Developing a new vehicle completely from the ground up is no easy undertaking for any automaker, even if it is one of the world’s largest automakers, possessing a multitude of resources on hand. The challenge is even more monumental when said vehicle is an entry in a highly competitive, high-volume segment, with its level of success having major ramifications on the automaker as a whole.
It’s a gamble alright, and unfortunately, it’s a gamble that sometimes doesn’t yield big payouts. While hardly the same snafu as the GM10 (first generation W-bodies), which cost General Motors some $7 Billion in development and lost the automaker some $2,000 on every vehicle produced, Ford’s CDW27, arguably the first true “world car” marketed across 59 countries in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, and Australia as Ford Mondeo, and in North America as the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique was met with varying degrees of success.
How the CDW27’s success is measured is largely based on the factors and markets in which one segments it by. In the vital European market, the Mondeo was largely a success, receiving considerable praise and strong sales, even if neither matched its Sierra predecessor.
In other markets however, chiefly the North American, the car faltered, never gaining widespread popularity nor acceptance. No matter how appropriate, it’s only a coincidence that the name of the Mercury-badged Mystique sounded so close to the word “mistake”.
Released in fall of 1994 as a 1995, nearly two years after the Mondeo was in Europe, the Mercury Mystique and its higher-volume Ford Contour twin were the de facto replacements for the aging “large compact” Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz duo, slotting above the Escort/Tracer and below the Taurus/Sable in Ford and Mercury’s lineups.
Among the many slightly smaller and larger cars they competed against, the Mystique and Contour were most frequently compared to Chrysler’s similarly sized yet roomier JA platform “Cloud Cars”, the Dodge Stratus, Plymouth Breeze, and Chrysler Cirrus, the latter of which was the Mystiques’ most direct competitor.
Right from the get go, that “in betweener” size was a crippling achilles heel, and would continue to limit the car’s potential its entire life. Although externally sized directly between the Escort/Tracer and Taurus/Sable, the Contour and Mystique suffered from interiors that were barely, if any in some dimensions, roomier than the Escort and Tracer. To make matters worse, they were priced considerably higher than the economy Escort/Tracer and their value-oriented Tempo/Topaz predecessors, and much closer to the larger Taurus and Sable, further diminishing their value proposition.
In their own right, the Contour/Mystique were perfectly competent largish-compact/smallish-midsize sedans. Benefiting from their European engineering, they offered far superior handling and driving dynamics to any workday Ford or Mercury sedan available in North America. Standard rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension that was comprised of a MacPherson strut front and multilink rear were decidedly European-like, providing a controlled and precise feel. In fact, lateral acceleration matched that of the BMW 325i and Mercedes C280 Sport.
Engines were impressive too. Both the 2.0L Zetec inline-4 and the 2.5L Duratec V6 featured dual-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. With output rated at 125 horsepower and 130 lb-ft torque for the four cylinder, and 170 horsepower and 165 lb-ft torque for the V6, both engines were suited for the Mystique’s relatively low 2,800-pound curb weight and could be mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.
Style-wise, both cars featured a clean and contemporary design sharing cues with many 1990s Ford products, both North American and European, for strong brand unity. Both North American variants sported altered styling from the European Mondeo, with each initially featuring identifiable brand-specific front and rear fascias. In fact, versus the Contour, 1995-1997 Mystiques gained entirely exclusive sheetmetal from the A-pillars forward.
Eschewing the Contour’s ovoid headlights, grille, and taillights, the Mystique displayed a more upscale waterfall grille as part of the phase-out of Mercury’s signature lightbar treatment. The front fascia was also distinguished by slimmer wraparound headlights outlined by a thick chrome band that signified the Mystique’s more upscale intentions. A similar chrome band highlighted the Mystique’s full-width taillights.
Inside was a generally very pleasant place to be for a 1990s American car, provided you weren’t a six-footer relegated to rear seats, as despite several attempts to eek out more head-, knee-, and legroom by lowering the rear seat cushion and scooping out the front seatbacks, the Mystique’s rear seat was still decidedly cramped.
Fit and finish was on par with Honda and Toyota, with pleasant looking and feeling plastics, tight fitting panels, and inviting cloth and leather upholsteries. Front seats were heavily bolstered, dash layout was functional and correct, and the Mystique was even treated to its very own (and more attractive) upper dash design through 1998, something Ford did away with in 1999 to reduce costs.
Positioned as a somewhat more premium offering, the Mystique was available in standard GS and better-equipped LS trims. Despite its upscale ambitions, popular equipment such as power windows and locks, air conditioning, cassette tape player, remote keyless entry, and rear window defroster were initially extra cost items on the GS (many were made standard in later years). LS models added these, along with features such as 10-way power drivers seat, four-wheel disc brakes, and dual power mirrors. Leather, previously an option, became standard fare on LS models beginning in 1998.
A significant exterior makeover came in 1998, with the Mystique gaining a rounder (and quite frankly, homelier) front end featuring large upswept headlamps, a more prominent chrome waterfall grille, and the necessary hood and front quarter panel changes to accommodate them.
