1998 SVT Contour

If you are lusting after an A4 2.8 or a 328i, but your spouse is flipping over their price tags, the SVT Contour may save your marriage. And let's be frank here - this is a car that's going to appeal mainly to guys. The SVT Contour is very masculine, from its throaty exhaust noise to the midnight-blue perforated-leather seats and intimidating-looking instrument panel.

It can do double-duty as a family sedan, but only up to a point. You can't get an automatic transmission or a built-in child seat either.

But boy racers will appreciate features such as the specially modified five-speed gearbox and upgraded suspension, with 16-inch Goodyear GS-C radials mounted on five-spoke cast-aluminum wheels. Th are the sort of technical touches you'd expect from the Special Vehicle Team, the same group that brought you the Mustang Cobra and the F150 Lightning.

The five-speed manual transmission was lots of fun on the wide-open roads of Death Valley, but we can imagine what a pain it might be in stop-and-go city driving. If you're a commuter who is more concerned about what flavor coffee you are drinking in the morning than paying attention to all that shifting, go for the classic Contour with automatic, not the SVT.

The head room is also a little limited in the front and you may find the front seats slightly confining, especially if you are broad-shouldered. But we're probably being way too practical.

If you want to talk performance, the SVT Contour elevates the old family sedan to a new level. With its modified twin-cam 2.5-liter Duratec V-6 engine, the SVT can reach a top speed of 143 miles per hour (we took Ford's word for that) and accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds (ditto).

But we can vouch for the SVT Contour's superb handling. Before we took to the roads around Death Valley, a park ranger stopped by the Furnace Creek Inn and gave us a stern lecture about obeying the speed limits and not driving on the shoulder of the road ("or else you'll do the classic Death Valley rollover," she warned.)

Not to worry. The SVT Contour had excellent reflexes, gripping the curves near Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells with ease. Famed American race-car driver and Ford spokesman Parnelli Jones accompanied us on this trip, but you didn't need the skills of an Indy racer to feel at home in the SVT.

Best of all, it's got a reasonable price that you can argue hovers near the average $21,000 sticker on most new vehicles. The SVT Contour's price tag is $22,900 (including destination charges), and it includes standard antilock brakes, power accessories, a 10-way power driver's seat and a leather interior. The few optional features include a $595 moonroof, a $140 compact disc player and a free smoker's package that includes ashtray and lighter. To tip you off that this is a limited edition, SVT has fitted the Contour with such exterior enhancements as a unique front fascia, round fog lamps, rear valance panel, rock sill extensions and stainless-steel exhaust tips.

To heighten the exclusive feel of the new Ford product, dealers are being urged to save even the shrink wrap around the steering wheel of the SVT and the window stickers for buyers, in order to enhance the car's resale value.

We don't know about that, but we get the impression that Ford is trying very hard to position the SVT Contour as far from a mass-market vehicle as you can get.

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