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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Ford Has a Better Idea: Making Global Cars

July 08, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mid-size Fords rented in Europe--the lively little Sierra scampers to mind--come with glaring efficiencies. They ride stiffer, handle tighter, and prefer drivers who dictate their daily manners and progress. So maneuvering through European mountains and flogging down autoroutes have been known to leave vacation aftertastes more memorable than that first nibble of fresh foie gras .

Then we return home, kick sulky Ford Tempos into half-life--and seriously consider flying back to Rome to seek political asylum from blah cars.

A favorite mutter: If Gerard Depardieu and pizza lose nothing in their translation, why can't Ford reproduce its sharp European sedans for Americans?

This fall, Ford will answer the question by introducing the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique.

This is not a cross between a new cologne and a fall collection, but a pair of snappy sedans sharing 98% of the joie de vivre and handling thoroughness of Ford's front-drive Mondeo, the 1993 European Car of the Year.

Mondeo/Contour/Mystique is also the first global car--a vehicle designed and developed by one company and its subsidiaries; assembled in three nations from identical components made by suppliers in 15 countries; then sold to 59 markets without pandering to anyone's nationalism.

So a Mondeo purchased in Paris will have cup holders that are virtually an American anomaly, plus cruise control and air bags that may be big in Baltimore but really aren't in high demand in Turkey. Conversely, Contour or Mystique five-speeds shipped to Phoenix will have brake and accelerator positions set to satisfy heel-and-toe shifting and the competitive mien of Italian drivers.

And whether on the New Jersey Turnpike or what's left of Route 66, be confident that Contour and Mystique were designed and tested to take the ear-flattening pace of Germany's autobahns.

Of course, it wasn't just customer preferences that five years ago turned Ford toward the concept of a global car. But it certainly was a factor as performance and equipment requirements of U.S. buyers--such as the popularity of sun-roofed cars capable of going 140 m.p.h.--moved closer to those of Europe.

Safety and emissions regulations began twinning. Advanced communications--from video conferences by satellite to sub-oceanic fiber-optic cabling--allowed instant problem resolutions through a pool of engineers staffing two dozen computer terminals no matter time, location or distance.

The cost savings of building a single-market car--also the first vehicle to enter world showrooms from cyberspace via the information superhighway--were obvious.

Hence, Contour and Mystique--Mother Ford's replacement for the Tempo and Topaz twins, those four-door dullards we and Hertz have tolerated for a decade.

Price has yet to be set, but place bets on it being closer to Taurus/Sable than Tempo/Topaz. "Between $14,000 and $19,000," whispers one spokesman.

Ford's Contour will be mechanically a little firmer around the edges; less expensive and more of a party animal appealing to a slightly younger buyer. Mercury's Mystique will be softer, further up-market in furnishings, price and options, and targeted at a purchaser with 1.7 children, an old Labrador and a small home in Sherman Oaks.

The sedans are almost identical in profile with the exception of black center pillars for Mystique and an optional small rear spoiler on Contour that looks as if somebody left a boomerang on the trunk.

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Positioned in size and market appeal just below their Taurus/Sable bunkies--with Nissan Altima, Mazda 626, Infiniti G20 and Pontiac Grand Am the designated competition--the cars are a whisker shorter than Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. But their stretched wheelbases add more head and leg room for front seat riders.

Contour has a tight, puckered oval mouth for a front grille. It looks capable of bottom feeding or Mel Torme impersonations. Mystique has a conventional rectangle with vertical bars and wrap around lighting. It is more Wall Street than Gasoline Alley, yet neither are stylings you'd park outside a competitor's design studio.

Two engines are available--a 2.0 liter, aluminum and cast-iron four-banger good for 125 horsepower, and a 2.5 liter V-6 producing 170 horsepower. The victory of the V-6 is platinum-tipped plugs allowing 100,000 miles of travel before the first tuneup--a bragging right of BMW and Cadillac, but never before of an affordable domestic sedan.

Contour and Mystique come stuffed with pleasant valuables--especially a toggle hook on the glove box that suspends a purse before its contents become missiles at the first panic stop--and dual air bags are standard. Anti-lock, four-wheel disc brakes with traction control are options.

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The test cars were production prototypes--an aggressive Contour SE with its V-6 mated to a firm, rather too deliberate five-speed manual, and a Mystique GS also with the V-6.

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