Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ford Contour: Looking Back at Six Billion Dollars of Used Car

2000 Ford Contour Sport

It is an unloved, small American car today, but the Ford Contour was designed to be revolutionary. It was designed to be the first new World Car in 50 years.

For some carmakers, the phrase “world car” has a frighteningly compelling ring. Like perpetual motion machines, squaring the circle or mysterious black helicopters, in some minds it can be an obsession that drives you mad, and, if you’re Ford, to the brink of ruin.

Standing next to a first (US) generation Contour today, your first reaction is “So what? It’s a used Ford.” Your second, if someone reminds you of the numbers, is: “This thing cost six billion dollars? Didn’t I rent one of these once? Did they actually sell any?”

The answer is complicated. If we’re generous, we can call US sales one million (peaking in ‘98 with about 260,000 combined Contour/Mystique). But let’s not forget, this is a World Car, so we can add sales of the foreign market Mondeo (which was comprehensively reworked by 1996). That’s a total of 3.5 million sales during the first twelve years in, according to Ford, 60 markets).

Development costs were at least $6 billion for the US version, and another billion dollars to get to the 1993 launch of the Mondeo in Europe. That’s 2Gs per car to break even. Figuring a worldwide average of $250 million per year for model maintenance and updates through 2003 and we end up with around $3,000 in development costs per car for this little jellybean to bear, and average sales of about 5,000 units per country per year. Sheesh! Little wonder that by 2005 Ford of Europe was seeing earnings decline on the order of $100 million a year.

Initially launched here with either Ford’s venerable Duratec 2.5 SOHC iron-block V6 or a more modern 2.0 DOHC Zetec I-4, the Contour always had power (and a 5-speed!) available on the option sheet. While the greatly appreciated 170-horse V-6/5-speed combination in the ‘95-‘96 SE (Sport) yielded a respectable eight-second dash to 60 and a 16.3 second ¼ mile at 87MPH, a 125-horse 2-liter with Ford’s optional 4-speed automatic in the GL or LX gives a tepid 10.3-second slog to 60, and a milquetoast 17.6-second quarter at 80. A high speed merge is a challenge as you enter the willing little engine’s thrashy upper ranges to get at it’s 5,000RPM horsepower peak. Torque maxed out at 127 lb-ft @ 3000 RPM in the I-4, giving decent grunt from a standing start.

Ride and handling characteristics for all trim levels were very good, and they should be, since this is where a huge chunk of that development money was spent, reflecting the attempt by Ford to engineer a platform acceptable to Europeans. The big news came in 1998 with the freshened second-generation Contour, available partway through the year as a 1998.5 model (shades of the Mustang, maybe?) in SVT trim. While the rest of the model line had undergone severe decontenting in an attempt to offset losses from the poor sales, the SVT was loaded with every single available feature except the sunroof and CD player, and was graced with a 195-horse SVT gem. Featuring a larger throttle body, lighter flywheel, conical air filter, larger radiator, oil cooler and a bump in compression to 10.0:1 from the 9.7:1 in the base V-6, this may have been the best $23,000 you could spend on an American car in 1998. Available only with the 5-speed and R-rated 215/50 16-inch tires, 0-60 drops to somewhere near 7.4 seconds, and the SVT Contour-only uprated suspension and brakes keep it planted at an estimated top speed of 143 MPH. Over the short 2½ years of its lifespan, the SVT Contour gained another five ponies to bring it to an even 200 by 1999, due to use of the extrude hone process in the intake. By that time, trim levels had shrunk from the four available in 1997 (Base, GL, LX and SE) to three in 1998 (LX, SE, SVT) to just the SVT and the SE Sport, which lost a slight amount of displacement in the standard 2.5 V-6 and gained a minor bump in compression. SE sales that final year were mostly to fleet users, with the automatic and I-4 combo predominating.

At the start, interiors were one of the Contour’s strong points, with soft-touch plastics and good interior panel fit marred only by a smattering of Ford parts-bin switches. Cost-cutting quickly took its toll, however, and by 1997 traction control was no longer available, body-colored mirrors became composite black and the original buckets were replaced with Ford’s notorious penalty-box, un-ergonomic seats.

A major freshening in 1998 saw the consolidation of the model line into the LX, SE and SVT. The LX was taken downwards to the old GL trim level, the SE to the old LX and an SE Sport introduced which roughly equaled the former SE trim. Glove box, underhood and door lighting were discontinued, and split/folding rear seats disappeared from all but SE trims. Two years later, leather seats and variable wipers were gone, as was Contour in North America.

By any empirical standard, the Contour could have been a resounding success. The words Ford used to talk themselves into the project can be very compelling—“We’re going to build an American car to European standards and everyone will drive it and love it and buy it.” And indeed, every now and then lightning does strike and a VW Beetle comes along. But as we all know, being struck by lightning is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Perhaps if the Contour had been introduced when it was originally scheduled to debut in the spring of 1993, it would have in the right place. Hard on the heels of the dramatic and successful LH sedans from Chrysler, it could have appeared as the next logical step in American car design. The Contour was supposed to replace the Tempo, one of the worst lumps of iron ever to disgrace our roads.

Or maybe it was too early, since we’re now seeing Cadillacs competing on the BMW field, and the Chinese are buying Buicks by the boatload. Perhaps it was contaminated by the specter of the Tempo, or maybe it just looked too much like a 7/8th-scale Taurus.

But it didn’t appear two years earlier, or ten years later. It appeared in 1995 and whether it was the wait, or persistent quality control problems and regular decontenting, or a lack of corporate support and dealer understanding that doomed it to the rental fleets of history, we will never know. Ford Contour, we hardly knew you.

1 comment:

kid charlemagne said...

Actually, these cars are still fairly common. They for the most part outlived stratuses and malibus, and There are multiple online enthusiast communities that exist for it, being one of them. They have also been somewhat popular for modding, and a popular upgrade among true enthusiasts is to swap the 3.0 version of the Duratec from a Taurus into the Contour, giving it 200hp. Also, a correction, the 2.5L Duratec was a full Aluminum engine, of which I believe the only iron/steel component to be the crank, cams, and valves, and was a Dual overhead cam 24v. The Contour is fairly easy to service at home, which is good if you believe in the true american way of fixing your own car. The engine block was also designed by porsche. a v12 version of the duratec is used by Aston Martin. The Ecoboost V6 is based off of the 3.5L duratec, which is based off of the 2.5L Duratec. The transmission was used in the Probe, Escape, Mariner, Mystique, Cougar, Mazda 626, MX-6 and Tribute. Many cars, like the Focus, and even the Transit, have various parts that were either minor revisions or designed off of parts on the Contour. The Jaguar X-Type is based off of the Contour. The bottom line, somewhere along this line, that 6 billion has been paid for and then some in various design-related costs that weren't incurred on New vehicles in either the European or North American market, and it ushered in a new standard of "world" vehicles and manufacturing, almost as important as Henry Ford's assembly line and his insistence on interchangeable parts, a first in it's time. Get in a new Ford somewhere, maybe even more brands, there's a good chance that there is "Contour blood" somewhere in it's design.

Oh. And I drive a '98. I've done all the work on it myself out of my garage. And 17 years later, it is still running strong.