A mid-size marauder.

by Sue Mead

Base Price $22,365
As Tested $22,900

When the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique made their debut, there were only two criticisms: bland exterior styling and limited rear-seat leg room. And the complaints about tight rear seat space came primarily from the automotive press, as distinct from owners.

Nevertheless, Ford has addressed the roominess issue, as well as the exterior appearance, with a number of revisions that will be in Ford and Mercury showrooms this spring as 1998 models. And to add additional sizzle, there will also be a sportier edition of the Contour, called the SVT Contour.

We've been impressed with the performance of the V-6-powered versions of these small mid-size sedans since the beginning. But the SVT version turns the heat up even more, and is one of the hottest numbers in its class.

Since the updates to the mainstream members of the Contour/Mystique lineup entail only modest changes to all-around performance, we chose the SVT Contour as our test subject for this report.

Walkaround

Ford wanted a little more drama in the front of the Contour and Mystique, and we think their facelifts achieve exactly that, as well as more distinction between the two models.

With its wider, chrome-lipped grille opening and bigger headlights, the Contour's new front end is almost a carbon copy of the Ford Mondeo, its European cousin. The Mystique gets the same headlight treatment, but its enlarged waterfall grille creates a stronger family resemblance to other Lincoln-Mercury vehicles. We think both facelifts are attractive and effective.

Aside from the SVT, functional changes to the updated sedans are essentially refinements. The front suspension has been retuned for a more supple response to small bumps, the steering has been sharpened and the manual transmission shift linkage has been redesigned for more precise operation and feel.

Chassis and body dimensions remain about the same -- slightly smaller than a Honda Accord -- on a near-identical wheelbase.

Thanks to revisions to its intake and camshft timing systems, Ford has found five more horsepower in the standard 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine, which now generates 130 hp. Output of the 2.5-liter Duratec V-6 remains unchanged -- and plentiful -- at 170 hp. Both engines are offered with five-speed manual transmissions as standard equipment. A four-speed automatic is available as an $815 option.

The Duratec V6 is also the heart of the SVT version, but with an additional 25 hp -- 13 percent more peak power from an engine that already did a good job of generating impressive output from not much displacement. In fact, 76.6 hp per liter from a non-supercharged engine is one of the better performance figures in the business. We can only think of a couple engines at the small end of the spectrum that top the SVT version of the Duratec in the power-per-liter derby, both from Honda, both four-cylinders.

How'd they do that? Without getting into too much detail, the key elements are different cams with different timing, different pistons with a higher compression ratio, and extensive massaging of the intake system.

Considering the magnitude of the performance improvements, the Special Vehicle Team showed restraint with appearance items. The SVT Contour sports rocker panel extensions, a modestly restyled front fascia with round fog lamps, and 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels. Remarkably, the design team refrained from affixing a wing onto the rear decklid.

The Inside Story

Let's move right to the rear seat. By scooping out the front seatbacks and making subtle adjustments to the rear seat cushions, Ford has added almost two inches of legroom, gains that make it much more comfortable for two adults, though three is still a pinch.

Other interior improvements include refinements to the instrument panel, the addition of a tilt wheel feature and a new dual cupholder design up front. The first two refinements are welcome. The new cupholders, however, are too shallow and still don't work very well.

The basic dashboard is unchanged, flowing gracefully into the door panels, and the bucket front seats are first rate, with a wide range of adjustability, including height.

Our only criticism of the control layout continues to be the audio system buttons, which are still undersized and hard to operate when the car is moving.

The SVT Contour interior is distinguished by black-on-white gauges, SVT logos and dark blue leather upholstery. The package also includes an upgrade audio system, air conditioning, power mirrors, windows and locks, and antilock brakes, which are optional on the other Contour/Mystique models. And if you want an automatic transmission, you don't want this car; it's manual transmission only.

Ride & Drive

As impressive as the V-6-powered editions of the Contour and Mystique are, they seem a little tame compared to the SVT. In fact, this little honey should be able to run with some pretty tall dogs with pretty fancy pedigrees -- and fancy pricetags. Specifically, the BMW 328i and Audi A4 2.8 come to mind.

As you'd expect, adding 25 horsepower diminishes the length of time it takes you to get to 60 mph. Ford pegs it at 7.9 seconds, but we found this to be very conservative. About seven seconds is closer to the mark.

And if you're interested in seeing how fast you can cross Montana -- no posted daytime speed limits, y'know -- Ford says the Contour SVT will do 143 mph flat-out. We're willing to take this on faith, but it's clear that the SVT version of the Duratec V-6 loves high speed work, and it emits a lovely whiskey tenor snarl while so engaged.

Power is just one element in a package designed to compete with sporty Euro sedans, of course. Other requirements include the agility of a cheetah and the grip of a badger. Augmented, natch, by serious stopping power. Not to mention supple ride quality.

We think this car, like its tamer counterparts, scores very well in the ride/handling derby. Ford's Special Vehicle Engineering group -- the folks who spec out SVT hardware -- made a number of alterations in SVT'S suspension components to enhance response, without any readily apparent compromises in ride quality.

As a result, the SVT Contour is a significant cut above its regular production counterparts in a couple of key sport sedan areas: it turns into corners with zeal, and it's more balanced than the standard Contour and Mystique. You don't have to spend quite as much time waiting for the car to change directions, and there's a strong sense of sports car feel without sports car ride stiffness.

Adding braking power to match the extra thrust was simple. The development team dipped into the European parts bin and installed the bigger front brakes used on the Mondeo.

Final Word

With a price range that starts at $13,995, including destination, for a basic Contour, we think this slick sedan family offers good performance, quality and value right across the board.

And it's clear that for most, the V-6 versions will offer enough hustle and driving fun.

Nevertheless, for the truly young and restless, the SVT Contour is something special. It provides mainstream ride comfort with lots of equipment and all-around performance that's exceptional in this class.

After all, where is it written that a family sedan shouldn't be fun?

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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