The love/hate cult of the Ford SVT Contour
When we talk about someone having passion for this car or that car, we usually assume it to be of the positive kind. But passion can go either way. Just ask the owner of a Ford SVT Contour, and you’ll hear a story of love, sprinkled with a bit of hate and occasional pain.
“We love the handling,” says Dave Acker, who, along with Josh Pietenpol, Michael Danicich and Chris Lynn, owns and maintains the Contour Enthusiast Group (Contour.org). “While not having a ton of horsepower, the SVT Contour loves a good twisty road. This car isn’t for the quarter-mile but sure does love to autocross.”
“The hate part,” Acker continues, “comes in when it’s time to work on them. The engine and its components are crammed into the engine bay pretty good. We typically tend to have at least one busted knuckle.”
Hatched by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, which created the SVT Mustang Cobra and F-150 Lightning pickup in 1993, the SVT Contour was hailed as a revelation among domestic cars when it was launched for 1998. Just 11,500 SVT Contours were made through 2000. Few remain, and most are in the hands of owners willing – actually required – to sometimes take extraordinary steps to keep their beloved sport sedans going.
Said Motor Trend in March 1997: “Ford has challenged the performance-crazed SVT engineers to unleash their creative genius on the already spirited sedan to create a budget-friendly American version of something like a BMW M3 sedan.”
The “spirited sedan” was the Ford Contour (and its Mercury Mystique twin), a compact sedan seemingly too good to fail, at least according to the enthusiast press. Replacing Ford’s aged Tempo in 1995, the Contour was an American-built version of Ford of Europe’s Mondeo, and Ford was certain it would reset the bar for the compact segment. In terms of driving dynamics, it did. But it was still a relative flop in the showroom.
Compared to the Tempo, the Contour was a mechanical revolution on every front. A highly rigid unibody and sophisticated independent suspension made Contour a handler with a distinctly tight, European road feel. Both the base 2.0-liter inline-four and optional 2.5-liter V-6 were DOHC designs, with 125 and 170 horsepower, respectively.
“It was an incredible platform in terms of structural rigidity and suspension,” says Mark Rowe, who worked with SVT from 2000-06. He was particularly fond of the multi-link rear suspension with passive rear steering.
“The Contour did things that electronically controlled cars did, but mechanically. As the suspension loads, the toe changes, making it a neutral handling car. It was such a sharp handling machine. You could push it pretty far.”
Rowe, who among other roles served as a customer liaison for the Cobra and the Contour, also reminds people that the Contour’s Duratec V-6 was co-developed with Porsche, although the SVT modifications were Ford’s. Rowe may be partial to the Contour, but automotive media praised it, too. Automobile Magazine named Contour one of its annual “All Stars” for four years in a row, and Car and Driver put the compact Ford on its “10 Best” list in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
But all that goodness cost money. The Contour and Mystique cost considerably more than the cars they replaced, which stifled sales. In addition to balking at a price that encroached on Ford’s larger Taurus, sedan buyers found the Contour’s cabin a bit too cozy. It had in fact barely more room than Ford’s much cheaper Escort and less room than the similarly priced Dodge Stratus.
Ford freshened Contour’s styling for 1998, but the real news was the new performance model. The gearheads under SVT Director John Coletti applied time-proven tweaks to the Contour’s V-6, including using an extrude honing process to smooth intake passages, plus adding new cams, a larger-diameter throttle body, hypereutectic pistons, a high-capacity air cleaner, an oil cooler, and a lighter flywheel. The 2.25-inch stainless-steel exhaust system split into dual mufflers with polished tips and sang one of the sweetest V-6 songs of the period.
Horsepower jumped from 170 to 195, although torque stayed at 165 lb-ft. For 1999, more aggressive extrude honing and a recalibrated ECU bumped output to 200 hp and 169 lb-ft. The V-6 was a happy revver, which was critical, since the power peaked at 6625 rpm and torque peaked at 5625 rpm. Offered with a 5-speed stick only, the SVT Contour was quick for the day, with 0-60 in 7.5 seconds and the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds at 88.7 mph, according to Motor Trend.
SVT tweaked the springs and dampers and fitted a thinner front anti-roll bar (19-mm instead of 20-mm). Brakes, with ABS, were discs all around, but even the 10.9-ich. front rotors taken from the European Mondeo seem small today. Tires for 1998 were Goodyear Eagle GS-C 205/55ZR16 on 16×6.5-inch 5-spoke aluminum wheels. Car and Driver judged the SVT Contour fifth out of six cars tested for its “best handling cars under $30,000” comparison. (The Honda Prelude SH was first.) For 1999 and 2000, the SVT Contour rolled on unidirectional P215/50ZR16 BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW tires.
SVT gave the softly rounded Contour a bolder but tasteful styling treatment with unique front and rear fascias, a mesh grille, body-color side skirts and larger fog lights. The 1998 SVT Contour cost $22,900 with a long list of standard equipment, including bolstered leather-trimmed seats.
A siren’s song
Those who find the SVT Contour tempting, especially when they see seemingly good, unmodified cars offered at $4,000-$5,000, should consider cautionary advice from enthusiasts in the know. The maintenance and repair issues that dog owners today were common even when cars were still under warranty, Rowe explains.
“Back then, we called it a ‘hot potato car’. Techs wanted to avoid them,” he says. “We’d have ‘wrench parties’ to help a friend fix a car, even one under warranty.”
Even skilled DIY-ers can find the SVT Contour challenging.
“Changing an alternator is the most absurd thing,” says Rowe. “Owners came up with ways to do it, like stacking a bunch of extensions on a ratchet, taking off the driver’s side wheel and going in that way to get to the back side of the engine on the passenger side. If you’re not going to do the work yourself, it can be quite the expensive little car to maintain.”
Also, a minor fender bender can be a major headache, because the SVT body parts are almost impossible to find.
“Many owners will buy a wrecked SVT Contour or one that needs mechanical or body work just to get the hard-to-find parts,” says Acker.
If you’re a stickler for stock, be aware that many SVT Contour owners modified their cars from new, and that current owners continue the trend.
“There are very few out there today that are totally stock,” Acker says, adding that the most common mods are cold-air intakes, MSDS headers and aftermarket exhaust, wheels and tires, suspension lowering components and a torque-biasing differential to replace the stock unit that Acker describes as “somewhat fragile.” Some owners replace the 2.5-liter V-6 with its 3.0-liter cousin from the Taurus or Escape to get more torque.
A relationship with the SVT Contour takes hard work and sometimes, lots of money. Is it worth it?
“When everything’s working, it’s an incredibly fun car,” says Rowe.
That’s the love talking.