The Detroit News's view

If you feel more passionate about the can opener in the junk drawer of your kitchen than you do about your set of wheels, turn immediately to the sports section. But if you’re longing for a family sedan that can make you feel like a European Grand Prix driver, the 1998 Ford SVT Contour may be ideal – and it won’t cripple your bank account.

The SVT stands for Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, whose chief job is to make high-performance cars and trucks out of ordinary products. In recent years, they came up with the SVT Mustang Cobra and the SVT F-150 Lightning. This year they turned their attention to creating the tricked-out Contour with its powerful twin-cam V-6 engine and top speed of 143 mph.

Ford only plans to build 5,000 of these Contours a year. With an out-the-door price tag of less than $23,000, it sounds like a bargain to us.

She: I can picture the type of person who would buy the SVT edition of the Contour. She probably doesn’t have any qualms about buying a cookie-cutter house in some suburban subdivision. It may look ordinary on the outside, but inside she’s got it all fixed up with custom crown-molding, a Viking oven and hand-painted bathroom tiles. If you just glanced at the SVT Contour, you might not be able to tell it apart immediately from the garden-variety Contour, but it really is something special.

He: Excuse me. Did you just say “SHE” in reference to the Contour SVT? A total GUY CAR?!?

She: No, I should have said “sexist pig” in reference to you.

He: Let’s not get personal. And forget about all that tile and molding stuff. Let’s talk nuts and bolts. That garden-variety Contour you mentioned has the 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine that makes 125 horsepower. Even the sport Contour SE with the 2.5-liter Duratec V-6 only makes 170 horsepower. But the SVT Contour has a terrific high-output 24-valve version of the Duratec engine that makes 195 horsepower and revs to 6625 rpm.

She: Why don’t you translate that for us nonenthusiasts?

He: It’s kind of like the Clark Kent of family sedans. The SVT team wisely skipped design cues like hood scoops and spoilers, which have almost become cliches on high-performance cars. The SVT Contour looks pretty much like an ordinary family sedan – with some special badging, of course, and more subtle touches such as rocker sill extensions – so you can do the school car-pool stuff without causing a big stir.

But when you’ve got it out on the highway by yourself, you can let ‘er rip. Everything about the car is beefed up just a bit, from the suspension and brakes to the 16-inch Z-rated Goodyear tires. I’m totally in love with it. It’s a blast to drive.

She: If you’re married to someone who doesn’t know horsepower from horseradish, you won’t have too much trouble talking her into the SVT Contour. I liked the fact that it cost $5,000 to $10,000 less than competitive European sports sedans such as the BMW 328i and the Audi A4 2.8. Yo u could argue that with the average price of a new car – any new car – hovering at around $21,000, the SVT Contour may even look sensible.

He: Ford has crammed a lot of standard features into the SVT Contour, from a 10-way power driver’s seat to a premium sound system. In fact, there are only three items that will cost you extra – a $140 CD player, a $20 engine-block heater and a $595 moonroof. An optional smoker’s package is no charge. They must figure those guys are going to pay in other ways. Anyway, the bottom line is, you have virtually nothing to gripe about.

She: Oh, I always find something. I love the fact that antilock brakes are standard on the SVT Contour. They’re a terrific safety feature, especially on slippery surfaces. But strangely enough, you can’t get an integrated child safety seat on the SVT Contour because of the way the rear seats are shaped. If I had little kids, I might think twice about the SVT in that case. And you have to emphasize that this sp al-edition Contour is not for everyone.

He: My only gripe is that like all Contours, this one feels just a touch too small, especially if you’re broad-shouldered or if you’re an adult who gets stuck sitting in the back. And if you can’t drive a stick, don’t even bother looking. The SVT Contour comes with a standard five-speed manual transmission – you can’t get an automatic – and if you do a lot of stop-and-go driving, it can be a bit of a pain. But if you love to FEEL like you’re a driver, not a commuter, the SVT Contour will seem really attractive.

She: I’m not an enthusiast and I never have fantasies about driving in the Indy 500. I expected to have a lot more trouble driving the SVT Contour than I did. I was surprised at how easy it was for me to handle.

The only thing that felt awkward was parking. Because of the way the hood is shaped, you may have a little bit of difficulty telling where the curb begins and the car ends. Otherwise, the SVT Contour wasn’t like this great beast you had to fight to control. It was actually very civilized. Unlike some male automotive journalists I know.

He: I was intrigued by the special little features, like the gray-faced instrument panel gauges with the dark lettering and the perforated leather seats. And if you decide to buy one, you should expect some nice touches from the dealer, too. They’ve been told to save things like the shrink wrap around the steering wheel and the window stickers to enhance the car’s resale value.

She: Oh, come on. You know that’s just for the guys who want to make a “baby book” for their SVT Contour.

He: You got that right, baby.

1998 Ford SVT Contour

Type: Front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: Base, $22,365; as tested, $22,900 (including $535 destination charge)

What’s new for ’98: All-new model for ’98

Standard equipment: Leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and shifter boot; 160 mph speedometer, gray-faced instrument gauge cluster with dark lettering; floor mats with SVT logo; special badging on front fenders; quasi-dual exhaust and 2.5-inch polished stainless steel exhaust tips; rocker sill extensions; foglamps; air conditioning; Goodyear GS-C 205/55ZR-16 tires; 16-by-6.5-inch cast aluminum 5-spoke wheels; 10-way driver’s seat; power windows, locks and mirrors; perforated leather seats; tilt steering column; intermittent wipers; AM/FM stereo cassette with premium sound

Safety features: Dual air bags, standard antilock brakes, side-door guard beams, shoulder belt for middle seat in rear, front shoulder belt height adjusters

Options on test vehicle: None

EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway

Engine: 2.5-liter DOHC V-6 with 195 hp at 6625 rpm; 165 lb-ft torque at 5625 rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors: Audi A4 2.8, BMW 328i, Infiniti J30, Lexus GS300, Mercedes-Benz C280 Sport, Saab 900 Turbo, Volvo 850 Turbo

Spe cifications: Wheelbase, 106.5 inches; overall length, 183.9 inches; curb weight, 3,068 pounds; legroom, 43 inches front/34.4 inches rear; headroom, 39 inches front/36.7 inches rear; shoulder room, 53.9 inches front/53.3 inches rear

Where built: Kansas City, Mo.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,255

* Rate based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts

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