While not interchangeable due to their unique grilles shapes, headlamps were essentially identical to those now found on the Contour and Mondeo, for less distinctiveness. Around back, the Mystique was unchanged, though the Contour now sported a full-width effect taillight much in the style of the Mystique, once again for a closer resemblance.
The facelifts did little for either, as sales continued to decline for each. At least in North America, the Mystique and Contour’s success was largely limited by their size-to-price ratio when compared with the smaller Escort/Tracer, and especially the larger Taurus/Sable. For this featured car’s 1998 model year, Mystique GS and LS base prices were $16,235 and $17,645, respectively, versus $19,445 and $20,445 for Sable GS and LS sedans.
Particularly in the case of Mercury, in the eyes of its more traditional clientele, a roomy family car was the far more appealing choice than a European sports sedan with a cramped back seat. To many shoppers, the larger Sable was simply much more car for the money, a fact aided by steeper incentives due to the 1996 redesigned Sable’s lukewarm reception and slower sales compared to its predecessor. With 1998 model year sales of only 47,128 Mystiques versus 111,676 Sables, it’s clear which car buyers preferred, regardless of whether they were private or fleet customers.
While competitive enough cars, the Mystique and Contour simply did not offer enough of a value proposition to the majority of consumers. Although successful in Europe, in nearly all other markets, Ford’s first true “world car” never met sales projections, prompting the automaker to discontinue sales of the Mystique, Contour, and Australian-market Mondeo after a short 2000 model year, with no direct successors.
In most markets, the more competitive, lower priced Focus effectively covered Ford in the compact segment. Mondeo production in Europe continued until late-2000 when it was replaced by a completely redesigned and larger second generation Mondeo, a car never sold in the United States, Canada, and Australia. As for Mercury itself, no direct replacement ever came for the Mystique, further enhancing the car’s question of very existence, and its reputation as a “mistake”.
Photographed: World’s End, Hingham, Massachusetts – November 2017
I’m not sure the Mondeo went away from the NZ market there seem to be cars from all model years on sale here I test drove a turbodiesel hatch version that while the engine and drivetrain seemed fine it had a major steering fault, the only ones to avoid here are the ex JDM used imports Ford can supply zero parts for them there are some differences to the regular UK versions not bad cars really.
I remember the hype for these back in the day….and the disappointment when they finally appeared. By themselves, they were a great driving car, but they were smaller and far more pricier than the Tempo/Topaz they replaced. This was Ford’s 2nd misstep after the ’96 Taurus fiasco.
Perhaps they should have gone all in and jacked up the luxury content for a Lincoln version…
This misstep hit the market a year before the ovoid Taurus did. The Contour/Mystique hit the market in the 1995 model year.
For some reason this write-up completely avoids mentioning that the Contour/Mystique set a new record for recalls the first 6 months it was introduced. If I remember correctly, the first recall was announced right about the time the first cars hit the showrooms, with recalls number 2 and 3 being announced less than a month later.
Consumers Reports also gave the automatic transmission low marks for sapping a lot of the power from the 4 cylinder (the most common powertrain), though whether it really was any worse than the equivalent Japanese sedan is hard to say.
In 1997 or 98 I rented a Contour with a 4 cylinder engine and automatic transmission that for just a driver was a pretty decent car…until it started to rain. Apparently, one of the places where Ford cut costs was with the tires. (Sound familiar?) When it started raining that car started to slide like the tires were bald.
“For some reason this write-up completely avoids mentioning that the Contour/Mystique set a new record for recalls the first 6 months it was introduced.”
Wasn’t that actually the first Focus that hit that record, with something like 27 recalls in year 1?
I whole heartedly apologize for not touching upon a certain aspect you find important, but every detail simply cannot make it into a 1,200 word article. I’d be happy to write a book but I think most of our readers would tune out before finishing.
As an automotive writer, I tend not to delve into recalls as a point of criticism, as in all honestly, recalls are both a good thing as it’s a sign that the automaker is reacting and correcting any issues, and many times it is due to an error/fault by a supplier (i.e. Takata airbags).
I also generally refrain from citing Consumer Reports as a valid source of quality/reliability measure, because much like J.D. Power and associates, their ratings are largely subjective. I’ve received several J.D. Power surveys by email on the cars I own and they practically force you to say something is wrong with your car even though it isn’t by repeated interrogation. I’d rather just stay away from this touchy area.
I apologize again if my style of writing is not up to your liking.
In the bare bones (2.0l, five speed, AM/FM/cassette and no tachometer) Contour version, my sister-in-law had one of these for about ten years, after which it became mine for a year or two. I always loved the way the car drove, and, had I managed to get ownership of it a bit earlier in its life, would have put a few bucks into lowering the suspension, wheels, bigger tires, and possibly started doing a few tuner tricks to the engine.
It may have been a disappointment in the rear seat, but anyone who found these disappointing compared to the Tempo/Topaz were truly in the American “buy your car by the pound” tradition. There was no comparison between these cars as road machines.
