About a year ago, we were motoring through a California hamlet at a previewof the then all-new Ford Contour replacement for the old Ford Tempo.

Nice car, we recall, until venturing into the back seat, where space wassomewhat limited. It wasn't real comfortable, we remember, but then you didn'thave all that much room to roam in a Tempo, either. In fact, Tempo was as oldas dirt while Contour was vibrant and alive and sported a fresh newaerodynamic look.

One of the Contours we drove was the SE with the 2.5-liter, V-6, automaticand top-of-the-line suspension. We recall it reminded us of a miniature TaurusSHO.

Contour was launched with fanfare in 1995, but stumbled at the gate. Themedia made much ado about rear-seat room. Ford was criticized so much for alack of rear-seat space you'd think the only reason folks bought a Contour wasto hop in the back seat and be scrunched.

Many members of the media missed the point. Contour is much more appealingthan the stodgy Tempo. Even if Contour didn't have a back seat, it would stillbe more pleasant than Tempo. Contour proves that economy cars don't have tolook cheap. Contour has a luxury flair to it. Pleasant styling, good economy,decent price. Unfortunately, many members of the media saw how good the carlooked and expected it to offer the room, comfort and performance of aContinental. It doesn't; it was never meant to.

We recall an episode in Dearborn at Ford's test track when the companyintroduced Tempo with four-wheel-drive and dared the media to drive the carinto a sand pit, stop when the sand got rocker panel deep and drive out of thepit. We did as asked, except the car would not proceed forward. A tow truckhad to be called. Ford immediately halted the sand pit demonstration.

But we digress.

For 1996 Ford listened to its critics, revised the seat design in Contourand came up with one more inch in back. It doesn't feel like Ford has added atennis court in back, but the one inch makes for a noticeable improvement.

We tested the Contour SE with the 2.5-liter, 170-h.p., V-6 engine and5-speed manual. A peppy powerplant with a smooth-shifting manual and goodmileage--21 m.p.g. city/31 m.p.g. highway.

The SE sedan we tested starts at $16,170. Add $1,870 for a preferredequipment package including air conditioning, power locks, power windows,speed control; $190 for remote keyless entry, $330 for power driver's seat;and $570 for ABS plus $510 for freight and you are still less than $20,000.

Dual air bags are standard, but as with Taurus, ABS is an option to keepthe sticker price down, a sad marketing ploy when consumers are demandingsafety.