Saying that the 1998 Contour SVT is the best car that the Ford Motor Co. has ever built — something that Ford CEO Alex Trotman says he’s heard from more than one critic — is a bit of an overstatement.

Yet, this new vehicle from Ford’s Special Vehicle Team is my favorite Ford product in a long time.

Too bad, then, that Ford only plans to make 5,000 of these specialty vehicles. To me, the ’98 Contour SVT is one of those perfect compromises that doesn’t make you make many sacrifices:

Put off by the styling of the Taurus but need a sedan? Try the Contour SVT.

Love the power of the Mustang but think it’s too juvenile or old-fashioned or showy? Try the Contour SVT.

Like the mid-size sedan feel of the ordinary Contour but you’re underwhelmed by its power? Try the Contour SVT.

Priced right at $23,000, the Contour SVT has performance numbers that match cars that cost a lot more. Ford says it can go from zero to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds and has a top speed of a 143 mph.

Power comes from a 2.5-liter dual-cam V-6 that makes 195 horsepower. It has been heavily modified by SVT engineers and makes 25 more horsepower than the version used in the Contour SE model. Paired with a five-speed manual, the Contour SVT is both quick and fast.

Even better, as a I drove it on some very curvy back roads in Monterey County, the Contour SVT handled brilliantly. It’s a tight car that loves to be thrown into a hard corner. Credit a different front stabilizer bar, bigger (16-inch) wheels, Z-rated tires and bigger front brakes with improving the ride over the base Contour that is already one the best rides in its class.

Outside, the Contour SVT has a few different panels, a distinctive honeycomb grille, stainless steel exhaust tips and SVT badging — all fairly subtle changes from the base Contour. Contour SVT only comes in three colors: black, red and silver. On the inside, there is a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, white gauge faces and SVT floor mats to differentiate it.

All that means is that the Contour SVT is a perfect stealth car. Your fellow road warriors won’t know it’s anything special, but you will. Like I said, if the show is as important as the go, stick with a Mustang.

To me, the only drawbacks of the Contour SVT are those of the regular Contour. The back seat is simply too small. It’s fine for small kids, like mine, but it’ll have full-size adults crying like babies if the trip gets too long. Other smallish mid-size sedans have more rear leg room than the Contour — and that’s a problem.

My other complaint is with the gas tank. Fuel economy numbers — 20 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway — are decent, and I think I averaged around 20 mpg. But, at 14.5 gallons, the tank is too small. I had to fill up every 250 miles or so to be comfortable.

Previous SVT models since 1993 have included a version of Ford’s F-150 pickup called the Lightning and various renditions (coupe, convertible, racing) of the Mustang Cobra. With the Contour, the team’s first front-wheel-drive effort, SVT moves confidently into the mainstream, where it should find a receptive audience.

Buyers will pay a premium over the usual Contours, which sell for $14,000 to $18,000, but the extra cents make sense when you consider the SVT’s strong performance-value equation.

What we drove: 1998 Ford Contour SVT, a four-door sedan with a 2.5-liter dual-cam V-6 and a five-speed manual transmission.

Base price: $22,365

Price as tested (includes California emissions and delivery charge): $23,070

0-60 mph time: 7.9 seconds

Top speed: 143 mph

Curb weight: 3,068 pounds

Length: 183.9 inches

Standard features: Dual air bags; anti-lock brakes; anti-theft system; tilt steering; cruise control; rear defrost; remote keyless entry; power mirrors; fog lamps; air conditioning; sport seats with midnight blue perforate leather; 60/40 split/fold rear seat; power driver’s seat; power windows; AM/FM stereo with cassette.

Options on test vehicle: None

EPA figures: 20 mpg (city); 29 mpg (highway).

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