All cars have an emotional component, but some are harder to define than others. Not so Ford's SVT Contour. It may be American, but it drives like a European sports sedan.This mid-size four-door from Ford's motoring boutique beckons with a sweet-revving V6, delightful gearchange and the character of a European sports sedan. And it does so with a base price of $22,900, thousands less than its competitors from BMW and Audi. Earlier this year I drove an SVT for part of a day and was captivated by its over-the-road skills during a banzai trip through the vast nothingness of Death Valley. But what's it like in the real world of work commutes and trips to the grocery? Since it is built at the Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, we asked Ford to let us be foster parents for three months or so to see how it measures up in real life compared with a lively morning in the desert. Now we have a red one temporarily in our garage (black and silver are the other two colors). After experiencing such a high back in March, I figured the mornings after would be quite a letdown, but it has not been so to this point. Even after a couple of weeks with the test car, I tingle with anticipation every time I key its V6 to life. The combination of a rev-happy engine and a slick-shifting gearbox makes it a joy to work through the gears and reminds me of how I felt about my 1984 Volkswagen GTI. A quick stab of the throttle brings giggles from the exhaust as the engine leaps to its task, hitting 60 mph in 7.9 seconds. Believe it or not, this little car has a top track speed of 143 mph. Impressive, indeed, especially if it will actually do it. It also feels a lot like a baby SHO Taurus, but it handles better. It is smaller, too, which is a drawback to those looking for a family hauler. More about that later. The Special Vehicle Team (SVT), a small group of performance enthusiasts clustered inside Ford Motor Co., turn production cars into machines that will satisfy serious driving enthusiasts. Besides the Contour, they also build coupe and convertible versions of the Mustang Cobra. SVT volume is small to ensure exclusivity and because they appeal to a niche market. They plan to build about 5,000 SVT Contours. How is the SVT different from a Contour SE? The interior gets fat, thickly padded leather seats and white-faced instrumentation. The only interior color is dark blue. Looking at the exterior, you might think that most of the modifications are cosmetic, but in fact just the opposite is true. The lower front spoiler with fog lights, side skirts and deeper rear valance are only the tip of the iceberg. The best part is what you can't see, like more horsepower, bigger brakes, tighter handling, grippy seats and the ability to charge down bumpy roads without losing grip. The 2.5-liter Duratec engine is a gem in its own right, but SVT's modifications make it world class. Horsepower jumps to 195, thanks to a lighte r flywheel, larger throttle body, conical air filter, larger radiator, oil cooler and higher compression pistons. Its 76.6 horsepower-per-liter output is the highest of any engine manufactured in North America. Not only does it zip through the gears, but it pulls authoritatively in high gear on the highway. On our first road trip, a cross-state outing to St. Louis, it hammered along at an impressive rate and got 25 mpg. The engine has ample power for passing without having to shift down to fourth. The tight suspension and fat, 16-inch tires have impressive grip, yet don't pound the passengers with a punishing ride on a choppy highway. The compliant ride is very European. Ultimate handling may lack a little, but short of high-speed thrashes on a racetrack, the SVT is very self-assured when the road gets twisty. There are some things I didn't like: The headlights need a better pattern, especially on low beams. Brighter lights would be even better. The back seat, although it now has nearly two more inches of kneeroom than before, is still snug for a family car. The radio is fairly cryptic to use, although once you have it figured out it is not too bad. The folks at SVT acknowledge the problem but say they would rather put the money into other areas at this time and hold the price down. The bottom seat cushion is just not wide enough. I got a cramp in my knee after four hours at the wheel. Some good things: The ventilated disc brakes stop straight and true. Anti-lock is standard. The split-folding rear seat has release handles in the trunk so you don't have to crawl inside to unlatch. Steering is light, direct and immediate. The thick, leather-wrapped wheel feels good. Wire mesh is used inside the grille and openings in the front and rear spoiler, which gives a subtle hot rod look. The bigger front headlights and oval grille brighten up the car's face considerably. Well, that's it for the first couple weeks. We'll check back in the fall to let you know how things are going. There are only 700 authorized SVT dealers. To find the dealer nearest to you call 1-800-FORD-SVT. Price The base price is $22,900. Our test car was equipped with a power moonroof and compact disc player, bringing its sticker price to $23,635. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: A great engine, smooth shifting and excellent road holding make the SVT Contour a delight for the enthusiast driver. It is priced right too. Counterpoint: A complicated radio, narrow front seat cushions and headlights that could be better are my main complaints.
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