EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

There are many enthusiasts out there who lust after fine German road cars. They might even consider selling their kids to do it. (Legal note: I’m not suggesting you do this, no matter how many times little Justin sticks bubble gum in sister Jennifer’s hair).

But you don’t have look at some Bavarian automaker to get a great ride. Look toward Dearborn. Have you driven a Contour lately?

Going on its third year of production, this fine little car might be one most enthusiasts would overlook. But if you have BMW taste and a Ford budget, this compact will fill the bill quite nicely.

What makes this car so wonderful is the fact that it was designed by Ford’s European operations. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that its handling, braking and suspension are so adeptly tuned for spirited driving. Although this is true for most Fords, it seems to fit this car most of all.

Take this car into a corner and its steering is precise, with good road feel and a quick ratio. The car stays flat, the tires hang in there. Braking is equally fine, with a good progressive feel. Bumps are noticeable, but not felt. The structure is firm enough to absorb road impacts. The result is a lack of rattling and degree of sophistication uncommon in this league.

The best news is, the great handling comes no matter how little you spend on this car. There are three trim levels: basic GL, well-equipped LX, and sporty SE. The test vehicle was a very well-equipped GL. Base engine is a 2.0-liter double-overhead-cam in-line four-cylinder. With 125 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 130 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm, this engine is sufficient, although not overwhelming for pushing around the 2,769-pound GL. It tends to get boomy at full throttle. It feels most flexible at highway speeds.

For those on a power trip, spring for the optional 2.5-liter Duratec V-6. With 170 horses and 165 foot-pounds of torque, this engine makes the car come alive. It’s a better choice if you’re considering the optional four-speed automatic transmission. A five-speed manual is standard with either engine.

Despite the GL’s good handling, you can make it even sportier by popping for the Sport package. Available on GL and LX models, it upgrades the tires from 14- to 15-inch with aluminum wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, fog lamps and a tachometer in the GL.

Inside, the feel is very trans-Atlantic. Three simple round dials control the climate, while a maddening array of tiny identical buttons make the audio system fussy to operate. Two stubby stalks, one for wipers, the other for turn signals and flash-to-pass, are ideally located and can be operated without removing your hand from the wheel. The only faux pas in this car were the headlights, which didn’t seem very strong.

Up front, the bucket seats are excellent, holding the driver in place through the twisties while still having enough give so it doesn’t f eel like a padded park bench. The rear seat, this car’s biggest drawback, has more space this year and seems suitable for adults, thanks to a scooped-out seatback. Trunk space is good, with a low liftover, although the lack of a cargo net was noted.

But its the details that make this car so nice. The floor mats have tie-down hooks, there’s a dead pedal for the driver’s left foot, the change holder is up high on the dash, the map lights rotate in their sockets. Little touches like this make the car enjoyable over the long haul.

Safety is a priority with both automakers and auto buyers. The Contour is current on this account. Anti-lock brakes are optional, four-wheel discs are standard on the SE. Dual airbags are standard, front seat belts are height-adjustable. The rear windows can be locked out by the driver so your kids won’t blast your neck with air.

So what we have here is the proverbial poor man’s BMW. A family car that really does drive like a sports sed n. And, with a base price of about $14,000, it’s affordable in today’s scheme of things.

Just be sure not to sell your kids. Your spouse might hate you for it.

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