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Ford Contour Replaces Ford Tempo

Interest value was definitely not a trait of the early '90s Tempo. Soldiering on with few evident differences from one year to the next, Ford's front-drive compact tended to get lost in the great gray mass of Detroit market-fillers that you were more apt to rent on vacation than put in your driveway.

Yet for all its crushing dullness, Tempo remained a decent seller, with steady model-year production of well over 100,000 units through swan-song '94 -- and the '93s made a surprise spurt to better than 238,000. Tempo's only changes of note in this period were loss of the AWD option after 1991 (when it was called "Four Wheel Drive") and the '92 addition of the 3.0-liter Taurus V-6 as standard for top-line GLS models (which then went away) and an option elsewhere.


Base prices remained very attractive, rising no higher than the low $12,000s. While that betrayed an aging design long since paid for, it also helped Ford to keep moving this metal. Tempo's 1995 replacement stood to be a far easier sell. Called Contour, it was another stab at a "world car," born of "Ford 2000" thinking as an Americanized version of the year-old European Mondeo.

But unlike the original compromised U.S. Escort, Contour was very close to its transatlantic cousin, having the same smooth, tightly drawn styling, plus an ultra-stiff structure and a sophisticated all-independent suspension that contributed to crisp, taut handling. Even the Mondeo dash was little altered for the States. Unfortunately, so was its snug interior. Despite a wheelbase half-an-inch longer than Taurus', the Contour was frankly cramped in back, with little underseat footroom and marginal knee, leg, and headroom.

Still, this was the closest America had yet come to an affordable European-style sports sedan. Critics raved. Road & Track called Contour "a giant step forward in the compact sedan arena." Car and Driver termed it "stunningly satisfying." Those verdicts came from road tests of the top-line SE model and its 2.5-liter "Duratec" V-6.

A new all-Ford design optional on lesser Contours, this engine made 170 spirited horses -- enough for Consumer GuideĀ®'s five-speed car to charge from 0 to 60 mph in just 8.9 seconds. GL and midlevel LX models came with another new engine: a 2.0-liter multivalve twincam four called "Zetec," an outgrowth of Ford Europe's recently introduced "Zeta" family of small, high-efficiency powerplants. In line with a fast-growing Detroit trend, both Contour engines could go 100,000 miles without a tune-up. And, of course, either could drive through an optional four-speed automatic.

Ford spent a record $6 billion to introduce Mondeo, Contour, and Mercury's companion '95 Mystique. That was twice the expense of the original Taurus program, but included the high costs of developing two brand-new engines, manufacturing facilities, and the usual new-model tooling.

Even so, Ford had bet heavily on these cars (dubbed "CDW127" in the company's new internal code, the letters denoting "World car" in the "C/D" size class), so it was vital they succeed.

Contour did succeed, but not as well as the car it replaced. A minor recall slowed early deliveries, but the real problem was sticker shock. With buyers still flocking to well-equipped Japanese cars, Ford decided to ladle on all kinds of standard features (including dual dashboard airbags), but this only pushed Contour quite a bit upmarket from Tempo, which had been relatively cheap.

Many prospects thus balked and walked when Contour arrived at a minimum of $13,300, over $1000 more than a late loaded Tempo. Opt for an SE with desirable extras like ABS and traction control and you were well over $20,000, which was Taurus money.

Ford had underestimated the price sensitivity of Contour's target market, as telling a miscalculation as that tight back seat. Ford tried to correct its mistakes for 1997 by adding a lower-priced low-frills Contour and scooping out the front seatbacks and rear-seat cushion for a little more aft legroom. A modest reskin followed for '98, when the two low-line models were dropped and the LX and SE became better dollar values through careful realigning of prices and standard features.

But nothing seemed to help, so Ford pulled the plug on Contour after 2000. Sibling Mondeo continued, however, remaining quite popular in Europe -- enough to be accorded a full redesign a few years later.

For more on the amazing Ford, old and new, see:

  • Ford New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Ford Used Car Reviews and Prices