Every time I hear one of my younger friends complain about the lack of choices when searching for a fun-to-drive sedan, I want to scream. Lack of choices? For cryin' out loud, sporty sedans make up, like, 98% of the car market these days! You've got the Pontiac Grand Prix GT, the Toyota Camry CE V-6, the Nissan Maxima SE, the Volkswagen Jetta GLX, and the BMW 328i, just to name a few. The inevitable rejoinder from my young friends is that the above cars are too expensive, that even the value-leading Toyota Camry CE V-6 starts at just under $20,000, and isn't there anything fun and fast that will cost less than the remaining balance on their student loans?
In fact, there is. It is called the Ford Contour SE. The Ford Contour SE has a base price of $18,070 (including destination charge) and has a standard equipment roster that includes a 170-horsepower 24-valve V-6 Duratec engine, 4-wheel disc brakes, 12-spoke alloy wheels, a performance-tuned suspension, fog lamps, an AM/FM stereo with cassette, air conditioning, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. We have recommended this car so many times to friends and strangers alike that we are beginning to feel that Ford should cut us in on some of its profits.
You may wonder what it is that we find so enchanting about this rather plain looking sedan. First is the powerplant, which winds up faster than a jack-in-the-box and makes a sound like 1000 screaming bobcats. Its 170 horsepower moves the Contour SE's 3030-lb. curb weight to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, as quickly as the much more expensive Honda Accord EX V-6. Straight-line acceleration, while not embarrassing, is hardly the reason that someone would love this engine. Rather, they would choose this engine because of its broad powerband and the wonderful pull it gives right up to redline. A motor designed not for the drag strip, but rather for an autocross event. Autocross is what comes to mind when experiencing the wonders of the suspension and steering as well. Despite the somewhat dated MacPherson strut suspension at the front of the car and an independent Quadralink suspension at the back of the car, the Contour SE handles better than many sport coupes. Combined with the Contour's quick-ratio rack-and-pinion steering setup, this car feels race-ready right out of the box. Nobody at Ford was willing to own up to it, but we are fairly certain that the Contour's gearbox was improved for 1998 as well. Gone is the slushiness that made the critical 2nd to 3rd gear change a challenge in previous models, the shift lever in the 1998 Contour feels tight and accurate.
The week that we spent with our bold blue tester was enjoyable. The thickly padded sport seats, premium stereo with CD player, and eager-to-please attitude of this car kept us from watching too many Seinfeld reruns. Instead, we made excuses to be out driving. Each night when the workday was done I would offer to run some inane errand just to spend some time behind the wheel. It didn't matter how minor the task; everything from picking up dinner to dropping off a movie became a chance for me to exercise a lack of restraint while piloting this little rocket. The amazing tossability of this car inspired tremendous confidence, and caused this writer to seek out the road less traveled when planning daily drives.
Edmund's editors are not alone in their ardor for the Ford Contour. Nearly every enthusiast magazine has named it to their list of top vehicles since the car's introduction in 1995. Despite this, we in the automotive press, and you of the driving public, have asked Ford to give us a little more. Something along the lines of the first generation Ford Taurus SHO in terms of understated excitement.
Apparently distraught by the lukewarm reception its redesigned SHO received, Ford worked extra hard to make sure its uber-Contour got the right treatment from the Ford Special Vehicle Team (the people responsible for the Mustang Cobra, Taurus SHO, and Explorer-based Tremor concept vehicle). When souping up the Taurus, Ford looked to Japan to supply critical engineering components. The V-8 engine in the current SHO, for example, is a modified version of a high-revving Yamaha V-6. For the hot-rod Contour, Ford looked to Europe for ideas, not surprising given this car's sibling relationship with the European-market Ford Mondeo. As a result, the Contour SVT feels very Germanic.
What did Ford do to differentiate the Contour SVT from the SE? The most important thing Ford did was modify the engine to give it more horsepower. By introducing an extrude hone intake manifold and secondary ports for the cylinder heads and a unique throttle body and air filter, the freer-breathing engine is able to make 195 horsepower without increasing its displacement. A 2-pound reduction in the weight of the flywheel means that the SVT's engine spools up considerably faster than the SE's. This is important since peak torque in the modified engine occurs 1375 rpm higher than in the regular engine. Other performance enhancements in the Contour SVT include 16" alloy wheels, Z-rated Goodyear SC performance tires, larger front brake rotors, standard anti-lock brakes, a 19" front anti-roll bar, and a unique spring calibration. Visual enhancements include unique front and rear fascias, rocker sill extensions, dual exhaust ports, special SVT badges, and a very cool gray-faced instrument cluster. Luxury touches include leather seats, power windows, power door locks, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, rear window defroster, and a power driver's seat. The price tag for all this? A mere $22,900, including destination charge.
Before taking delivery on our test SVT, we had read less-than-enthusiastic reviews from a number of our peers who claimed that there was little to differentiate this car from its already capable little brother. Needless to say, we were surprised and impressed when our tester positively knocked us on our butts. First off, the SVT is much more visually exciting than the SE model. The large round fog lamps and unique grille at the front end work nicely with the aggressive valence at the back of the car to distinguish it from a parking lot full of look-alike sedans. Second is the noise that bubbles up from the engine compartment. Shrill and assertive, this car sounds like a rocket getting ready for liftoff. The third and most critical difference is in the handling, which is improved to Audi A4-like levels. The smaller front anti-roll bar improves turn-in for tight corners, and the larger brake rotors make it possible to set up for hairpins at faster speeds. Did we see a difference between the cars? Hell yes. Is the difference worth the $4,830 price premium over the outstanding Contour SE? That depends.
We love the Contour. It is fun, fast and pretty practical. It does, however, have noticeable drawbacks that are worth mentioning. Despite its 4-portal design, the Contour offers limited rear seat room. While this is of no great concern for this childless editor, it bothers me to think that there wouldn't be enough room for an adult foursome to ride in comfort for more than a short distance. The Contour also has less than perfect ergonomics, easy to overlook when thinking about the near perfect chassis, but disturbing nonetheless. For example, the Contour still makes do with an abysmally hard to operate stereo; small buttons and smaller lettering make station changes at freeway speeds grounds for a reckless driving ticket. Other missteps include the impractical cup holders which offer little ability to hold any cup, and limited cargo space. We don't mention these things to talk you out of the car, we merely mention them as a contrast to our enthusiasm for the Contour's outstanding mechanicals.
If you are someone who needs a car for urban duty, but who enjoys long weekend drives through the country, the Contour SE should fit the bill just fine. It is plenty quick, and handles like a dream. Better still, its stealthy styling should keep the smokies wondering who is lighting up their radar guns. If you are someone who needs a car for urban duty and requires outstanding, race car-like performance and sounds, the Contour SVT may be a better choice. Be warned, though, owning a sedan that sounds like a race car, looks like a race car, and speeds like a race car may have an adverse effect on your insurance rates. As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, we have recommended this car time and time again. Driving the SE and SVT back-to-back sure hasn't made us regret that decision.