the rider of an excessive turning circle, something all these FWD cars share.

Impressively, the Alfa Romeo's reshaped rear seat and headlining have delivered much-improved space for rear-seat passengers as well. The interior still offers few storage options, but suddenly the 159 is fulfilling its true potential.

If the Alfa sounds too alpha male then it's the 407 that best represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Put aside the dumpy looks, the underdone interior and the high price and you're left with a terrific drivetrain, a well-contained level of NVH and even a refined level of chassis behaviour ... provided you press the right button.

Left to its own devices in 'Auto' mode, the 407's nine-setting active dampers are disconcertingly disconnected from each other and the body. They might be reading the road and the driver's input but they always seem to be a few pages behind the action. However, flick to 'Sport' and behaviour improves significantly. The whole act tightens up cohesively, without becoming uncomfortable or much noisier. There is a slight sacrifice in slow-speed comfort around town but it's worth making.

And the engine is simply a great performer, 440Nm ensuring it offers response levels similar to the Alfa despite weighing in more than 200kg heavier. And it is without peer here when it comes to smoothness and quietness. No doubt, it's the car's greatest strength. Pity the same can't be said for the 407's interior space. For such a big car it's too tight in the back seat and it also lacks storage options.

The Laguna is 407-Lite, and that's not only in terms of kerb weight. The smaller engine has to work harder to provide less performance and is noisier. Despite a petrol-esque 5200rpm redline, the Laguna is a plodder at the test track. On the road it feels far better, but is still the obvious tail-ender here, a result not helped by hesitant transmission response in the lower gears.

The same applies to the Laguna's dynamics. There's little steering feel but plenty of ugly kickback, a tendency to slide gracelessly into understeer when pushed and virtually no evidence of damper tuning sensitivity. For rear-seat passengers the experience is made that much harsher because the Laguna is the only car here to use a torsion beam rear suspension. Add in a rock-hard seat and a lack of headroom (due in part to the optional panorama sunroof) and no-one was rushing for the Renault.

Which leaves the CC. Expectations are raised by its svelte image, but those Passat mechanicals deliver a drive experience which isn't quite so refined.

The engine is a beaut for its size, beaten only by the 407's V6 for refinement. And in terms of real world performance, it isn't as far off the Pug or Alfa as the raw numbers suggest. At the same time it easily undercuts them for economy, as well as besting the Renault. The 9.5L/100km test average sounds high for a diesel, but the figures reflect a lot of city and performance driving and few opportunities for the engine to lope along a freeway.

No doubt the DSG aided both performance and economy. It was also the most enjoyable transmission to operate manually thanks to its fast, precise shifts. Surprisingly, though, it would change up at redline, leaving only the Alfa to bang away on the limiter if you so choose. Left to its own devices there were some of the usual DSG foibles; the tendency to accelerate violently when overcoming lag and taking off and the occasional lurch when changing down through the gears.

But it was in the suspension tune where the CC drew most criticism. In 'comfort' mode the adaptive dampers provided an acceptable ride up-front but the worst ride of all four cars in the back. Switch to 'sport' and the dynamic improvements were far outweighed by the increase in harshness. For such a svelte, smoothly shaped car this lumpiness is a significant disappointment.

A shame, because the CC belies its compromised roofline by providing decent space in the rear, along with the highest degree of user-friendliness thanks to plenty of cubbies and a large boot with a split-fold rear seat.

So it comes down to a choice between VW and Alfa. The CC is a great image car, is well equipped and is offered at a good price, but suffers from a compromised chassis. The 159 Ti is now a significantly improved mechanical package and is beautiful to behold. But it is expensive.

The flint-hearted pragmatist would give the silverware to the CC, but this is Wheels, a place where driving purity and soul counts for much. And the 159 undoubtedly stirs the blood unlike anything else here. It's the one for drivers. The VW runs it close, but lacks passion; the Pug is for cruisers and the Laguna for very, very few.

While there's no doubt that Benz, BMW and Audi are safe on their premium pedestals for the time being, the Alfa will deservedly seduce and inspire the romantics among us.

Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.

Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!