EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

When Ford’s Contour first came to market, it had one obvious shortcoming: Back-seat legroom was tight.

That has changed for 1998. Two more inches of legroom have been created by relocating the rear seat and using front seat backs that have an indentation for the passenger’s knees.

These are among 103 changes to the Contour, including a new front end with bolder headlights, bigger cupholders and a steering rack with better feel. Variable cam timing has been added to the four-cylinder engine to broaden its power band and increase fuel efficiency. Manual transmissions have a new cable shift linkage.

All of these updates are aimed at making the Contour, and its sibling, the Mercury Mystique, more rewarding to drive and better suited to the American market. The Contour and Mystique, built exclusively at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly plant in Claycomo, are derived from the European Mondeo. Cupholders are not as important in Europe, but ride and handling is.

In order to sample the changes, I drove both a four-cylinder GL and a V6-powered SE. The SE’s 2.5-liter Duratec has 170 horsepower, and coupled to the five-speed transmission it feels like a baby BMW. It grips the road tenaciously, and running through the gears is even more fun with the new cable shifter.

But the bulk of the buyers will likely choose the four-cylinder GL so it seems appropriate to concentrate on that model.

In light of all the changes there are still a couple of areas that could be improved. The radio is Ford’s old style, which means it has confusing functions and tiny buttons. On the highway, wind and road noise from the back was loud enough that I had to turn up the radio.

True to its overseas roots, the Contour is responsive. Its suspension soaks up bumps without upsetting the vehicle’s balance and it takes turns without excessive body roll. Richard Parry-Jones, vice president of Ford’s small/medium vehicle center, is noted for his expertise in suspension tuning, and this car reflects attention to detail that improves how it steers and corners. The rack-and-pinion assembly has ball joints with 50 percent less friction, and the front strut mounts have been relocated to absorb bumps better.

You feel the changes the very first time you crank it into a corner. The steering has good on-center feel, and it turns with a linear response.

These are the kind of improvements that actually cost the company very little but make a big improvement in the way the vehicle feels.

Up front, new headlights and an chrome-trimmed oval grille create a brighter face that has more impact than before. Full-width plastic lenses give the back end a wider look.

Aside from the revised back seat, changes to the interior consist of a new console with three molded-in cupholders and a center armrest that moves with the seat. The new cupholders are actually usable, whereas the old ones were delicate and poorly located.

In order to ma ke the Zetec 2.0-liter engine responsive over a wider range Ford turned to variable valve timing, a technique used by many imported cars. Now the four-cylinder has 90 percent of its torque, or pulling power, available from 2,200 to 5,700 rpm. A side benefit is improved efficiency. Ford says variable valve timing improves gas mileage by one mpg in the city. Emissions are also reduced.

The engine feels smoother because reinforcements have been added to the bottom of the engine.

Even when equipped with the automatic transmission it snaps away from stop signs energetically, and a button on the shift lever lets you shift out of overdrive quickly for a boost of power should you need it to climb a hill or pass slower traffic.

Price

The base price of our test car was $14,645. It was equipped with options of air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, power locks, cruise control, refogger, tachometer, 15-inch alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, split-folding rear seat, a omatic transmission, remote keyless entry system and premium sound system.

The sticker price was $19,385.

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: The Contour’s European character is reflected in crisp handling and excellent over-the-road behavior. The back seat now has more legroom, the Zetec engine is more efficient and it steers better.

Counterpoint: The old-style radio looks out of place, and there is a fair amount of wind and road noise on the highway.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 2.0-liter, 4-cyl.

TRANSMISSION: Automatic

WHEELBASE: 106.5 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 2,769 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $14,465

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $19,385

MPG RATING: 24 city, 32 hwy.

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