EXPERT REVIEW

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It’s an old formula: Stick a big engine in a little car. Tweak the suspension. Attach fat brakes. Add 16-inch rim diameter, or larger tires. Install a smooth, five-speed manual gearbox. Simplify the instrument panel — analog gauges only. Put nice, body-hugging seats up front. Raise hell.

What’s surprising is how often this formula works so well, as it does in the 1998 Ford SVT Contour sedan.

Warning to parents: If your teenager’s date shows up in this car, invite him or her inside. Go over the family values rules. Get a copy of the driver’s license. Call the date’s parents, preferably while the date is still trapped in your house. Do a conference call so that everyone understands the rules. Have the date and your child sign a behavior agreement.

Sounds extreme? It is. But, hey, you can’t be too careful with someone who shows up in something that looks like a family car, but runs like the devil. That person is up to no good.

Background: Ford introduced the compact Contour and companion Mercury Mystique in the fall of 1994 as 1995 models. The cars were conservatively styled ovals, intended to appeal to young couples with children.

Instead, the Contour/Mystique attracted people such as a colleague of mine, who is a grandfather and decidedly not young. And to make matters worse, folks like that were only buying or leasing the car when Ford offered it to them with incentives.

So, Ford restyled the front-wheel-drive Contour/Mystique, giving both of them sporty front ends with wide, wraparound headlamps and open-mouthed grilles. The redesign works better on the new Contour, which has a back end that picks up the styling cues up front. The Mystique gives you a hot front only. The oh-so-bland back is as noteworthy as the average suburban shopping mall.

Anyway, to add more hipness, Ford called in its Special Vehicle Team (whence come the initials SVT) to put together a super Contour. This they did, as evidenced by the highly commendable performance of this week’s test car.

The test car is equipped with Ford’s 2.5-liter, double-overhead cam, 24-valve, Duratec V-6, rated 195 horsepower at 6,625 rpm with torque rated 165 pound-feet at 5,625 rpm. The car only comes with a five-speed manual transmission.

Other SVT standard equipment includes dual-front air bags (depowered on the 1998 model); power four-wheel disc brakes with anti-locks at all corners; air conditioning; power windows and locks with remote lock control; leather-faced seating; tilt-steering wheel; 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

1998 Ford SVT Contour

Complaints: Rear cabin space improved with two inches more legroom. But despite Ford’s claims, there’s still not enough room back there for three people. This is a four-passenger car with a five-passenger rating. Also, fat pillars compromise rear vision.

Praise: A total hoot on the road. A driver’s car, discernibly superior to everything else in the Contour/Mystique line. In fact, the S VT Contour can take on the likes of Audi A4 and BMW 318i sedans at two-thirds the price.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces in all the right places. This little car rocks! Excellent braking.

Head-turning quotient: Got far more favorable looks than its predecessor. A smart, sporty exterior with a European-styled, sporty interior. Works quite well.

Mileage: About 26 miles per gallon (14.5-gallontank, estimated 370-mile range on usable volume of recommended premium unleaded), running mostly highway and driver only with no cargo (trunk space, 13.9 cubic feet).

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio with console-mounted, single-disc CD player. Ford Premium Sound System. Very nice boogie.

Price: Base price on the 1998 SVT Contour is $22,365. Dealer invoice is $20,270. “Base” here describes a very well-equipped car. Price as tested is $22,390, including a $535 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Superior value for the dollar. Compare with Audi A4, BMW 318i, Vol swagen Passat, Chrysler Cirrus/Plymouth Breeze, Pontiac Grand Prix.

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