FURNACE CREEK, CALIF.--As I barreled across the undulating terrain of Death Valley in Ford's SVT Contour I couldn't believe that an American car with such a European personality actually comes from Kansas City.

It sticks to the road like chewing gum to the bottom of your shoe, and the voice of its sonorous V6 charms gearheads like music does a snake.

Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT) used the BMW 328i and Audi A4 as benchmarks for developing this limited-production Contour, which acquitted itself with an A-plus on some of the country's most challenging and fun driving roads.

It is no coincidence that manufacturers from all over the world test their cars on these very same roads, in this demanding climate, and that was one of the reasons why Ford chose this place to let a group of journalists sample some early production models last week. Even though the temperature only hit 97 degrees, in the summer it can soar beyond 125 in the shade.

Monday was the first official day of production for the 1998 SVT Contour at Ford's Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, sole producer of the vehicle. It comes to market fully equipped with a base price of $22,900, which Ford says is $7,000 to $13,000 less than its European competitors. A moonroof and CD player are the only two options.

With SVT's Specialty Vehicles Marketing Manager Tim Boyd sitting at my side and encouraging me to explore the vehicle's full capabilities, I drove 200 miles in less than four hours. Terrain ranged from 282 feet below sea level to 5,000 above. Roads varied from arrow straight to curlicue. Up hill. Down hill. Washboard. Gravel. Pot holes. You name it, we sampled it. I was impressed with the totality of its performance, the way it blends power with handling and comfort like no other American car.

How did this car come to be? SVT is a band of dedicated car folks whose mission is to produce a limited number of high performance vehicles to satisfy serious driving enthusiasts. SVT has been in existence since 1992 and has produced two Mustang Cobras and the Lightning pickup truck.

With the truck out of production, they needed a new project, and the European-bred Contour, already quite a nicely balanced car, was the perfect choice. They boosted the horsepower, finessed its handling, added leather upholstery and clamped on bigger brakes capable of hauling it down from its 143 mph top speed. Sixty mph comes up in 7.9 seconds.

The 1998 Contour has been facelifted with wrap-around headlights and a bigger grille. To this SVT added a lower front spoiler with fog lights, side rocker sill extensions and a new rear fascia.

Starting with the sweet-revving 2.5-liter Duratec V6, SVT bumped horsepower up to 195, by adding a larger throttle body, lighter flywheel, conical air filter, larger radiator, oil cooler and higher compression pistons. This 76.6 horsepower-per-liter output is the highest of any engine manufactured in North America, ac cording to Ford.

Finding the extra power came in part through extrusion honing of the intake manifold and secondary throttle passages. This aerospace and racing technology consists of injecting silicon carbide abrasives through the intake passages under pressure. Looking like snakes of putty, they polish the inside of the manifold to enable speedier air flow.

The two-pound lighter flywheel lets the engine rev with more urgency and makes gear changes smoother.

A new cable mechanism from the 1998 Contour smoothes out gearshifts and rewards the driver with a solid feel on every shift.

Even though the power is impressive, I was stunned by the handling. Steering is light, direct and immediate. On the twisty Wildrose Canyon Road it dived through turns like it was reading my mind.

The ride remains smooth even over the worst pavement. SVT's engineers used specially-tuned springs, a slightly smaller front stabilizer bar and 16-inch wheels with 205/55ZR-16 ti s to create this uncanny grip on the road. Instead of falling for the fashionable 17-inch wheels that might add an iota of grip at the limit but deteriorate ride quality, SVT chose to stick with 16-inchers shod with unidirectional Goodyear GS-C tires, the same ones found on the Corvette, only smaller. The result is an uncommonly supple ride considering its handling capabilities.

Stopping is as much a component of performance as going fast, and to that end larger front brakes borrowed from the European Mondeo have been fitted. Pedal feel was excellent; ditto for directional stability. A four-channel anti-lock system is standard.

Inside, heavily bolstered seats, tastefully covered in dark blue perforated leather, provide support for vigorous driving. The SVT profits from the regular Contour's redesigned rear seat that adds kneeroom, a problem in the original.

A thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel is also part of the package.

The center console has larger cupholders, at last, plus a larger storage bin and center armrest.

In keeping with SVT's form-follows-function philosophy, the trunk-lid spoiler has been left off because it did not improve aerodynamics and would only be there for decoration.

In spite of how much fun the SVT is to drive, it is not perfect. The old-style radio with tiny buttons and confusing ergonomics have been retained. But, as Boyd explained, SVT felt money was better spent on functional items that improve the vehicle's dynamics than a new radio.

At highway speeds I did notice some wind noise and a slight drumming from the back seat area. On certain surfaces the GS-C tires tended to be noisy, but their grip is worth it.

SVT will build about 5,000 of these special Contours, and they are available only through 700 authorized SVT dealers. To find the dealer nearest to you call 1-800-FORD-SVT.


The base price of the SVT Contour is $22,900. There was not a sticker price for the vehicle I drove.


The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

A full test drive of a regular production vehicle will appear in the future.

Point: Honing the Contour into a well-balanced, discreet road rocket was the charge given Ford's Special Vehicle Team. The result is a limited-production model that challenges the best from Europe in terms of over-the-road performance.

Counterpoint: The old-style radio is out of date, and there is some minor wind and road noise from the back seat. Given the nature of this car, however, most drivers will be entertained by the sweet singing V6 and leave the radio off.


ENGINE: 2.5-liter, V6


WHEELBASE: 106.5 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,068 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $22,900

PRICE AS DRIVEN: not available

MPG RATING: 20 city, 29 hwy.