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