PAHRUMP, Nev. — Take your pick.

The 1998 Ford Contour is:

A. A very good car.

B. A very mediocre car.

C. Who cares, and where the heck is Pahrump, Nev.?

The answer depends on whether you opt for the compact Contour in base, GLor LX trim with a 2-liter, 125-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, or go all out forthe front-wheel-drive compact in SE trim with its 2.5-liter, 170-h.p. V-6 andsports suspension.

With the 2-liter engine, you have a high-mileage economy model meant toperform menial tasks in a menial way, plodding along and gulping for air whenyou press hard on the pedal.

With the 2.5-liter engine, you have a high-mileage economy car that doesn’tact the part. The V-6 gives Contour a shot of adrenalin, and the sportssuspension eliminates the lean and sway of the 2-liter models.

The 2-liter is rated at 24 miles per gallon city/32 m.p.g. highway with4-speed automatic; the 2.5 is rated at 21/30. The difference in mileage is farless dramatic when you consider the 45-h.p. difference between the two enginesand the fact the V-6 is peppier as well as quieter.

However, truth be told, Contour with the 2-liter 4 is more in keeping withthe intent of the car–to serve as a replacement for the Ford Tempo, thefront-wheel-drive compact that wasn’t much on room, comfort, styling orperformance, but was cheap enough to keep folks in the Ford family once theyoutgrew the Escort but couldn’t afford Taurus.

Contour was never meant to be lush and plush, but when it bowed in the 1995model year, it was such a radical styling departure from Tempo that the mediawas lulled into believing it was a mini Taurus–with the same room, comfortand performance in the compact Contour as in the midsize Taurus.

Couldn’t happen. Didn’t happen.

The main complaint at the time was rear-seat room. Many griped that youcouldn’t fit a trio of linebackers on the rear bench. Fact is you can’t get atrio of linebackers into the back seat of any Ford product unless the namebadge reads “Lincoln.”

Fact is, too, that despite design gimmicks such as thinner front seat backsto add rear-seat legroom and deeper butt bowls in back so you to sit lower formore headroom, it’s a bit of a squeeze in back. Too tight? Get a Taurus, whichis what Ford wanted you to do when it offered Tempo, too.

Contour wound up being a love/hate machine–loved by those with modestexpectations, hated by those with loftier ones.

Our favorite is the Contour SVT (Cartalk, March 30), the 2.5-liter,195-h.p. V-6 performance version that Ford’s Special Vehicle Team worked itsmagic on. It is offered with only 5-speed manual, however, and starts around$22,000, about $4,000 more than the SE.

The SE is a rather pleasant machine and quickly helps you erase memories ofTempo. The body panels have been tweaked to freshen the styling for mid-year,though rather than call it a 1997 1/2, Ford calls it a ’98.

Contour proved t o be rather comfortable yet lively when running around andthrough the hilly desert terrain. The sports suspension, with its 15-inchtires, does an admirable job of holding the road over the roller-coasterdunes. The 16-inch tires on the SVT are much better in keeping you on courseand would be a welcome addition to the SE. When Ford officials are asked about16-inch treads on the SE, however, the response is a quick two-letterrejoinder–N/A (not available).

Dual air bags are standard, ABS a $600 option to keep the price tag down.Traction control isn’t available–sad because it would mean the addition ofonly a few more sensors and microprocessors to provide added holding power.

Only other gripe is that if you can figure out Ford’s pricing on this carand sort through the numerous options without having to enlist a computer nerdfor help, you probably spend more time surfing the net than sitting in a carand wouldn’t care, anyway.

It doesn’t take too many strokes of the pen on the extensive option sheetto run the bill past $20,000.

(By the way, the answer to “C” above is a hamlet on the way from DeathValley to Las Vegas. To take the short cut through Pahrump, make a right turnafter passing the Shady Lady, which is neither a gambling joint nor a storecatering to lamp coverings for the Mrs. If you can’t find the Shady Lady, bestthat you not stop to ask locals for directions unless you want to beharrumphed out of Pahrump.)

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