Ford really screwed this one up. The previous car was a popular size but awful to drive. This one was great to drive but too small for the families it was supposed to target. Drivers like you loved it, but the enthusiast market has never been big enough here to support a mainstream sedan if more typical buyers don’t take to it too. There were so many other choices in this segment that it was easy to buy something else.
The cramped back seat was the initial deal-killer for these cars. Like it or not, Americans place a premium on a reasonably roomy back seat for family sedans.
Which also explains why Carol loved the car so much. Prior to the Contour, she had a Tempo which she was meh! about. Prior to that (before she blew her marriage up), she’d had a 280Z and a Porsche 914.
My father bought one brand new in 1995 to replace a 1988 Ford Tempo. His was a four cylinder, five speed. I always really liked it as it handled fantastically. Light years ahead of the Tempo.
The automatics in these are of poor quality and don’t seem to live long. The V6s are horrible to work on. Around here the Tempo/Topaz cars seemed to outlast these twins despite being much older.
Looking from now, the firs Mystique looked more like a Ford and the first Contour was much more European than the Mondeo itself. Although Ford already brought the Mondeo to Brazil from Belgium, many Contours appeared here by independent importers. For my surprise, the Contour I used a whole different sheet metal body from the Mondeo I, even the doors are not the same! Compared to the Contour, the Mondeo was too much seemed to the equally rounded Mazda Capella 626 in both sedan and notchback versions. I also used to see many Contours in radiant colors as a light blue, red and green if compared with the dark colors and various shades of gray and brown from the Mondeo. In the end of 90’s the higher import taxes in Brazil spoiled its career, in 1999 it was possible to find 98′ still new in the Ford dealerships. After some years Ford tried the Mondeo MK2 in 2003, an excellent car, it looked kinda Germany while the older is too Japanese. Regardless the lower or higher import taxes, Ford always put the Mondeo far above the Chevrolet Vectra and it never touch the sales of the Chevrolet. Ford only experienced good sales in Brazil with the Fusion Mk I, which replaced the Mondeo. Another negative point of the Mondeo is the perishable bumpers, god, it seems Ford used recycled and biodegradable plastics to make them! Still in 2000′ many Mondeos was already with its polyurethane foams exposed!
My brother scooped up a high-mile one owner ’96 Mystique GS from a friend’s father earlier this year for $500. Zetec, 5spd. Locally, the previous owner was simply unable to sell it due to the manual transmission combined with the very non-enthusiast beige/hubcapped exterior. 240k miles on the original clutch (which was finally getting tired), but otherwise mechanically/cosmetically quite excellent. I think he’s put a control arm and some rear struts on it, and finally did the clutch and a leaking oil pan gasket towards the end of his first year of ownership (he runs his own auto repair business).
Despite the bland looks, I was really quite smitten with the whole package. Even in a fairly basic trim the interior materials are quite fantastic compared to most newer cars. The engine is really willing to wind out, the transmission has short throws. Handling is indeed quite “European” feeling in that it is controlled and tight in corners, but still has a compliant ride. He’s up to 250k miles and the car is not showing any signs of slowing down. Sad that most of these were simply ran into the ground and disposed of, they’re pretty nice to drive and fairly apparently quite reliable cars if maintained.
Your brother is going to love that car. Carol’s was the same, plastic hub caps on steel wheels, nice five speed with a slightly loose shifter. And yes, they had what had to be the best cheap interior you could ever get. Comfortable seats, and materials that were definitely a step or two above cheap.
My wife vetoed a 96 Mystique – 1 year old, low mileage lease return, 5MT, 4cly, LS – sunroof and leather – because of the color – white. Granted, it wasn’t that nifty pearlescent white, just…white. We ended up with a 2 door Buick Somerset T-Type, which wasn’t a bad car but it suffered all the typical N car maladies – peeling paint, steering rack failure, intermittent electrical glitches. She admitted latter that the Mystique would’ve been a better buy if only for the rear doors alone. Getting the car seat out of the back of a 2 door N car was a pain!
As I’ve been working on other COAL entries, I found myself digging through old memories and photo archives that had been practically abandoned (both in my mind and otherwise). But the featured car here is, at least externally, a dead-ringer for my 1998 Mercury Mystique: Toreador Red, LS, same 6-spoke wheels. I honestly can’t tell if this car has a gray or beige leather interior, but mine had the light gray leather, with about every bell, whistle, and option they put into ’em at that point.
I don’t want to spoil the entire COAL, but I will say it’s this car, the 1998 Mercury Mystique with the 2.5 V6 and a 5-speed that turned me on both to manual transmissions and European driving dynamics.
I like the Contour & Mystique, and having owned a ’98 Contour for 10 years, I can give some perspective into the rear-seat-room issue, which was (and is) the car’s most notable shortcoming.
The early (’95-97) Contiques had a dreadfully small rear seat. As you noted, some of the problem was alleviated by various small fixes, chiefly in scooping out the rear seat backs… which finally provided for adequate leg room.
When I bought my Contour, I was in my 20s, as were most of my passengers who rode in the back seat. It was somewhat tight back there, but far from awful. I don’t remember anyone complaining, but then again, my friends and I were young and most of us had driven much smaller cars in the past. My previous car was a Mazda 323, and the Contour seemed like a limo by comparison.
