SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide
The 1998 Contour was another Ford early release, going on sale near the beginning of the 1997 calendar year. A restyled exterior gives it a more modern and distinctive look. Inside are a host of small refinements that add up to more room and a quieter, more comfortable environment. Suspension modifications have improved ride comfort and handling for all models, and the 2.0-liter "Zetec" 4-cylinder engine used in some has been redesigned for smoother, quieter operation.
Four versions of the Contour are being offered for 1998. The entry-level GL and mid-level LX use the "Zetec" engine. The SE is powered by the "Duratec" 2.5-liter V6, and was the sports-luxury sedan of the line until the mid-year introduction of the limited- production SVT. The SVT has a tuned version of the Duratec engine with more power and a sport-tuned suspension, and slightly different trim.
I did have a chance to drive an SVT at Sears Point International Raceway earlier in the year, and found it to be a quick and wonderfully-handling, world-class small sports sedan. However, the SE is not too far behind in ability, particularly in the real world of traffic jams and speed limits. It has a willing engine with plenty of power to deal with aggressive traffic, and a suspension that combines comfort with very good handling. My week with a Contour SE was spent in the Detroit, MI, area - infamous for bad roads and hideous traffic. The Contour SE's quick acceleration, great brakes, nimble handling, and top-notch suspension made it the perfect vehicle for Detroit area traffic and road conditions. And, if a car can work well on those weather-destroyed, poorly-paved roads and in that insane traffic, it can work well anywhere.
APPEARANCE: Use of the same roof, door, and rear quarter panels as before gives the '98 Contour a familiar silhouette. However, the new car is more upscale and interesting in appearance than the old version, aided in no small part by subtle amounts of strategically-placed chrome trim. The edges are a bit more angular, with new fender lines, hood and rear deck panels. The front has been extensively restyled, with new multifaceted "jewel" headlamp clusters and a larger, chrome-trimmed oval grille. A discreet character line at the top of the wheels offsets the sculpted roundness of the sides. The rear end has been as dramatically restyled as the front, and now has a full-width taillight applique similar to that of its cousin, the Mercury Mystique. The Contour SE sports spoked alloy wheels that show off its impressive brakes.
COMFORT: Inside, the '98 Contour SE is also familiar but slightly different. It's more mainstream in design than other Ford cars, and has a little more room and comfort this year thanks to front and rear seat modifications. The Contour is a "small family" sedan, but has plenty of space for two adults and two or three children on a regular basis. The middle rear seat passenger is well cared for, with a 3-point safety harness. Seat fabrics and door trim have been changed this year. My test car had the optional leather upholstery, which was supple, comfortable, and added a touch of elegance. It was good around town or on long highway drives. Power windows and mirrors are standard equipment; a long list of options in the American tradition ensures custom tailoring. Ford's air conditioning is among the best in the business, and keeps heat and humidity at bay.
SAFETY: The 1998 Ford Contour SE has safety-cell chassis construction, dual airbags, and 4-wheel vented disc brakes. Antilock brakes are available. All five occupants have a 3-point safety harness.
ROADABILITY: Where the Contour SE stands out from most other small domestic or imported sedans is on the road. It isn't specifically a sports sedan, but fills the role perfectly well. A rigid chassis allows the revised, fully-independent suspension to be calibrated more softly than that of typical sports sedan, with no loss of handling ability. Ride comfort is very good, even on frost-heaved, uneven pavement, and the tires stay in contact with the road. The SE is an enjoyable car on highway ramps or backroads, and is smooth, quiet, and untiring on long highway trips.
PERFORMANCE: Although the Contour SE is available with an automatic transmission, the standard 5-speed manual is the perfect match for its 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower V6 engine. It has quick, smooth action, and clutch effort is low. Even in stop-and-go traffic, it's not unreasonable. The engine has great midrange torque and is sportingly rev-happy. At higher engine speeds it's energetic and makes very satisfying six-cylinder music. The Duratec V6 helps make the Contour SE a practical family sports car. If more power is required, the SVT version has 195 horses under its hood with no comfort or space penalties.
CONCLUSIONS: Sports coupe desires don't need to be sacrificed by sedan needs with the 1998 Ford Contour SE. It combines the driving enjoyment of a sports coupe with the 4-door practicality of a sedan.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 17,535 Price As Tested $ 21,605 Engine Type aluminum alloy V6, dual overhead cams, 24 valves Engine Size 2.5 liters / 155 cu. in. Horsepower 170 @ 6250 Torque (lb-ft) 165 @ 4250 Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 106.5 in. / 187.4 in. Curb Weight 2797 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 16.5 Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P205/60 R15 Firestone Firehawk GTA Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock optional Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent Quadralink Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed NA/ NA/ /22 0 to 60 mph est 8 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) est 16 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.31 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Preferred Equipment Package 239A $ 1090 includes: spoiler, manual air conditioning, rear defroster, power locks, theater lighting, cruise control CD player $ 270 Remote Keyless Entry $ 190 Carpets $ 45 Power moonroof $ 595 Power Driver's Seat $ 350 Antilock Brakes $ 600 Leather Upholstery $ 895 Package Discounts -($500) Destination Charge $ 535