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Ford's 1997 Mondeo/Mystique/Contour

Nicholas Frankl, London.

Fleet managers in some 91 countries around the world will be patting themselves on the back this week. Why? I hear you ponder. Well because these are the folk responsible for the redesigned and facelifted '97 Mondeo. Since its introduction in 1993, over 1.5 million of the three variants have been sold world-wide making it the class leader in the ultra competitive C/D sector that also includes the Nissan Primera, Peugeot 406, and Toyota Carina. As you would expect, the rehash has been thoroughly planned and executed right down to the last washer. For as the marketing director reminded us, "we have to strike a balance between what we'd like to include and what the shareholders expect from the company".

Clearly the most noticeable changes of the "new" car are the redesigned nose and tail, featuring wrap-around, and surprisingly attractive, front "bug eye" lights and a rounded-off bonnet. Similarly the rear treatment has a very US look about it. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if we saw few, if any, changes to the car when it makes its US debut next year. Visual bits apart, a large emphasis has been given to the previous relative lack of rear leg space - which is now 40mm longer - a weight loss programme that has seen 18 kilos knocked off and increased safety with the introduction of optional side air bags for both front passengers and four channel ABS.

Driving the 24 valve V6 was very pleasant indeed. The engine is quite torquey and responsive, though it has a bit of a weak spot around 3500-4000 revs where the second power band begins. This in conjunction with the engine's desire to pull cleanly right up to the red line at 6500, means that to get anywhere at pace you have to use all the available space on the rev counter. The steering ( helped by a great- feeling leather wheel ) is quite sharp and precise with good initial turn-in, aided by excellent Michelin tyres, which I'm pleased to report are standard on all UK models and which I've often found to be a fine combination between performance and tyre wear. Handling has been sharpened up with revised front-strut design and front and rear damper settings, giving the car a genuine sporty feel which, in combination with 170bhp, enables even the most dire of pilots to reach and maintain a surprising lick of pace. I wonder, actually, how the "sports" variant, the ST, will feel as it has a stiffer suspension and firmer seats.

I have to say that once ensconced inside the fully loaded 24 v, I began to wonder what else any normal person could need as more and more the dividing line between ordinary - you and me cars - and executive motors seems to be gelling. It used to be that if you wanted illuminated sunvisors and a trip computer you had to pop down to the local Mercedes forecourt. Now these and leather, ABS, electric everything plus considerable power, not to mention presence, are included in all the mainstream, top- end models and we're not even talking about the firms exec stables (and by that I mean the Scorpio, Nissan QX, Peugeot 605 and Toyota Lexus). All the previously mentioned 406 et al have "loaded" models in the range too.

As I'm told that an incredible 70% of these Mondeos find company homes ( so no clues as to who had the biggest input here then) I'd better also tell you about the lesser "rep" versions. There are, in total, seven trim levels (why?) of which each signals additional goodies as standard and, no doubt, ones seniority within the firm. Strangely the Aspen is the lowest of the table, giving credence to the phrase "fake it till you make it" as the top one is the Ghia (X) that no one actually remembers was an Italian design house of considerable credibility before the big blue oval slapped it all over special edition Fiestas and Escorts. Fortunately, Ford has in these PC times, adopted a rather more subtle approach to badging, leaving the more extreme alphabet soup off, and preferring to let the small details tell the story - front driving lights/alloy wheels etc.

You'll have gathered by now that there really is not too much drastically wrong with the car. Admittedly it doesn't have the handling to match the new Primera, which benefits from a far more sophisticated suspension set-up. Nor does it ride quite as cleanly as the Peugeot 406. But these are personal preferences, not faults per say. Being as I recently drove the old Mondi 1.8 on a non stop trip from Maranello to Monaco (a distance of over 450 km) I can speak with some authority on the capabilities of the brand and although I enjoyed only the top model, the new Mondeo is an improved package both inside and out.

Now just you watch the marketing dept go to work .

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