The Ford Contour is a sweet car, endearing, even.

That may seem like an odd characterization for a bunch of metal. But it fits the 1998 Contour.

When the Contour arrived on the scene some three years ago, it was a welcome successor to the tired, old Ford Tempo. It surprised drivers with its spunk and handling. And it felt the right size for me — not as big as the widely known Ford Taurus and not as small as the venerable Ford Escort.

Now restyled and improved, Ford’s “car in the middle” builds on its already unique character. And it continues to surprise.

Surprise No. 1: European handling.

Ford of Europe, which sells a version of the Contour under the Mondeo name, had a strong hand in the Contour’s development, and it shows. While the four-door version looks like a largely unassuming American compact, its behavior on curves and turns is anything but. The Contour rides confidently, with less body roll than expected, and seems eager to go to the limits.

Overall, there’s a solid feel to the Contour’s motions — no loose flailing around.

Yes, the Contour’s ride is firmer than some might want, and some shoppers accustomed to a more cushioned ride don’t appreciate the Contour. But the firmness comes into play in helping a driver feel the connection between the Contour and the road and better control the car — another European trait.

Surprise No. 2: The scoot factor.

Drivers young and old seem pleasantly surprised by the responsiveness of the 125-horsepower, two-liter, Zetec four-cylinder that’s in the base and GL Contours. It’s a sweet engine that provides 130 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 revolutions per minute without a lot of fuss.

The test Contour SE, though, had Ford’s 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter Duratec V-6 and five-speed manual transmission. Both are standard in the top-of-the-line SE and — while most folks wouldn’t think of getting the family mobile with a stick shift — the Contour SE reminds one how much fun it is to drive a spirited car.

The car pulled strongly through the gears, with torque of 165 pounds-feet at 4,250 rpm. Responsiveness and performance were satisfying — not just on the highway, but also in the Sierra foothills and even around town.

In fact, the Contour SE’s fun-to-drive personality prompted me to “want” to find excuses to go driving, even if only to the post office drive-through.

Surprise No. 3: Chrome.

For years, automakers have been removing shiny silver strips here and there from their vehicles because car buyers — particularly Californians — preferred a more refined look.

But Contour’s chief designer, Gert Hohenester, declares that “chrome is making a comeback worldwide.” And he has made it part of the new Contour styling: a more prominent grille with chrome surrounding the center oval area.

Surprise No. 4: A quieter ride.

Ford made more than 100 interior changes to lower noise levels inside the Contour. They range from new engine mounts to new door seals, and the changes are detectable.

Analysts blame price for hampering Contour sales, especially given the steep competition it faces in the family car segment. Competitors include the Chevrolet Malibu and Nissan Altima — both of which have been packaged for value.

There is a base Contour that starts at $13,995 including destination charge. But Ford notes that 70 percent of the Contours sold are GLs, which start at $15,180 and are typically loaded with a $1,310 option package that adds power windows, cassette player and other items. In California, you must add $170 for emission controls, too, putting the Contour GL at more than $16,600.

Most GL buyers also prefer automatic transmission, so their Contour of choice is suddenly up over $17,000.

Still, it’s worth remembering that money buys the unique character of the Contour.

As Ford’s new marketing slogan for the car says: “One Drive Will Surprise You.”


What we drove: 19 Ford Contour SE, a four-door, five-passenger, compact sedan with 2.5-liter, 24-valve Duratec V-6 and five-speed manual transmission.

Estimated base price: $17,535

Estimated price as tested: $21,135

Curb weight: 3,000 pounds

Length: 184.7 inches

Turning circle (curb to curb): 35.8 feet

Standard features: Two front air bags; tilt steering wheel; tachometer; four-wheel independent front suspension with Quadralink rear suspension; 15-inch aluminum wheels; power mirrors rear spoiler; air conditioning; sport bucket front seats; leather-wrapped steering wheel; AM/FM stereo with cassette player; rear seat heating ducts; split folding rear seat back.

Options on test vehicle: Remote keyless entry; cruise control; power windows and door locks; leather seats; anti-lock brakes; upgraded stereo system with compact disk player; power driver seat; rear window defroster.

Estimated EPA figures: 20 mpg city; 30 mpg highway

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