Being a family kind of guy, I know full well what the automotive compromises are.

Where once I drove two-seater sports cars, now there are family sedans. Where once there was disposable income for frivolous motoring, now there are budgets requiring that those sedans not cost too much.

Fortunately, there now are family transports that are fast, fun, definitely not boring, and not wildly expensive. They're in a small class of compact cars that embody the entry level of a former non sequitur: sports sedans.

The Ford Contour SE and its tweaked twin, the SVT, fall into that category. Both versions of the Ford compact are quick, good-handling little sedans that should satisfy even the most hard-boiled European-car driver who maybe can't afford the products of Bavaria or Coventry.

Actually, the Contour and its Mercury sibling, the Mystique, is based on a European design, the Mondeo, a highly acclaimed platform used around the globe by Ford. It's what provides all Contours and Mystiques, even the four-cylinder economy models, with exemplary handling and road manners.

As an SE, Ford adds a strong double-overhead-cam V-6 engine and stiffer suspension to the mix. With 170 horsepower, the lightweight Contour accelerates with some real pull, scales grades easily and provides plenty of basic spunk.

Best of all, it came equipped with a five-speed stick shift, a rarity among sedans powered by V-6 engines, especially of the domestic variety. It's an excellent, quick-shifting gearbox that meshes well with the engine power.

Our tester was fully equipped with all the goodies, and still maxed out at under $20,000. Not bad for such a versatile vehicle.

Anti-lock brakes are a $600 option, an important safety feature that should be standard.

Then there's the limited-edition SVT, which signifies tuning by Ford's Special Vehicles Team, a treatment also available on the Mustang. Here, the Contour has been transformed into an all-out performance machine, marshalling 195 horsepower from the same V-6 and rivaling slick machines costing many thousands more.

Still, the SVT brings the Contour into a different level of price range, a solid $3,000 more than the well-equipped SE. And the SE already is so good, one might wonder if the extra sound and fury of the SVT is worth the toll.

Many will think it is, I'm sure, and the SVT should become as solid a performer in the showroom as it is on a mountain road. Or a racetrack, too, for that matter.

Zero to 60 comes in just eight seconds, though the power doesn't come on until the engine gets revved up over about 4,000. And when you're pushing the SVT under heavy acceleration, you'll need to fight the forces of torque steer, which is the tendency for front-wheel-drive cars to pull to the side.

A stiffer suspension, high-performance tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels and, of course, that fine five-speed provides the action, with an upgraded interior dialing in the comfort. Plus, there's a certain amount of exclusivity in the equation.

The SVT does suffer from one of the problems that always plagued Ford's wonderful Taurus SHO, a similar hot-rod treatment bestowed upon a bread-and-butter sedan. The styling upgrade is sharp but fairly subtle, and many buyers of performance vehicles long for attention-grabbing swoops and graphics.

Personally, I prefer the subtle approach. Especially for the attention it doesn't draw from the law-enforcement community.

In other more domesticated issues, the Contour's rounded-off body and corporate styling house a well-designed if unexciting interior that is fairly roomy for a small car. There's a respectable back seat for two - three in a pinch - and decent trunk space.

Actually, the Contour's four-door design and interior has enough of everything required to talk your mate into accepting the high-performance SVT sedan as the family grocery getter.

An excellent solution for sports-car wannabes who need ex tra space and e xtra doors but don't care to be bored to death behind the wheel.

1997 Ford Contour

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel-drive. ase price: $22,365 (SE: $17,535). Price as tested: $22,900. (SE: $19,720). Engine: 2.5-liter V-6, 195 horsepower at 6,625 rpm, 167 pound-feet of torque at 5,625 rpm. (SE: 170 horsepower at 6,250 rpm, 165 pound-feet of torque at 4,250.) Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 3,068 pounds. Length: 183.9 inches. Wheelbase: 106.54 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, optional anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 0 mpg city, 29 mpg highway. (SE: same).