However, I suspect that now — 20 years later — most of those same friends would moan and groan about being stuffed into the back of a Contour. My guess is that even back in the 1990s, 45-year-olds would probably have found the rear seat disagreeable as well, which undoubtedly eliminated the Contour/Mystique from a big chunk of prospective buyers’ lists.
The biggest problem I had with the rear seat came after I had kids. Those wretched baby seats simply didn’t fit back there without having to move the front seats up ridiculously far. While I had just one kid, I kept her seat in the middle of the back seat, but when #2 came along, it became nearly impossible to comfortably drive the car with 2 baby seats back there. I sold it shortly afterwards, and at the time I thought it ironic that tiny babies didn’t fit where plenty of full-size adults once sat.
Eric, this is some great perspective on how the rear seat room issue would increase in proportion to the age of the passengers back there. I give kudos to Ford engineers who discovered how to make the small fixes they implemented.
For the ’96, indents were carved out of the rear of front seats. Then 98 had rear cushion changed. But, a chassis stretch was nixed.
We were driving a Toyota MR2 and a Mazda B2600i with one child in 1995 when my wife found out she was expecting twins. We did not want to go the minivan route, so we started looking for a smaller four door. Our shopping process started (and often ended) with lugging three car seats into the dealer showroom to see if they would fit three abreast. We had owned a couple of Camrys and didn’t want to go that route again. We tried the Contour, couldn’t get the rear doors to close. Likewise the Accord. We were surprised and delighted to find we could get all three seats in the back of a first year Outback (sans cladding and jacked up ride).
Wow, when you can’t get kiddie seats to fit in the back without moving the front seats forward, then you have a serious problem in a sedan ostensibly designed for young families.
The trouble’s half in the sedan (in this case the CDW-27s), the other half’s in the modern child seats that are egregiously large. Another uncited piece is the fact that U.S. regs typically don’t allow for novel solutions like Volvo’s in which they make a seat that integrates neatly with the car (last I knew, the Volvo seats were not approved for the U.S. market).
Ford introduced the integrated child seat, complete with 4 point harness in the 1st or 2nd year of the Windstar. Chrysler and GM soon followed. Chrysler offers a system similar to Volvos in the Journey.
the 2nd gen Explorer had the child seat integrated in the rear seat in 96-01.
I knew they’d messed around with it in the late ’90s, but I thought those had all been legislated away by now. I’ll have to check into the Journey’s setup.
Several vehicles sold in the U. S. offer integrated child safety seats, and have for a few years.
The child seat issue may help explain some of the lost sales here. To those of you not in the USA, were bulky child seats required by law back then? It is one thing to find rear seat room “tight” for adults, but this would be a deal killer for young families.
That red Mystique is one durable car, it made it to the end of the world. 😛
As I’ve said before, when our old Topaz was coming up to a maintenance hump we test drove a Mystique and a Cougar. The Mystique turned us off by being bigger than the Topaz outside, but smaller inside. The Cougar was nice but not at the price. We wound up fixing the Topaz and driving it for a few more years.
World’s End is a really beautiful and scenic sport that’s part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Park area. Great trails for hiking and running! I was actually there for a run and when I got back to my car this Mystique was parked two spaces over from me.
I saw the owner too, she was an woman probably in her 60s or 70s there for a walk with some other women. The dealer badge tells that the car was originally sold locally, as the now defunct Owen Lincoln-Mercury was located about half hour away in Dedham, MA. I wouldn’t be surprised if she is the original owner, or at least has owned the car since it was only a few years old given the green plates.
Great piece, Brendan.
To sort-of echo Dave M.’s comment above, I remember these cars (both Contour and Mystique) seeming like second-tier right from the start and being overpriced. I can’t speak to the experience of driving one, but I did ride in the back seat of a downstairs neighbor’s Contour while in my 20’s (shout-out to Helen P!) and not hating the experience.
Thanks Joe! I always felt the same about these. They just always seemed kind of lost and redundant in Ford and Mercury’s lineups.
I tried to buy a white-with-blue cloth Mystique from an Enterprise Car Sales lot in beautiful Florissant MO but the car seats wouldn’t fit, so I gave up on that plan. Haven’t seen one in the flesh in a long time.
What surprises me about the rear-seat room issue is that they did it again with the ’12+ Focus and ’13+ Fusion. You’d think after the first time Dearborn would’ve sent the rear-seat legroom requirements to Cologne at the start of the development process as an absolute diktat.
But in today’s market, those wanting extra back seat room get an SUV. So much so that sedans are fading.
In 1995 I was ready to buy a fully-loaded Contour, convinced that it was the best buy for my budget and the best handling vehicle in its class. I was at the dealer one evening after dark and as the salesman walked me through the lot to the test-drive Contour we passed a black Probe GT with the chrome wheels. Under the parking lot lights it was a vision that stopped me cold and I know I heard the angels sing! Never did the Contour test drive and drove that Probe for 8 years…great car.
