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1997 Ford Contour SVT

When it comes to picking a car, patience is a hard virtue to exercise.

A fresh model hits the market, you love the look and the specs, "have to have it" fever rages and you buy.

The idea of going with an established vehicle while the "new and improved" wonder matures is torture.

You may experience the joy of being among the first to acquire a bulletproof gem or you may end up repenting at leisure, as subsequent refinements root out problems you have to live with.

Ford's Contour is a good example of a car that, after a somewhat shaky start in fall, 1994, has steadily evolved toward a higher plane.

The sedan and its Mercury Mystique sibling is the North American version of Ford's European Mondeo. (The Mondeo name, with its slippery Continental air, was deemed inappropriate for us.)

At birth, the Contour, built in Kansas City, Mo., had flaws, such as a non-tilting steering wheel that partially blocked instruments. But Ford persevered.

Today, Contour/Mystique has improved to the point that those hardnosed pragmatists at Consumer Reports magazine, in the

October issue, summed up the Mystique LS V6 with automatic transmission as "a sports sedan in family car clothing."

Their bottom line: "Like a BMW for thousands less."

Now comes what is probably the car's ultimate incarnation and certainly the most fun to drive the Contour SVT. The letters stand for Special Vehicle Team, Ford's six-year-old tuner arm whose mission is to sprinkle performance spice on selected models.

The front-wheel drive Contour is the second Ford product to reach Canada in SVT form (the first was the V8 Mustang Cobra). Only 5,000 1998 Contour SVTs will be built, of which 250 will go to Ford Canada's 22 dealers selling the trick model.

The regular 1998 Contour comes in base LX (starting price: $17,595) and highline SE (starting price: $19,695).

My test car cut a dash in Silver Frost Clearcoat Metallic; black and red are the other available colours.

All SVTs have an interior done in Midnight Blue leather. You won't be disappointed.

Under the hood is a 2.5 litre, twin camshaft Duratec V6. The only transmission available is a highly satisfactory five-speed manual.

The SVT magic includes a motor massage that boosts the horsepower of the 24-valve Duratec the block and head are cast exclusively in Windsor to 195 from 170.

You get improved engine breathing and a beefed-up cooling system, plus high performance clutch and brakes, suspension tweaks, dual exhaust pipes and 16-inch wheels. The bad news: the hotter engine takes premium gas.

Ford also throws in some SVT badging to tell the world your Contour is special.

Inside, comfy, supportive seats feature extra bolstering. White-faced instruments add distinction to the well-planned dash.

Note: this is a narrowish car.

Whether you find it pleasantly snug or too tight will depend on your corporal configuration. To maximize headroom, I'd take a pass on the optional power moonroof ($826). The only other option is a CD player ($107).

SVT hood also includes low-rider body skirting all around that toughens the frothy styling with a note of gravitas. This is a car with visual clout.

But I have to admit that Car and Driver, in a five-car sports sedan comparo last March, rated the SVT's appearance as its "biggest negative." It saw the cladding as "dragging down the Contour's clean lines."

Critics who can figure them out?

The magazine, incidentally, classed its preproduction SVT ahead of a VW Jetta GLX (in fifth place) and Saab 900S, but behind an Acura Integra GSR and Audi A4 1.8T quattro (the comparo winner).

The SVT is a nominee for 1998 Best New Sports Sedan, one of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car of the Year awards.

As a member of the team that evaluated this class last month,

I put the SVT through its paces on track at Shannonville Motorsport Park and over public roads in the area.

The six pod Duratec, mounted east to west, pours out plenty of go. Suspension and steering are first rate, but the nervous throttle takes getting used to. Clutch and gas pedal coordination have to be just right for smooth starts.

The tester's sticker totalled $29,748, including the moonroof, CD player and a $720 transportation charge.

Given today's obese prices and the SVT's capabilities, that seems like a good deal.

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