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1998 Ford Contour SVT

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Can you make a capable sports sedan out of

a mediocre compact family car?

Apparently so, if brief road-and-track sessions in Ford's SVT

Contour are any indication.

Ford has addressed many of the drawbacks of the original

Contour in the 1998 base model, which we will detail for you in

a few weeks.

SVT, for Special Vehicle Team, is a small group of dedicated

car nuts whose mandate is to do for Ford what the M-Division

does for BMW: build small-volume specialized versions of

mainstream cars that push the performance envelope in all the

right directions, and simultaneously cast a glow around the

run-of-the-mill production stuff.

SVT has started from the improved base Contour and worked some

fairly serious upgrading magic to create the SVT version.

The formula for this sort of project is simple: make the car

go faster, make it handle better, make it look distinctive.

The go-faster tricks applied to Ford's already-impressive

2.5 litre four-cam 24-valve Duratec V6 engine are standard

hot-rodding basics: get more airfuel mixture into the engine;

squeeze it harder; get the exhaust out faster.

In the SVT Contour, breathing is improved by higher-lift,

longer-duration intake and exhaust camshafts, plus

larger-diameter air mass sensor and throttle body, the latter

adapted from Taurus's 3.0 litre Duratec V6.

Special aluminum alloy pistons raise the SVT Contour's

compression ratio from 9.7:1 to 10.0. Products of combustion

escape into a wider (2.25 inch diameter) stainless steel exhaust

system. Back pressure is reduced by 40 per cent.

All this results in peak power rising from 170 to 195

horsepower, which ranks it with Porsche's new Boxster (201

horses) among the highest-output naturally aspirated engines of

its size. Most of the extra power comes at the top end of the

rev range, but with a 6750 r.p.m. redline and 7000 r.p.m. fuel

shut-off, the upper reaches of the rev band are easy and fun to

explore.

Peak torque of 165 poundfeet occurs at a frighteningly high

5625 r.p.m., but the engine is less peaky than that sounds, as

Contour's dual-passage intake system helps boost low and

midrange urge.

Ford claims a 0-to-96 km/h (60 m.p.h.) time of 7.9 seconds,

and a top speed of 230 km/h.

If an engine is going to work harder, steps must be taken to

make it live longer. A higher-capacity cooling system borrows

the 14 mm-deeper radiator core from Mondeo, Contour's European

cousin, while a water-to-oil oil cooler mounts directly to the

side of the engine block to keep oil temperature down.

A lighter modular-iron fly-wheel connects to a new

cable-shifted five-speed manual transmission shared with the '98

Contour (not all the changes to that car are for the better). No

automatic will be offered in the SVT.

Handling upgrades are not very dramatic; much of the

improvement comes from upgrades to the base car. Still, the SVT

gets re-calibrated spring curves the 1998 SE, formerly the

sportiest Contour, has been softened for 1998, which opens up

some doors for the SVT's firmer springing and tighter shock

control.

The team wanted to shift the roll centre toward the rear, to

reduce understeer. This usually calls for a thicker rear sway

bar, but Ford says they couldn't package anything larger than

the current 19 mm bar. Hard to imagine the back end of the

Contour is so tight they couldn't find a couple of millimetres.

Whatever, the solution was to reduce the thickness of the front

bar from 20 to 19 mm.

Tires are a Plus One fitment: one step up in wheel diameter

(16 by 6.5 inch alloys versus 15.0 by 6.0s on SE), one step

down in tire aspect ratio (205/55 Z-rated Goodyear GSCs, not

materially larger than the 205/60R15 all-seasons on SE).

The suspension upgrades don't lower the car; as with the

modest change to the tires, SVT wanted to sharpen the car's

responses a little, but not turn the ride rockhard in the

process.

Brakes again borrow from the international parts bin: Mondeo's

279 mm diameter front discs offer 20.8 per cent more swept area.

The 251 mm rear discs are stock Contour SE. Anti-lock control is

standard.

Visual changes to a car can be expensive. SVT has achieved a

good result with relatively low investment. A new front fascia

not only looks different, but offers twice the area for intake

cooling air. Round fog lamps I can always live without, but the

black mesh in the grille opening, mimicked in a valence panel at

the rear of the car between the stainless exhaust pipe tips,

looks neat.

Rocker panel extensions visually lower the car in profile. SVT

proves they know how to build a true adult toy, and not some

juvenile poseur car — a rear spoiler is happily conspicuous by

its absence. Memo to Ford's SHO people: please copy for the hot

rod Taurus.

Exterior colors are limited to black, silver and red. Inside,

you have no choice: dark blue leather, perforated on the seating

surfaces for better comfort, is it. White-faced gauges may be

approaching cliche status, but they look fine here.

A double back-to-back test — race track versus street,

modified versus base car — is the best way to evaluate something

like the SVT Contour.

I had spent all morning driving a variety of 1998 Contours on

the scenic route to Firebird International Raceway, just south

of Phoenix. At the track I got unlimited laps on Bob Bondurant's

Performance Driving School road course in both the SVT and the

SE, previously the range-topping Contour.

The Duratec engine has always been a sweet revver; this one is

no exception. Subjectively, the SVT feels faster, has better

throttle response, than the stock V6. Yet it doesn't disappear

entirely when the revs drop below 4000 r.p.m.

The cable shifter isn't the best part of this car. Ford claims

it offers better accuracy and lighter effort than the previous

rod mechanism, but it doesn't provide the tactile pleasure or,

for me anyway, the confidence that it's doing what it's supposed

to.

It's not bad, just not as good as I remember from former

Contour gearboxes.

The improved handling was most evident on the tightest corner

on the track, at the end of the front straight. It requires hard

braking while turning gently into the entrance of the hard

lefthander. The SVT was markedly more stable while executing this

double-transient manoeuvre.

Again, the SE wasn't bad, but the SVT was that much better.

Finally, a 20-minute circuit of some city streets, Interstate

freeway and two-lane highway in the SVT proved that this

increased race track prowess had been obtained with little

compromise in ride quality.

The SVT Contour will be sold alongside the other SVT products,

the Mustang Cobra coupe and convertible, through a network of

SVT dealerships, selected on the basis of overall customer

satisfaction, previous success selling high-performance Fords,

and willingness to invest in special tooling and training for

sales and service personnel. Currently, only 19 Ford stores

across Canada have met these criteria.

In all, the SVT Contour is a decent little road car. It's also

visually pleasing. The base Contour doesn't have the most

inspiring shape to start with, but the SVT modifications work

well.

Speaking of which, pricing hasn't been announced yet, but with

a loaded SE coming in around $25,000, I can't see SVT dipping

much under $30,000.

While this is the automotive equivalent of buying the most

expensive house in a low-budget neighborhood, the SVT Contour

is, to me, a more successful expression of the SVT mandate than

the team's variants on the Mustang.

If the concept of a Q-ship, a sports sedan in a mild-mannered

masquerade, appeals to you, the SVT Contour is worthy of

attention.

It may not quite be a BMW M3. But it's going to cost about

half as much. In today's economy, that's got to count for

something.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers

invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions

arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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