My only experience with these was the way they were crammed on my local Craigslist several years ago as the most commonly available ultra-cheap wheels out there. $1000-1500 versions of these were everywhere. I asked a couple of people (including my mechanic) and got the impression that they were on the brittle side with lots of expensive things that went wrong not infrequently. So I passed.
I looked again this morning and there is a 135K mile SVT stick shift Contour offered for $1900. It’s a good thing I’m not in the market, because with all of the glowing comments from those who have wheel time in these, I could be tempted.
If it is a true SVT version and it is running well enough, that is a good buy. Depending on if it is a 1998 or a 99-00 one then the V6 put out 195hp(1998) or 200hp (99-00) with a 0-60 time of 7.5 secs (according to motor trend)
I had a chance to drive a 2000 Contour SVT for a few weeks and it was always fun to drive. It pushed your butt back in the seat taking off at the line.
The regular Contour with a stick was fun to drive but the SVT was even better.
It’s a 99. Here is the link to the ad: https://indianapolis.craigslist.org/cto/d/1999-ford-svt-contour/6433896057.html
As a past owner of a 97 zetec 4 cly/5 speed, and current owner of a 95 duratech V6/5speed, I’d advise against getting any version of this chassis (Contour/Mystique/X-type) with the V6. No knock against the motor itself, but it really is too large for the engine compartment. Makes for a lot of dissasembly of unrelated components during servicing just to get at what needs fixing.
Also, the 95-97 cars had biodegradable-insulation wiring harnesses. Most of them got fixed under an extended warranty by a factory service bulletin, but some (like the one I have now) didn’t. And boy do I wish I’d known about it before I bought this one. If you’re looking at one, inspect the underhood wiring carefully. If you see bare wires or crumbling insulation, close the hood and walk away. There’s 4 separate harnesses in there, and I’m too scared to even ask a shop what it’s going to cost to replace them all, even if I supply solid used wiring.
Great fun to drive, and since the only thing I ever do with the back seat is toss my jacket on it, leg room isn’t an issue for me. Styling wise, my favorite are the pre-facelift Contours, with the small oval grille and ovoid headlights. I hate the 98-on headlights to the point that I won’t even consider one.
Oh, and my 97 (bought by my mom at 20k miles) went 200k with no major fails, needing only regular maintenance and wear items replaced. It was still running strong and solid when I killed it by running out of gas one too many times, and melted a piston.
My MIL who is 91 is still driving her Contour, around the little town of Fairfield, Iowa. She loves it, but has had to do a few things to keep it going, like replacing rotted vacuum lines. I’ve driven it a bit briefly but never even tried to get in the back seat.
Yes, Ford made a very expensive miscalculation with this car. Meanwhile, Nissan was selling plenty of betweener-sized Altimas. Oh well, this was a period where Ford made plenty of expensive miscalculations. They were well versed in that. Good thing they had the Expedition, F-Series and Explorer to offset all of them.
I loved my ’96 Escort wagon and would never have upgraded to one of these things, mostly because there was no wagon model. Also, even the Escort had decent back seat room with a good supportive seat, I know because my 300lb sister once rode in back for a fairly long drive and said it was comfy. Now I have a 2007 Focus wagon and again, the seats front and back are pretty roomy and comfy. That, plus the styling of Contour/Mystique that just left me cold and never appealed much. Ford just didn’t hit the mark with this car at all.
In Europe the Mondeo was, and still is available in the station wagon body style (yeah, there’s a Fusion / Mondeo wagon) as well as a 5 door hatchback that was discontinued when the Mondeo adopted the Fusion body about 1 and 1/2 years ago.
It’s also available in Europe with a turbo diesel engine and manual transmission.
Nope, the hatchback survives. For example, here in Australia we don’t even get the Mondeo sedan.
For the last two generations, maybe three, the sedan and hatch have looked so alike so why not just buy the hatch and enjoy the greater practicality? I love that GM is actually introducing a Regal hatch (sorry, “Sportback”) and isn’t even bothering with a sedan.
Actually, the Chevy Chevette was a world car that was fairly successful, and so was the Chevy Cavalier.
Pontiac got a Daewoo built version of an Opel Kadett, a miserable car, but that was GM-U. S. A.’s fault.
Ford of Europe sent U. S. the Fiesta, a fairly decent car.
Part of the problem with the Contour/Mystique/626 triplets was the automatic transmission – they were failure prone and did so in large numbers when new. That front-drive transaxle plagued the Mazda people for a couple of years prior to the Contour/Mystique release, so it had a reputation from the beginning. Symptoms were absolutely no propulsion occurring with no warning, along with a flashing “D” in the PRNDL indicator. Earlier 626’s with the separate trasnsaxle/engine ECUs were less prone, but only marginally so. Many cars with this transaxle had multiple rebuilds with no improvement in reliability.
Hmm, I wonder if the poor sales of these cars was less due to their inherent attributes … I mean, there’s a lot of rose-colored hindsight here about the Tempo/Topaz … but due to the real growth in Accord/Camry/Altima sales in the mid-West and South. Out here in California, the Contour/Mystique twins were common but not noticeably more or less than other domestics of that class (though the GrandAm always seemed slightly more popular than the others, perhaps made more visible with its “in your face” styling and the typical driver. What does surprise me is the current popularity of the Fusion; yes it’s a far better car, but since when did that drive decisions of the average car buyer?
