1998 Ford Contour -- Review by Owen, Aug. 20, 2001
I fully expect that there will be a touch of editorial comment in the course of this review, because it is a review of the Opinionated Editor's mode of transport, a 1998 Ford Contour, which I drove from Victoria to Calgary last week.
Sadly, this is no longer my method of transport, or, probably, anyone else's, because I signed the lease over to my parents, who did both cruelly and inconsiderately send it back to Ford Motor Company in exchange for an extremely sporty, stylish, and incredibly well-handling 2001 Ford Focus Station Wagon. My current method of transport is Victoria Public Transit...sigh...
After driving back to Calgary, I indulged myself in some old reviews of the Contour, and discovered that, among other things, one reviewer had advised his readers never ever to consider the 4 banger with an automatic transmission, but to opt for the 5 speed manual, the v-6, or both. Unfortunately it was the 2 liter inline four that I hauled over those mountains, which will probably cause a skewed opinion of the Contour in my mind.
My first observation is that of the 132 alleged horses this engine develops, about 20 of them seem to be pack and a half a day smokers. Although the relatively unloaded car was able to maintain speed on hills, it had absolutely no passing power, and at some points, climing 6% grades, was kicked all the way down to second gear. Also the motor sounded like a blender above 4000 RPM. Could have been worse, could have sounded like a blender crushing ice.
The transmission was acceptable, although I found it unresponsive to throttle inputs, slow to upshift and to downshift when I wanted, and I was not a fan of the "OD off" button, which took the place of a D3 position in the shift gates. I really believe that the transmission was the weakest point on this car, siphoning off vital power into the torque converter and reducing fuel economy, while providing a less than inspiring performance in passing on long uphill grades.
I was far more impressed with the handling of the Contour. Turn in was quick and precise, with virtually zero on-centre slop (not what I expected from a Ford Sedan), and the leather wrapped steering wheel was thick and easy to grip. Two tiny complaints prevent this from redeeming the drive train, however. The four spoke steering wheel was designed to prevent the driver from keeping his or her hands comfortably in a "9 and 3" position, with spokes forcing hands up to "10 and 2" or down to "8 and 4". Also, the steering effort required was excessive at highway speeds, where admittedly I am accustomed to driving with two fingers on a non-power steering car. These two things combined to cause a nasty cramp in my wrist after about the halfway point of the trip.
Fuel economy was not bad, although it could have been better, again with the addition of a manual transmission.
For a family car, the Contour is big on the outside, but small on the inside. There is actually more legroom and headroom in my 323 Mazda than in the Contour, in both the front and back seats. On the passenger side, the airbag is so bulky that even with my seat all the way back, and my feet all the way to the end of the foot well, my knees rubbed the dashboard. Also I now know why the Editor drives with the seat reclined so far back. The lumbar support in the driver's seat is close to non-existent, and leaning back provides a position where your lower back is not supporting the whole weight of your torso.
The stock stereo system was, to be kind, kind of weak on the bass. Now, I am not the kind of guy who drives around the town, blasting hip-hop from my subwoofers, shattering windows, and causing damage to my internal organs due to vibrations, but the amount of road noise entering the cabin was far too high compared to the power of the speakers to play clear music. Much of the nuance and even most of the lyrics of most songs were lost at a reasonable volume.
There are upsides to this car, however, and I don't want the reader to get the opinion that I hated it or have nothing nice to say. The Handling, as I said, was just great, it never felt floaty or imprecise, just nicely planted and willing to go where it was pointed. The high beam headlights absolutely lit up the countryside, the AC was powerful enough to give me goosebumps when set to low, the glove box was big enough to store plenty of stuff, the driver's side cup holder would hold a drink quite well, although the passenger side cup holder, for no apparent reason, is so shallow it reminded me of this girl I used to know in high-school. In the course of the whole trip, that cup%20holder failed to hold about 4 times. That's quite a bit considering the fact that I spent most of my time as a passenger holding my drink in my hands.
Another thing that I didn't much care for was the curved dash, which prevented anything from being placed there. You know, important stuff, like cd players, and bears.
All in all, this iteration of the Contour does its duty as basic transportation and a compact sedan. there were many things that could have been done better, such as offering folding rear seats, and I think that Ford probably did the right thing when they replaced the Contour and the Escort with the Focus after the Contour had only been on the market in North America for 4 years. With the exception of the SVT model, this car will never be a classic, it is too basic in design, too like a Taurus in styling, and the 2.0 liter model is definitely underpowered with he automatic transmission.
You may think that I am about to give this car a very few pints, but to be fair, this is an entry-level compact sedan that does its job well enough, with room for two adults and two kids in relative comfort and safety, with plenty of room in the trunk. To be fair, most contours were sold with the V-6 engine, which would improve performance a great deal, making this vehicle a much more driver-oriented car. The Contour gets three pints for doing its duty. With the V-6 and a 5 speed, my guess is that it would get four pints, but there is no excuse for a car where my knees rub the dashboard, I'm just not that tall. Oh, and those pints are pints of American Macro-Brew, mass produced and of adequate quality, but not as interesting as a German version.