EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 1998 Ford Contour

The Contour, Ford’s world-class compact sedan, has always received high marks for its design, manufacture and driving demeanor.

But it’s looks weren’t in quite the same league. It only got a gentleman’s C in aesthetics. People dated it for its mind rather than its body.

The stylists at Ford have tried to change that by re-styling the 1998 car’s anterior and posterior. Indeed, all the exterior sheetmetal is new except for the roof, doors, and quarter panels.

Highlights of the freshening are the arresting new chrome grille and headlights, and the interesting chrome-capped wraparound taillight assembly. Both add a distinctive touch to the car, and give the styling a quick shot of adrenalin.

I like the results. The new Contour clearly has a better body, although I must confess that I still date it for its intelligence and performance test scores.

Now, if they could just do something about the name, which sounds like a form of birth control …

The 1998 Contour comes in three flavors, each tastier and more nutritious than the one that came before. First, there is the base model we’re checking out today, which starts at $14,460 and is powered by Ford’s sophisticated new Zetec engine, a 2-liter four-banger that develops 125 horsepower.

Next is the SE, which opens at $15,785. The SE is a highly affordable sports sedan that features a sport-tuned suspension, performance tires, disc brakes, and a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter V-6.

Finally, there is the particularly delightful SVT Contour, which is an even higher-performing sports sedan than the SE. This limited-production, $22,405 Contour variant boasts unique touches, a long litany of standard equipment, and a special, 195-horse version of the SE’s V-6.

Somehow or another, I managed to review the elite SVT Contour first, and now am getting around to the relatively inexpensive base model, which is the car most people buy.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t experience the acute sense of deprivation one usually feels when going from the fire-snorting, top-of-the-line model to the Everymanmobile. Certainly, this car isn’t as fast or as hedonistic as the SVT, but it provides enough good things — namely, ride, handling, solidity, and intelligent layout –to make it pleasurable and satisfying.

In addition to benefiting from the new Contour styling, the car I tested was made more appealing by the 1998 improvements to its four-cylinder engine.

Ford Contour interior

That techy Zetec engine has been a lively, efficient performer from the gitgo, but it did have one annoying flaw: It was too harsh and noisy when you floored it. But Ford’s engine designers have done an excellent job of quieting it, largely by beefing up the engine block, strengthening the oil pan, and redesigning the cam and front engine covers. The net result of these modifications is a whopping 50 percent reduction in engine noise.

While they were at it, they also improved this engine’s gas mileage and polluti on control through the use an ingenious wrinkle called variable camshaft timing (VCT). VCT acheives this by allowing the more precise management of valve overlap (that instant when “both” the intake and exhaust valves are open). Proper overlap control, in turn, permits the more efficient use of recirculated exhaust gases, and that’s where the bumps in fuel mileage and emission control come in. (The pollution reductions are in hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.)

Subtle refinements were also made in the new car’s front suspension and steering. The steering, already the best in the Ford stable, is now even more precise. The ride is probably a tad more supple.

The car feels good, and it’s fun to drive. It’s also quiet and comfortable, and reasonably roomy by compact standards. A family of four should be comfortable in the Contour, and should have enough luggage space in its 13.9 cubic-f oot trunk.

Ford Contour

— Base vehicle: Front-drive, 2-liter engine, five-speed manual gear x, fully-independent suspension, power disc/drum brakes, power steering, 14-inch steel wheels, P185/70R14 all-season radials, dual air bags, clock, console, interior air filtration, stereo, tilt steering, intermittent wipers. — Test model: Four-speed automatic transaxle, 15-inch alloy wheels, P205/60R15 performance tires, stereo/cassette, air conditioning, rear window defroster, power mirrors, power door locks, speed control, tachometer, leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless entry, 60/40 fold-down rear seat, power windows. — Base price: $14,460 — Test model: $18,380 — EPA city rating: 24 — Test mileage: 27 —
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.

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