Altima sales perhaps. The first generation Altima was(still is) very good looking car and was priced right. None of the folks I knew that owned them had any issues with them.
As for the Camry/Accord, sales for them were pretty steady with no super jump in sales until about 1997 for the Camry. The biggest competitor of the Contour was not a Camry but the Taurus. It was a bigger car, had more standard equipment and did not cost much more then a Contour. So most folks just bought a Taurus instead.
It was not until the shear ugliness of the 96-99 Taurus confronted folks that the Camry became the best selling car.
(the irony of that was the best looking and best made Camry by far(92-96) could not knock the Taurus down to take number 1 but the decontented 97-01 Camry did)
The Contour/Mystique reminds me of the old joke where executives of a dog food company are lamenting the poor sales of its new dog food. “I don’t understand” said one. “It’s nutritious, affordable, conveniently packaged and widely available. Why isn’t it selling”? A more astute executive responded, “dogs don’t like it”.
Another example of a decent car that missed, due to the failure of the manufacturer to correctly assess its intended market.
My first couple of years in college (to alleviate boredom on the weekends), i was a ‘professional’ test driver. My roommate and I would drive all sorts of cars, new and used, at the local dealers in Las Cruces and sometimes even in El Paso.
I drove a 1995 Ford Contour SE, with the Duratec V6 and the 5-speed manual transmission. It was in that beautiful champagne metallic color, with the gorgeous machined face 15″ alloy wheels (just like the car pictured). I fell in love with this car. The engine pulled strong, the shifter had very short throws, the car handled amazingly and the interior (front) fit like a glove, just perfect. I did sit in the back, and it was definitely more cramped than my 1993 Topaz 2-door in the back. Not that I would have been sitting back there, so it really didn’t matter. I wasn’t in any place to purchase a new car, but they have always held a place in my heart. Great little car.
I tried to convince a few friends to snag one. But that back seat was a turn off to both. One ended up getting a Saturn SL2 and the other a Pontiac Grand Am. They weren’t so concerned with the performance aspect or the driving dynamics, which were far superior in the Contour.
“It’s a gamble alright, and unfortunately, it’s a gamble that sometimes doesn’t yield big payouts. While hardly the same snafu as the GM10 (first generation W-bodies), which cost General Motors some $7 Billion in development and lost the automaker some $2,000 on every vehicle produced,”
I agree with you on this Brendan and you are right Ford did not lose money on every car sold. However it also seems that Ford was not paying attention to GM’s loss and issues with the W Body because they wound up doing the same thing.
The W- Body’s biggest issue (especially with the Buick and Oldsmobile versions) was the price of the cars made them uncompetitive in the lineup. For example the Buick Regal was slotted between the Century and the Lesabre. As the Regal offered really nothing to distinguish itself from the other two cars, folks ether bought a Century or ponied up a bit more money to buy a Lesabre. According to NADA, the MSRP price of the 1994 Century Custom was $17,305, the 1994 Regal Custom was $18,299, The Regal Limited was $19,799 and the 1994 Lesabre Custom was 20,860
A customer saved almost $1000 by buying a 1994 Century Custom (which offered a big car ride and was well equipped) over a Regal Custom. A person looking to buy a Regal Limited, could get so much more by buying a Lesabre Custom as it was less then $1500 more and a Lesabre got a bigger car.
Getting back to the Contour and Mystique, they suffered from the same issue. They were priced badly against the Taurus/Sable and the Escort/Tracer. The price of a decently equipped Contour was at striking distance of an entry level Taurus so a lot of customers bought a Taurus over a Contour. Plus Taurus sales were not as good as the 92-95 model so there was cash on the hood of each Taurus which made it more appealing to buy.
On the flipside, the average buyer of a Tempo/Topaz got a big dose of sticker shock as the Contour was so much more then a Tempo was. These folks most likely bought a Escort(which was pretty roomy now) over a Contour.
I like the Contour and love the way they drove, but the average person interested buying a smaller car like this was looking for bang for the buck value.
I owned a 2000 Contour for about a year, it was base 4 cylinder automatic with 80,000 miles on it. The engine was a willing partner, the transmission was dumber than a sack of hammers, always in the wrong gear at the wrong time for any kind of ‘fun’. It was a good handler, and rode well, but was a NOISY at highway speeds – wasn’t wheel bearings, as the sound went away on smooth asphalt.
At age 8 the interior was fragile, I had some bulbs burn out in the 3rd brakelight and I absolutely destroyed the original one with one gentle tug to release the clips. I eventually put in an earlier unit instead of finding the refreshed one, as they all did the same thing in the yards.
I’m 6’2 so anyone sitting behind me didn’t have leg room, much less room for any sort of legs.
Mine also had the infamous issue of the 2nd production dash curling away from the inner structure.
