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The idea of a "would car" - a vehicle designed to serve markets from Detroit to Dublin - isn't new. Most major carmakers have tried their hand at this game at one time or another. And, to varying degrees, most have failed.
But with consumer needs, tastes and concerns becoming increasingly uniform worldwide, the idea makes more sense now than ever before.
Safety, fuel efficiency and environmentally clean operation are just as compelling in other major world markets as they are here. And American auto preferences in ride, handling and size are much closer to European standards than at any time in the past.
That's the backdrop for the Ford Contour, an all-new car that already has a solid track record in Europe, and is now rolling into U.S. showrooms.
The North American version has had a number of subtle adjustments to its exterior and suspension, but it's fundamentally the same car - a smaller midsize entry that's about the same size as a Honda Accord or Mazda 626.
The Contour and its Mercury cousin, the Mystique, are nominal replacements for the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz. We say nominal, because they're more expensive and more modern - much better qualified to compete directly with popular Japanese cars such as the Accord, 626, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry.
Proportion is the key element in any successful design, and it's one of the Contour's strengths. Like the Accord, the relationship of the Contour's wheelbase to its overall length is very tidy - there's not much bodywork extending beyond the front and rear wheels.
The same applies to the relationship between the Contour's height and its width, which conspire to give it a low, aggressive appearance.
In addition to a modern, purposeful appearance, these relationships also lend themselves to good handling traits. The wheelbase-to-length ratio keeps more of the car's mass centered between the axles, and the height-to-width match-up helps to keep the center of gravity relatively low.
The styling itself is conservative, but the front-end treatment does lend a rakish touch, reminiscent of the Ford Probe.
This exceptionally rigid unibody design bolsters handling and occupant protection in crashes. The roof pillar system, in particular, is extra sturdy, and the side-impact protection system meets '97 federal standards. Dual airbags are standard.
Contours are available in three models: the base GL, the luxurious LX and the sporty SE. There are two engines - a standard 125-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and a superb 170-hp 2.5-liter Duratec V6 - and two transmissions - a 5-speed manual, standard for all models, and a 4-speed automatic.
Like the car, both engines are all new and the latest in Ford's advanced engine-control technology. So are both transmissions.
Beyond its remarkable performance, a particularly appealing feature of the new Duratec V6 engine is its maintenance schedule. Aside from oil changes, it requires no maintenance for the first 100,000 miles.
Our test car was an SE with the V6 5-speed manual transmission, a combination that brings out the Contour's best qualities. But it's also a combination that will probably account for no more than 10 percent of Contour sales, according to Ford forecasts. The bulk of the sales is expected to go to 4-cylinder GLs with automatic transmissions.
Regardless of model, the Contour is very much a driver's car in the European tradition, and the interior reinforces its character. There's a snug, intimate feeling to this car - it's more sports car than family sedan.
A big part of this feeling comes from the bucket front seats, which have pronounced thigh and torso bolsters to keep the driver and front-seat passenger from rattling around during hard cornering.
In addition to being supportive, the front seats provide a good range of adjustability and excellent comfort. We think they wouldn't be much out of place in a BMW.
The Contour's control layout is generally handy, and we liked some of the small touches - cupholders that pop out of the center console and a small coin bin integrated into the top of the dashboard.
However, from a cosmetic point of view the design of the dashboard isn't very successful. Although its sweeping curves are stylish, it's composed of too many smaller pieces and is busy looking.
Backseat space is the Con-tour's weakest point. Although this car is Accord-sized, its rear-seat legroom is more consistent with the smaller Ford Escort. Here's one area, perhaps, where European standards still don't translate to the U.S. market.
The Contour may not be the most agile sedan in its class - but it's hard to think of one that's quicker on its Feet. Few small sedans provide a stronger sense of control, the rare feeling that the car is an extension of the driver's will.
The Contour's sophisticated suspension lends a strong sense of authority and response, something that's enhanced by its quick, precise steering.
This was particularly true of our SE test car, but it also applies to the basic GL. These cars are the best athletes in their class, a class that includes several very good players.
Besides the high fun-to-drive factor, nimble handling can be viewed as an active safety feature, giving you a chance to avoid trying out your car's passive safety equipment.
There is a small price for this kind of handling and control. The Contour's ride quality is firm in the GL, firmer in the SE. There's enough compliance to manage small irregularities in the paving without harshness, but we think some may find it a little stiff in the knees.
Still, with its superior response, we prefer the Contour approach. If a soft ride is the objective, a Camry might be better.
The Contour's basic 4-cylinder engine provides adequate performance even with an automatic transmission, as well as good fuel economy. However, it's no better than average compared with the basic 4-cylinder engines offered by the competition.
The Duratec V6 is an altogether different story: This one really sizzles. It's quiet and composed when you're cruising, but its response in stoplight getaways and backroad passing is little short of electrifyin'.
You can buy bigger V6 engines - usually in bigger cars - with more power. But in a 2800-lb. sedan, the new Ford V6 delivers acceleration that's equal to just about anything in the midsize class.
Braking performance in our test car, which included anti-lock brakes (ABS), was positive and powerful. However, we were disappointed that ABS isn't standard equipment in all models.
Although it's more expensive than the old Tempo, the Con-tour is attractively priced compared with its competition. And it's also an infinitely better car.
Including destination charges, the GL starts at under $14,000, but that gets you a pretty spartan car. A few options will make it more livable and still keep the price at the low end of the midsize spectrum.
LX prices start at $14,490, and the base price for the SE, which includes the V6 engine, is $16,190. If you check every box on the option list, you can boost the price of a new Con-tour past $18,000. But even then you'd be bucks ahead versus comparably equipped competing models.
It's hard to understand why Ford limited the Contour's rear-seat space as it did. That drawback aside, though, this is a nifty little sedan that's as fun to drive as anything in its class. It may be the best Ford car yet.
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