1995 Ford Contour
Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away
When Ford launched its Contour and Mercury Mystique sedans last fall, pricing was a concern â€“ a previous-year's loaded Tempo/Topaz cost less than an entry-level Contour.
Ford took great pains to assure everyone that Contour and Mystique were not really replacements for Tempo/Topaz. But to a customer, both occupied the same relative position, between Escort and Taurus/Sable.
So we asked Ford for a typically equipped Contour. Our test car is the GL model, which accounts for almost 80 per cent of Contour sales. It doesn't get much more typical than this.
Despite being the lowest-priced Contour, the GL is still well equipped, with dual air bags, heated power mirrors, AMFM stereo radio, MicronAir interior air filtration system, door map pockets and a host of other tidbits. (Other Contour models are the up-level LX and the sporty SE.)
Our car had a single option package, with air conditioning, power locks and windows, a cassette radio, cruise, a light group and a full-length centre console â€“ again, typical of what most customers order.
Just days after our car was invoiced, Ford began offering air conditioning as a no-cost option, effectively making it standard equipment. As a standalone item, air costs $980, so the car has become that much better value.
Our 1995 tester was equipped with the 125 horsepower 2.0-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder Zetec engine and five-speed manual transmission.
Much of our previous and not-entirely-happy experience with Contour and Mystique was in dipped-in-gold, fully loaded models. The good news for Ford is that Contour makes a better $18,000 four-cylinder car than a $26,000 luxury sedan (see Mystique Misses Goalpost, Wheels, Feb. 25, 1995).
The powertrain is the car's best feature. The Zetec isn't the most flexible four in the world, although a torque peak of 130 pound-feet at 4000 r.p.m. isn't bad. The engine has an eagerness about it that will help endear it to an enthusiast driver. Those who prefer to just plod along will appreciate its refinement and low noise level, compared to typical domestic fours.
The five-speed manual transmission has a slightly rubbery feel it's not as crisp as a Nissan, but it's still in the top 10 per cent of front-drive gear-changes. New owners may take a while to get used to lifting the collar around the shift knob to allow engagement of reverse â€“ old-time Volvo and current Saab owners will recognize this drill.
The car's European heritage â€“ it's based on Ford's "world car" CDW27 platform, which originally spawned Mondeo, a critical and popular success over there â€“ results in a stiff body structure, which contributes to low road noise and a substantial feel.
Our test car did suffer a couple of rattles, and an odd drone that set up around 90 km/h and continued, at the same pitch, to about 110 km/h. It sounded like blowing across the mouth of an empty bottle, so I'm assuming it was wind-related.
European heritage also usually means excellent handling, and Contour's major pieces â€“ the usual MacStruts up front, a quadlink arrangement at the rear â€“ have the potential to deliver.
But Ford has softened the car for North American consumption. Bigger bumps, however, set up considerable banging and thrashing, as they invariably do with soft suspensions.
It has also affected the car's handling. I mean, it's okay, and there aren't any problems the average consumer would care about, or likely even notice.
But Ford is expending considerable effort boasting about the car's outstanding dynamic prowess, and â€“ I'm sorry â€“ I just don't get it.
Many of my journalistic colleagues have waxed lyrically over Contour's steering and cornering. Funny, they didn't rhapsodize over Lincoln Town Car, which uses the same power steering pump, a component that has a lot to do with how steering feels in a driver's hands.
To me, the steering feels vague on centre, and not a great deal crisper anywhere else, with a slight but perceptible lag between input and output.
The tires on Contour GL don't aid the cause greatly. Corners that I take silently in my old BMW with half-worn Blizzaks set up a fearful row in the Contour at 10 km/h slower. If there's a handler buried under here, you'd have to be brave, possibly deaf, to find it.
Contour's European heritage is also reflected in the interior, to both good and bad effect. The front seats rank with the best-in-class. They are well contoured, you should pardon the expression, and support the body in all the right places, notably the lower back. Comfortable too.