These cars were really hit or miss in the reliability department. When I worked in the shop we would find these to often have “phantom” electrical or cooling system issues and sometimes both. The transaxles were often plagued with failures. Once in a while, a customer would have an amazing example that would have over 200k with very few issues. I definitely remember these were the manual transmission variety with the V6. We commonly referred to these vehicles as the Mercury “mistake” and the Ford Contour as a vulgar term for a specific part of the female anatomy combined with the word “tour”. This was the early 2000’s after all, and the workplace was not as civilized as we would perhaps find it today. Great write up. Brought back memories, all good.
I’ve spent the last 8 months with a ’98 Mystique, same color as the feature car, but with the z-tec and no leather. Just sold it a few days ago, needed a van. I bought it from a little old lady for $1200. It had only 72,000 kms (less than 45,000 miles). It was like driving a new car.
It was a GS Sport model. Very odd combination of leather wrapped steering wheel/ Shift knob, sport wheels, but no abs or power windows! What? A Mercury with crank windows. It was a thrifty car with great handling. But there just seem to be no thought into packaging. Obviously a big turnoff to potential buyer.
This was mine.
Very nice! I’ve personally always had a soft spot for these cars. Love hearing actual owner’s personal accounts!
This one hit all my buttons, Brendan–thanks for shining a spotlight on a car that’s seen less and less often on Midwestern streets these days.
I had a ’96 Contour with the 4cyl/auto, and a great deal of above comments ring true: great handing “fun driver”; auto trans never seemed to be in the right gear; nice fit/finish; not much of a back seat; got decontented over the years to save a little cash. The “hit or miss” comment about quality seems apt; some people got riddled with problems well before 100K, while I sailed right by. Once in a while I see a “granny” example, and get tempted to buy…
Nice! Mine was that same Toreador Red, with the same wheels. Mine was an LS, though, with the rear spoiler and light gray leather interior. I need to get my COAL for this one written so we can compare notes!
“World Cars” seem to be the biggest miss for the US manufacturers, with GM and Ford swinging and missing. Ford of Europe sent us the ill fated Merkurs, but the Escort ended up being 2 different cars in each market. We got the Opels of GM here as Saturns, then Buicks, but that will dry up soon. What I don’t understand is why they try world cars, then massage them to fit into the local market, and wonder why they don’t work. A great car is a great car, regardless of where it is built or driven. Save for not having similar regulations for both US and EU spec cars, most european manufacturers sell pretty much the same car here as in Europe. We get different headlights due to stupid US rules, while EU cars must have amber turn signals in the rear. Engine choices vary, but for the most part, we get the same ones, if not the lower HP ones here. Why not just build a good car, and ship it everywhere?
I’ve always wondered why Ford couldn’t just produce the Contour with the same clean, contemporary styling as the Mondeo. I couldn’t get past the small, ugly grille opening that looked like a mouth of a porpoise and tail lights that looked like macaronis.
Ford and others do that now because they’ve learned those lessons of the past. The current Fiesta, Focus, Fusion (Mondeo in other markets), Escape (Kuga in other markets), Transit Connect, and Transit are all sold all over the world, and all do pretty well overall. I don’t know what the current state is, but in 2010/11, the then-new Fiesta had 65 percent parts commonality globally (it was already partly in development when they decided to bring it to North America) and the then-upcoming Focus was going to have 80-85 percent parts commonality globally. Differences were in things like bumpers (to meet varying crash requirements), seats (because Americans are fat), and other odds and ends to tailor them to regional requirements.
The mistake Ford made during the Ford 2000 days (from which the CDW-27 came) was that they, rather than involving all regions, delegated various segments by region. Ford of Europe was pretty much solely responsible for C and CD cars and did pretty much all the design work on the CDW-27. The rumblings from inside I heard were that the CDW-27 is part of why the first Focus got so heavily Americanized when it was released-Dearborn didn’t want another Contour fiasco on their hands.
Ford of US’s mistake, to me, was cost cutting, and then turning off import intenders with low quality ratings.
Now, they say “just buy a truck” and dismiss cars as “small and not selling anymore”.
The Ford Mondeo, it got some major issues in the nineties. They were called the 1994 Renault Laguna, the 1995 Peugeot 406 and -above all- the 1996 VW Passat B5.
Both Ford and Opel lost it from there on in the midsize / D-segment, while being so overwhelmingly predominant in the previous two decades.
Count me amongst those who long ago stopped counting up times Ford have “Americanized” every last bit of desirability and rectitude out of a car.
One other thing, though:
I’ll take up that argument, because while Ford made a lot of noise about how this was a pioneering new thing called a “world car”, that claim looks bogus to me for a variety of reasons:
1. See above. The Contortion/Mistake were on the same platform as the Mondeo, and there were probably shared parts, but they were not close to the same car.
2. VW Beetle and Bus
3. Volvo PV, Amazon, 140/164, 240/260, 700, 900…
4. Plymouth/Chrysler Valiant
5. Et cetera
Daniel, I wonder if Brendan meant “Ford’s first true world car” instead.
In that case, I would argue that the original FWD Escort was their attempt at a world car, but at that time it seems that every division of Ford had their own little territories and seemed reluctant to give any ground. In any event, it didn’t work as planned.
