Ford officials must be absolutely stunned at the chilly reception the new Ford Contour and its sibling, the Mercury Mystique, have received since arriving in showrooms last fall. After a weeklong test drive of the Contour - and last year's test of a Mystique - I'm convinced these two all-new cars are far and away the best automobiles Ford has ever built. But U.S. buyers have not warmed up to them. Inventories are bloated and the factory is scaling back production. Across the pond in Europe, where the Contour/Mystique is sold as the Ford Mondeo, the opposite is happening. Production has been increased to meet heavy demand for the vehicle. Through January, Ford has sold 679,617 Mondeos since the car first went on sale there two years ago. So what gives? First, some auto analysts have speculated that there may be some confusion about the Contour/Mystique in relation to the discontinued Tempo/Topaz. Ford officials will tell you that the Contour and Mystique are not replacements for the Tempo and Topaz. The new cars are completely different from the ground up, engines and all. And they carry a far higher price tag than the Tempo and Topaz. Price might be a big part of the problem. Ford has been advertising the Contour and Mystique as having prices starting in the $14,000 to $15,000 range, but until very recently the factory has only been building fully loaded cars - models that sticker out at $20,000 or more. Potential buyers who show up at the dealer expecting a $14,000 Contour or Mystique leave disappointed. Twenty-grand prices former Tempo/Topaz buyers out of the market and steers others to the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, two larger cars that can be bought or leased for less than the Contour/Mystique. In other words, Ford has more problems than a calculus book. That's why it's probably the best time to negotiate a deal for either the Contour or the Mystique. In the fall, an all-new and more expensive Taurus and Sable will be out, and Ford's pricing problems likely will be solved. By that time Contour and Mystique inventories probably will be under control, and Ford will have a more balanced mix of cars available. Also, there will be less pressure on Ford to move out cars that have been sitting around. If you are interested in a Honda Accord/Mazda 626/Nissan Altima/Mitsubishi Galant-type car, this is your chance to take advantage of Ford's marketing blunders. PERFORMANCE The Contour is available with either a 2.0-liter, 125-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with 16 valves or a 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower V-6with 24 valves. Both engines can be ordered with either a four-speed automatic transmission or a five-speed manual. Our test car was outfitted with the drivetrain that performance-oriented drivers likely would buy - the V-6 and five-speed. One enthusiast magazine tested a car similar to ours and logged a 0-to-60 mph time of 7.4 seconds. Those numb ers place the Contour at the head of its class. From the minute you twist the key, you realize that Ford engineers met the challenge to do their best work on the Contour. The V-6 engine is impeccably smooth, quiet and powerful. It pulls strongly from a stop and delivers a solid burst of power all the way up to its 6,500 rpm red line. Ford says the V-6, which it calls Duratec (short for durable technology), can go 100,000 miles without needing anything more than regular oil and filter changes. The manual transmission in our test car made the vehicle fun to drive. The clutch was smooth and easy to operate, and the shifter clicked cleanly into each gear. The shift lever has a small round spring-loaded button that you must pull up before you can shift into reverse. This item, called a lockout, is not a new idea, but it is one I don't see on many new cars. It's an excellent feature that prevents you from accidentally moving the lever into reverse. Because t e Contour's V-6 is so strong, you find that you don't have to shift quite a s often as you might in other cars. The Contour can easily accelerate without lugging at slow speeds. Several times I left the transmission in third gear while going 20 mph, and each time the car galloped back up to speed. All in all, the V-6-equipped Contour runs with the finesse and refinement of a Lincoln. HANDLING There is no doubt that the Contour's powerful and refined drivetrain is impressive. But I think Ford engineers really set the standard for compacts with the Contour's superb four-wheel independent suspension system, strong power-assisted, four-wheel disc brakes and precise rack-and-pinion steering. This sedan is an absolute joy to drive - if you like a firm and sporty BMW-like ride. Our Contour LX, the middle-of-the-line model, rode and handled like a four-door sports car. No curve I could find (and I know of some good ones around here) proved too much for the Contour to handle. In emergency maneuvers, such as an abrupt turn, the Contour's fat, 14-inch tires won't squeal and the car's body will not lean. This helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle under duress. Also, there's no play in the steering system. The Contour responds to your desires almost as if it is connected to your brain. One minor twitch of the wheel, for example, is all it takes to change lanes. On V-6-equipped cars, four-wheel disc brakes are standard. The Contour's ($800) optional anti-lock brakes haul the car to a stop effortlessly. Traction control comes standard with the ABS brakes. When the ABS system kicks in you don't feel much characteristic pulsating at the pedal; the car stops in a straight line. However, the traction control system felt a bit touchy. Sometimes while I was driving around a corner and accelerating, the system would engage even though it didn't feel as if either front wheel was losing traction. In any case, these two safety features are worthwhile additions. The Contour is very quiet over the road. You don't hear much except the tires rolling over the pavement. FIT AND FINISH I can't recall a Ford vehicle that felt as tightly assembled as the Contour. By nearly any standard of measure, this is a quality vehicle. From the smoothly applied, glossy paint to the tight-fitting interior and exterior panels, the Contour has Germanic built-to-last feel. There are, however, a few switches and buttons that seem poorly placed. Our test car came with power that moved the seat up and down as well back and forth. However, the switch for the seats is on the lower left portion of the seat frame. It's a bit awkward to reach. Thankfully, the seat is not something that one adjusts every day. The rear bench seatbacks can be folded forward to allow large items to fit inside the car. However, the seatback releases for the rear seats - there's one on either side - ar e inside the trunk and hard to reach. Otherwise, the interior - aside from being a bit snug - is stylish, cleanly designed and attractive. The cloth-covered bucket seats in our test car were exceptionally comfortable on long trips, though some may find them a bit firm. From the outside the Contour looks similar to a Mazda 626 or a Nissan Altima, but on the inside it is unique. The Contour comes with an easy-to-read set of white-on-black analog gauges. The dash is a curvaceous piece of architecture that gives the Contour a bit of character and style. Interior room has been one of the major complaints. Rear legroom and foot room is tight. Our sunroof-equipped car also didn't have much headroom. Still, when it comes to details, the Contour is a winner. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is thickly padded, and it feels great. All the important switches are lighted and easy to find at night. Our car came with radio-controlled door locks and built-in fogli hts, two classy features for a compact. In more than 350 miles I didn't hear one untoward noise, and all the car's accessories functioned perfectly. The only item that our test car didn't have was a tilt steering wheel. If you are interested in a V-6-powered car the size of a Honda Accord, make sure to add the Ford Contour and its close relative, the Mercury Mystique, to your list of cars to test-drive. Truett's tip: In terms of mechanical refinement, handling and quality, the Ford Contour is probably the best vehicle in its class. However, the interior is a bit snug, and the sticker price is likely to cause a severe jolt.
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