EXPERT REVIEW

The Miami Herald's view

Sometimes it isn’t enough to build a good car.

Ford’s Contour SE is by far the best mid-size sedan that has ever carried the family name.

A replacement for the rental fodder Tempo, the Contour was launched as a 1995 model with high hopes and talk of how it was a “world car” — meaning the basic chassis would be the platform for vehicles sold here and in Europe.

In Europe it would be the Mondeo, while U.S. buyers would get the Contour at Ford dealerships and the Mystique at Mercury stores.

Three factories were prepared to crank out 800,000 copies a year of the three sedans, and total cost of development was rumored to be $6 billion.

It was money well spent in creating a good sedan, but from a marketing standpoint the outlay of all that cash has been far less successful.

While its European counterpart, the Mondeo, found favor with buyers, the Contour has never quite clicked in this country.

It’s too close in size to the smaller and cheaper Escort and too close in price to the larger Taurus.

Nonetheless, Ford is not prepared to give up on the Contour and for 1998 the car — and its Mercury cousin, the Mystique — has been further refined.

The result is that the SE is a sports sedan that could legitimately be called a poor person’s 3 Series BMW.

Handling always has been a strong point of the Contour, given that its chassis would also be used for the European Mondeo. European drivers like their cars to be very responsive, even if they come at the cost of a dead-smooth ride.

The front-wheel-drive Contour uses struts at all four wheels with coil springs and anti-roll bars front and back to give the sedan taut handling. The Contour SE handled bumps and dips at highway speeds with aplomb, yet managed to deliver a ride that should be smooth enough for everyone but your maiden aunt.

Ford has improved the noise level for 1998, and it’s a noticeable upgrade. There is still some road noise from the tires that gets communicated into the cockpit, but overall the cabin is as quiet as any other car in this class.

Power on the SE comes from the 2.5-liter, 24-valve Duratec V-6 engine, which produces 170 horsepower at 6,250 rpm. A 125-horsepower in-line four is standard on the Contour LX.

The beauty of the V-6 is that it sounds and feels like it wants to rev forever, and the four-valve cylinder heads set up a great symphony under acceleration.

To enhance its sporty nature, a five-speed manual transmission is available, as is a four-speed automatic. Ford says it has improved the clutch pedal effort on the manual and both gearboxes benefit from improved shifting.

On the outside, Ford made minor refinements to the oval front grille, has added chrome accents and new headlamps up front. At the back, there are wraparound tail lamps and other detail touches.

Overall, the look is little changed for 1998. The Contour is a clean design, but hardly striking, especially when compared to the bold Taurus.

Inside, the Contour has a long list of standard features, ranging from air conditioning to power side mirrors. On the SE, the standard equipment list includes rear window defroster, power door locks, power windows, a cassette stereo radio and cruise control.

For 1998, the front bucket seats have been modified to include a better seat back adjustment, fold-down arm rest for the driver and adjustable head restraints.

Ventilation, cupholders and the positioning of the power window buttons also have been improved.

In the rear, leg room has been increased by two inches, the center passenger has a shoulder belt and a built-in child safety seat is optional.

Driving the Contour SE, even with the four-speed automatic, can be entertaining. The engine is more than willing and the handling is above average for a car that is, after all, still a mid-size family sedan.

The only item that needs improving is the size of the side mirrors. They are too small and can leave blind s ts, particularly on the driver’s side.

The stumbling block for the Contour is the price. An SE model starts at $17,535, and a well-equipped version — including leather seats and a power moonroof — tops out at $22,510.

Even without the leather and moonroof, an average SE will carry a sticker of more than $20,000, which puts it firmly in base Taurus territory, where you get a larger, more stylish car that also has a V-6.

SPECS
Base list price: $17,535

Price as tested:$22,510

Major options: Major options: Preferred equipment package, $1,090; automatic transmission, $815; anti-lock brakes, $600; leather seats, $895; moonroof, $595

Engine: 2.5-liter, 24-valve V-6

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Weight: 2,811 pounds

0-to-60 mph: 7.9 seconds

Mileage: 21-30 mpg

Safety: Dual front air bags, side impact beams, optional anti-lock brakes

Competitors: Nissan Altima; Chevrolet Malibu; Dodge Stratus; Toyota Camry; Honda Accord

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