As I stood in the darkened shopping center parking lot waiting for the truck driver to load the red SVT Contour into his covered transporter for its final trip back to Detroit, I felt like a dad sending his kid off to college. Only the Contour wouldn’t come back.
Ford agreed to an extended-use evaluation of the car because living with one reveals much more than a week-long test drive. Its tenure in our household had expired, and it was heading back to the motor city where it would be scrapped. That’s right, a perfectly good automobile had come to the end of its line. This specific car, a hand-assembled prototype, built before actual production had begun, was not a “real” car and destined to have a limited life span.
Did it represent a regular production car? If anything, it would be less reliable, less tight, but it was none of those things. I experienced not one problem.
Waiting for it to enter the trailer was sad because this little hot rod and I had become fast friends in the last four months, thanks to its hyperactive V6 engine, 195 horsepower and a slick-shifting gearbox. In spite of its sedate profile and seats for four, this much-modified Contour, built exclusively at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, is more of a sports car than a family sedan. It is the perfect stealth-mobile because it looks much like the standard-issue Contour. Deeper fascias front and rear, dual exhausts, fog lights and five-spoke wheels are the only tip off that this is a special model.
Considering its price of $22,900, it is the performance bargain of the year. It romps through the gears with the kind of enthusiasm usually found only in high-dollar European sports sedans. Head out to the countryside and it tracks through twisty two lanes like a Beagle nosing a rabbit’s scent. It follows your lead like it is telepathic.
How did this jewel come to fruition? The gearheads at Ford SVT (Special Vehicle Team) snared Ford’s European-bred Contour, tweaked its handling, added more power, bolted in leather seats and slipped fat tires on 16-inch wheels, creating a bargain-basement BMW with a 143-mph top speed. Their job is to create limited-production models that appeal to driving enthusiasts, and I think this one adheres to their philosophy of balanced performance even better than the Mustang Cobra. They plan to build about 5,000 of them.
The heart and soul of the SVT Contour is its engine and gearbox. The standard 2.5-liter Duratec V6 is a nice unit when stock, but SVT bumped its horsepower up to 195 by adding a larger throttle body, lighter flywheel, conical air filter, larger radiator, oil cooler and higher compression pistons. Ford says its 76.6 horsepower-per-liter output is the highest of any engine manufactured in North America.
The SVT is one of the sweetest-shifting cars I can remember. The lightened flywheel lets the engine rev quickly, and the cable shift linkage has been revised for a more direct feel. With a little concentration you can match your shifts so perfectly that passengers might think they’re riding in an automatic, a fact pointed out by some friends riding in the back seat one night.
Fortunately, these friends were not large, and they found the back seat acceptable for an hour-long ride. Lack of space in back is one of the Contour’s only drawbacks. Even though the back seat was configured to add a couple more inches of kneeroom for 1997, it is still fairly snug. I put in a child safety seat it touched the front seat backs. Rows of vertical padding provide shoulder support but interfere slightly with the installation of a child seat.
Folding the back seat forward opened up enough space to carry a bicycle inside.
The front seats are heavily padded buckets whose backs grasp your body like a reassuring hand. The seat bottoms, however, came up short in the way of under-thigh support, an irritant magnified by a five-hour drive.
Otherwise, lon drives were a delight. Directional stability and long legs mean you can keep up with traffic on the interstate no matter how fast it is going.
Stopping is as important as going fast, and the SVT’s large front brakes are reassuring because of excellent feel and directional stability. A four-channel anti-lock system is standard.
The Z-rated tires that hang on so tightly in turns were a tad noisy on some pavement surfaces but their grip more than outweighs the noise.
All SVT Contours have dark blue leather interiors that are not only tasteful but comfortable. The thick, padded steering wheel is pleasing to your hands, and the gearshift is placed for easy use. Large cupholders have been molded into the floor console, and while they are not ideal they are much better than the ones on the original. The storage bin in the console is quite small.
Even though the radio is Ford’s old style, with too many similarly sized flat buttons, it was tolerable because SVT put their money into improving performance first. Sound quality was excellent.
Slick little “eyeball” lights in the ceiling can be adjusted for reading maps or directions at night.
Traveling at night on country roads magnified the need for better, brighter headlights. Even with the “brights” on I wished for more reach and a sharper pattern at highway speeds.
When I first experienced an SVT Contour earlier this year in the vastness of Death Valley, Calif., I called it “a taste of Wienerschnitzel from the land of barbecue.” After living with it for four months that seems even more accurate. It has the high-speed manners of a car developed on the autobahn, yet it comes right from our city at a price that is thousands of dollars less than the cars it compares to. An impressive accomplishment.
This and other SVT cars are sold only through the 700 authorized SVT dealers. To find the dealer nearest to you call 1-800-FORD-SVT.
The base price was $22,900. Our test car was equipped with a power moonroof and compact disc player, bringing its sticker price to $23,635.
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: Snick the gear shift through all five speeds, accompanied by the snarl of its slick V6, and you understand what the SVT Contour is all about: European sports-sedan feel, tenacious road holding and great brakes at a price that undercuts its competition by thousands.
Counterpoint: The back seat is fairly small, headlights could be better and the front seats need more under-thigh support.
ENGINE: 2.5-liter, V6
WHEELBASE: 106.5 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,068 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $22,900
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $23,635
MPG RATING: 20 city, 29 hwy.