The instrumentation is clear and concise, although GLs don't come with a tachometer, which would have been handy with the stick shift. The heater/air conditioning controls are proper round knobs, and the steering column stalks follow the logical European tradition.
Contour still uses Ford's old domestic teeny-weeny-pushbutton radio, so it's an adventure to tune on the move (Ford's European radios are even worse, but the newer domestics are vastly improved.) Good sound, though, as always from Ford's sound systems.
A sizeable glovebox, door map pockets, a centre console, and a flotsam andjetsam slot under the radio provide lots of storage options. But there isn't a flat surface anywhere to just lay something on â€“ Ford said at the Windstar minivan launch that this is supposed to be a safety feature â€“ and the cubby bin between the seats is too far back.
The small, flimsy popup cup holder looks like what it is: a forehead-slapper, "Geez! We forgot it!" last-minute addition; Europeans just don't get cup holders, but, rightly or wrongly, they're important to day-to-day cruising for many North Americans.
Contour's biggest drawback is lack of interior space, especially in the rear. This too is a reflection of the car's Europeanness â€“ what constitutes a mid size family sedan there is a smallish compact here.
For starters, Contour is narrow â€“ claustrophobes, beware.
The steeply slanted windscreen and large degree of "tumblehome" â€“ the curvature of the body sides â€“ bring the windshield pillars uncomfortably close to the foreheads of shorter drivers. Interestingly, taller drivers don't feel as cramped, since the deeply domed roofline offers more headroom as the seat is moved back.
A tilt steering column would help. Although promised for mid' 95 model year, it's still not mentioned in the early press data for the 1996 models. It is now expected by next spring.
Apparently, there is a tilt mechanism in the car, but you can't use it. The original Eurostyle adjusting lever did not "research" well in North America, and the quickly designed replacement caused knee damage to the crash-test dummies. (No, no, not the rock band.)
Ford has acknowledged the small rear cabin by resculpting the rear face of the front seats for 1996, to carve out more knee room. Later in the '96 model year, the rear seat cushion will be lowered and moved rearward. This will compromise comfort for adults, but it's still a wise move.
But no amount of tinkering can hide the fact that, according to the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) volume index, Contour is smaller inside than Escort, by nearly two cubic feet (0.06 cubic metres).
The trunk is long and wide, if a bit shallow, and the opening is cut down to bumper height for easier loading. (Speaking of the 1996s, those geeky chrome strips on the front and rear bumpers will be deep-sixed.)
Interior materials vary from very good (most of the soft trim) to awful (a row of filler pieces across the dash that all appear to be of different textures and colors). The welded plastic seams on the sunvisors look cheap, as they do on most Japanese cars.
Car companies are free to try and "position" a car any way they like. If Ford can convince you that a four-cylinder Contour competes with Nissan Altima, Honda Accord or even Toyota Camry for well under $20,000, more power to them.
But in size, road dynamics, interior finish, sophistication and even image, Contour cannot really cut it in that company. It comes closest to them in powertrain and performance.
The import nameplates that it objectively lines up against are the brilliant Mazda Protege, or the soon-to-be-replaced but still excellent Toyota Corolla. (Notice I said "import nameplates"; our Corollas are built in Cambridge, Ont.)
On the domestic side, Contour faces off against the gorgeous, roomier, better handling and comparably priced Dodge Stratus, or the comparably sized, equal-performing and considerably cheaper Chevrolet Cavalier.
Ford's avowed sales target for Contour was Pontiac Grand Am. Last time I looked, the flashy, antiquated but well priced Grand Am was outselling Contour more than two to one. If European sophistication was what Grand Am buyers were looking for, they wouldn't have bought a Grand Am in the first place.
If you fit in the car, appreciate the nice seats and refined powertrain, aren't terribly demanding about dynamics â€“ and like free air â€“ you might find happiness in a Ford Contour.
But to attain mainstream success here, Ford is going to have to do a better job of hiding Contour's European heritage. The enlarged interior for 1996 will help.
So would improvements in some trim materials and further development on the suspension.
We'll let you know.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.