The Ford SVT Contour

Before the end, Contour got a megadose of Euro-style performance, courtesy of Ford's Special Vehicle Team. SVT had been formed in the early 1990s as a semi-autonomous part of the Dearborn organization, charged with souping-up various vehicles for sale through selected Ford dealers.

Having made its mark with hot Cobra Mustangs and rapid F-150 Lightning pickups, SVT was asked to realize the Contour's full sport sedan potential for 1998. Marketers doubtless hoped the new model's image would boost sales for the rest of the line.

They didn't get that, but enthusiasts got a "stealth" driver's car that could go hunting for BMWs, even on twisty roads. A reworked suspension with stiffer springs and shocks, bigger brakes, and 16-inch rolling stock made cornering nimble and near neutral -- a revelation for a domestic front-drive sedan -- yet ride was scarcely less supple than in mainstream Contours.

To complement the chassis, the 2.5 Duratec V-6 received higher compression, deep-breathing exercises, and other measures to achieve 195 bhp (later 200), delivered through a mandatory short-throw five-speed manual gearbox. Cosmetic alterations were subtle but sufficient for those in the know, and there were plenty of extra niceties such as leather upholstery. The only options, in fact, were a power moonroof and CD player.

Even so, the base price was amazingly low at around $23,000. A comparable 3-Series BMW or Mercedes-Benz C-Class cost thousands more, yet the SVT Contour was easily their equal on a road course or a dragstrip, running 0-60 mph in about 7.5 seconds in most road tests.

Collectible Automobile magazine thought the SVT Contour so good that it would one day be a coveted keepsake. "No doubt about it…Ford has finally produced a genuine European sports sedan right here in the U.S.A. (Hear that, "Buy American" diehards?)"

Alas, many enthusiasts either didn't believe their ears or thought the Blue Oval badge too ­ proletarian. In any case, production was slightly more limited than even SVT had planned: about 10,000 in 1998-99, plus a handful more in phaseout 2000.

Ford was somewhat wide of the mark with the erstwhile replacement for its old truck-like Aerostar minivan. Unlike Mercury's two-year-old Villager, which Ford built in Ohio to a Nissan design, the new 1995 Windstar was Dearborn's own front-drive minivan, using a modified Taurus platform and drivetrains to furnish a similarly car-like driving feel. Ford also gave it standard seven-place seating on a 120.7-inch wheelbase, slightly longer than that of Chrysler's extended-length Grand models.

Overall, Windstar was eight inches longer than a Grand and nearly a foot longer than Villager. GL and LX price levels were offered in the $20,000-$24,000 range. Nice looks, high utility, and a full range of passenger-car safety features netted healthy sales.

Even so, Ford was only catching up, not advancing the art, and Windstar was never a threat to the sales-leading Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth minivans -- not even after being lightly restyled as the 2005 Freestar.

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