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Mystique misses goalpost

The Mystique isn't a bad car; there are no truly bad cars these days.

  • Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background

Ford spent more than 6 billion of those 140-cent U.S. dollars to develop the CDW-27 family of compact sedans – the European Mondeo, the Ford Contour and today’s subject, the Mercury Mystique.

It took them more than six years to get the cars to market.

Sadly, while they had their noses to the grindstone, someone moved the goalposts.

The Mystique isn’t a bad car; there are no truly bad cars these days. But the Mystique is too cramped, too hard-riding and too expensive to compete in this toughest of all market segments.

The over-all shape – long, tall, narrow, softly curved – may have been leading-edge when development started. But it’s already old-fashioned, especially since Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus were unveiled.

Mystique is more successful visually in my view than its Ford sibling, Contour, since it retains Mercury styling cues, like the grille and Sable-like tail-lights.

Styling may be subjective, but interior room isn’t. By Ford’s own measurements, Mystique is smaller inside in most dimensions than Nissan Altima – its “critical” benchmark. Not by much, to be sure. But Altima’s been on the road for two years now. If a newer car is going to be marginally different, it should be marginally better, not marginally worse.

Ironically, Mystique doesn’t feel as cramped to taller drivers as it does to average or shorter types. When you move the seat rearwards, you retreat from the enclosing confines of the prominent dashboard, sloped windshield pillars and side windows that curve inwards at the top.

You also gain headroom from the deeply domed roofline, although the door-mounted armrests remain a constant companion to your outboard elbow, and you’ll likely have trouble reaching the seat adjusters.

But sliding the seat back exacerbates the car’s worst interior failing: a very tight rear seat. Sitting behind myself – with front seat adjusted for my dead-average frame – there is very little knee- or legroom. Even my kids felt claustrophobic back there, and I have small kids.

The trunk, on the other hand, is huge, as if Ford put more emphasis on luggage than passengers.

Ergonomics are a mixed bag. Round knobs for heater and air conditioner are easy to work. But Ford’s dreadful all-push-button radio is not only located below the heating, ventilation and air/con controls, but recessed into the dash, where it’s even harder to find or operate. The 1995 Explorer has the new Ford radio faceplate, and it can’t get into Mystique soon enough.

You can imagine the American interior designers on this project slapping their foreheads one day and screaming, “Cup holders! Where are the cup holders?!”

All they and their mystified European counterparts could come up with was two small, flimsy things that pop up out of the centre console. And they can’t even deploy if the passenger seat is adjusted forward, because of interference from the cushion.

A tilt steering mechanism is buried inside the steering column surround, but you can’t use it. The stubby lever from the Mondeo, the European version of this car, was deemed unsuitable for North American tastes, a longer one didn’t pass a crash test – the dummy’s knee got savaged – and a new design won’t be available for a few months yet. Meanwhile, you get a $25,000 car without tilt steering.

The interior isn’t unremitting bad news. The good news includes a MicronAir filtration system that screens out dust and pollen to help keep the interior pollution-free, a feature otherwise found only on expensive luxury sedans.

And the front seats – with optional leather upholstery in my loaded test car – are comfortable and supportive.

Ford brags about the so-called Duratec System option, as if nobody else had a 2.5 litre four-cam V-6 with electronic four-speed automatic. Ford’s does have a class-leading 170 horsepower and boasts a 160,000 km tune-up interval.

There’s lots of Canadian content in the V-6, too; the heads and block are cast in Ford’s engine plant in Windsor, Ont.

But frankly, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. The engine is okay, but not overwhelming. Measured acceleration times are decent: 0 to 100 km/h in 8.8 seconds in the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada car-of-the-year testing, compared to Chrysler Cirrus at 9.5 seconds (both cars automatic-equipped).

Mystique’s transmission communicates with the engine to reduce power output during shifts, to reduce shift shock. But the whole process is long and drawn out, irritating when you’re trying to get a move on. The transmission never seems to be certain what gear it should be in, upshifting too soon coming out of corners, downshifting too soon on slight grades.

My test car had the optional traction control. Save the $300; it’s pointless on a front-wheel drive car. I shut the thing off, and had to put up with the baleful glare of the yellow warning light.

I rather like Mystique’s hard-edged exhaust note, although I’m not sure it’s what the luxury side of this market segment wants.

I am sure the luxury side of this market segment does not want the awful, hard ride from the “sport-tuned” suspension, which is part of the Duratec package. Cruising on our pot-holed streets or frost-heaved freeways, it beats you up, all the time. Noisy, too.

Ford is inordinately proud of the sophistication of Contour-Mystique’s suspension. What’s so hot about MacPherson struts up front and a Mazda-like quadra-link at the rear? Both Cirrus and Honda Accord have multi-link designs front and rear; both offer better ride and better handling than Mystique.

Ford says David E. Davis Jr. loves the car. I respect Davis like crazy; if you want his opinion, buy Automobile magazine. The people I calibrate my handling opinions against – Canadians, I might add – agree with me.

Assembly quality on my test car was better than earlier Contour-Mystiques I have driven, an indication that the Kansas City work force is getting it together.

Ford has tried valiantly to tell us that Contour and Mystique don’t replace Tempo and Topaz, even if those cars left the lineup when Contour and Mystique signed on. But the poor sot who wrote a $14,000 cheque for a loaded Topaz a few years ago will faint dead away when he sees a stripped Mystique at $18,000 – taxes extra.

The dealer will try to move him into an Escort. Many have done so, although most Topaz owners would view that as a step down.

On any count – styling, engineering, ride, handling, price – Cirrus and Stratus simply blow Contour-Mystique away.

Mystique’s toughest value competitor is sitting right beside it in the showroom. A comparably equipped Mercury Sable isn’t materially more expensive – maybe not even as expensive – as a Mystique. You get a bigger, better car, from the same dealership. (This advantage vanishes when the new Sable arrives this fall, since they’ll obviously be crushingly more pricy than current versions.)

Against import (albeit American-built) brands like Accord, Altima or Toyota Camry, Mystique is again in very deep. The damage control has already started in the United States, with full-page newspaper ads pointing out that Contour-Mystique is $1,500 cheaper than comparably equipped transplants. It’s not enough, not nearly enough.

Then, there’s Mazda. One-quarter owned by Ford, they’ve been having trouble selling their own cars, despite the fact that the 626 Cronos is an excellent buy in this segment.

When Ford was casting about its international parts bin for a Tempo-Topaz replacement, I can’t understand why they didn’t land on Mazda’s new Protege. It’s a roomier, better-riding, better-handling vehicle than Contour-Mystique. A V-6 is available in other markets, if not here.

True, Protege isn’t a whole lot cheaper than Contour-Mystique. But it’s built in Japan. If it were assembled in Kansas City or Mexico, like Contour-Mystique, it’d surely be less expensive.

Hey, all they had to do was ask me. About six years ago.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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