Maybe the CDW 27 was the first Ford world car with only changes to meet local conditions, with none of the changes that happened to the Escort?
As I recall, Ford made a big deal about how this was a new thing, a world car, which nobody had ever done before.
“Fit and finish was on par with Honda and Toyota, with pleasant looking and feeling plastics, tight fitting panels…”
Er… not in my experience. The dash and door panels were a haphazard mix of too many cutlines, poor panel fits and thin plastics that noticeably degraded after just 2-3 years…
Agree that car was ‘middle child’, and segment faded away to Focus, eventually. Tempo became a fleet queen or ‘cheap car’, then sticker shock. Euro roots didn’t help sell to average buyers. Buff books raved about the handling, and the SVT had a cult following. But now forgotten.
I had a ’97 and was fun to drive, seat fit like glove. But had 4 cyl that was slow, so after 4 years I had to have a v6. So got a 2000 v6 used, but seat was flat as park bench, had to customize it. Also, while quicker, it had softer handling.
I had a 1995, 4 cyl. auto Countor and I didn’t like the car a bit. Very often it would refuse to start in the morning and nobody ever found the problem. The car always run with the temperature needle annoyingly close to the red and after spending a good money on cooling related parts, the mechanic told me the gauge needed some sort of adjustment.
A couple of years latter my wife bought a very low miles 2000 V6 Mercury Cougar, which I assume is the same car under the skin… right?
Another dreadful experience; problems with the catalytic converter, thank God that was covered by a recal anf after a couple of months the car started to run poorly when it was below half tank of gas. I just don’t know what the problem was because we sold the car before trying to fix it.
A few years latter I bought a 95 Mazda 626, 4 cyl. and the car was awesome, never gave me a major problem.
The 1997 Escort restyle hurt sales too. CDW27 ended up a fleet queen, as the Tempo, but not a popular entry level car as Scorts.
When cancelled, the Escape was brought out and one dealer was glad to see another SUV to sell instead of the ‘tiny cars’, per an Automotive News article.
As I said last night Brendan, great article. These may have missed Ford’s sales targets but they did better than the related Mondeo in Australia which was a flop. But then that segment has had a rocky history. Price a mid-size too close to a Falcon and people would just buy a Falcon. And if the mid-size is too expensive, people would just go down a segment and get a Laser.
I always liked these cars and thought they would have some more personality than your average compact. I came close a couple of times but my mechanic put me off saying they were like my Jetta. When they ran good it was fun, but when they broke nothing was ever cheap to fix.
Funny, I remember the redesigned front end well, but the original must have been forgettable, because I forgot it completely!
After renting one, I bought a left over ’96 I believe I got about 1/3 off sticker. I still miss the very attractive interior which complimented the blue-green exterior. Even though it was the base model, few interiors of contemporary vehicles are as attractive. I did make some alterations: Koni adjustable dampers, and Perilli P6000 tires. I never reached the cornering limits of this combination. However, as far as working on the six cylinder engine, forget it.
I had it for ten years and 100,000 miles. Considering the mileage/age the repairs were not unreasonable, although I learned that the transmission failed about two years after I sold it. I would counsel J.P. to purchase the ’98 he found, he will probably like driving it more than his Mazda..
I went to the new car dealer show in Atlanta in 1995 to check these out specifically. My Lancer was getting old and the Tempo, while newer, was just a wretched piece of machinery. At that show, Ford brought in UAW line workers who helped design (so they told me) (apparently they had some input?) and assemble the cars. They hovered nearby and would ask prospects what they thought of the cars.
I looked in one and thought, that back seat is a bit tight. At the time, my youngest still had a few more years to go in the car seat, but it still didn’t turn me off completely. I liked what I saw/felt from the front seat. As I sat there, I activated one of the cup holders in the dash. IIRC, it was one of those fold-out style holders, like SAABs used to have.
As I did this, one of the UAW “docents” appeared and asked me what I thought. I mentioned my concerns about the back seat size and the seemingly flimsy cup holder. She was very diplomatic, but I got the feeling that they had heard the same thing about the back seats repeatedly already. I guess that design input didn’t extend to that area of the car. She noted my observation on the cup holder and thanked me for my honesty.
I was still favorable about the car until I saw the sticker. That’s probably my over-arching memory of these cars. Granted, I was not thinking this car would be as inexpensive as the outgoing Tempaz, but it was a lot closer to a Taurus than I thought it would be.
Many of the things that people have brought up here, I’ve heard about these cars. The manual tranny cars seem to hold up well, the Mazda-sourced autobox was not good and overall the cars handled well. I seem to remember some internet scuttlebutt about the connectors in the wiring systems in these cars being made of a rather brittle plastic that caused all kinds of headaches.
Up here in Salt Country®, Contours/Mystiques have all but vanished. On a daily basis, I still see a couple of Tempazes, but I can’t tell you the last time I saw a Contour.
Amusing how humdrum Euro family cars, even though good ones, become (semi-) luxury cars cf. BMW competitors across the pond. Somehow having to freshen up the geriatric image of the brands they’re made to carry along the road.