Originally published in Len Frank’s column for the LA Reader newspaper, 1994

 

Since this is a kind of Everyperson car, I should use a sports metaphor here, something like, “nobody hits home runs all of the time” or something and then talk about Ted Williams or somebody but I really don’t give a damn about stick-and-ball games so I won’t. Now watch me bring this back to cars.

The “nobody-hits-etc.” to whom I referred above is the Ford Motor Company which managed to strike out with turkeys like the Mustang II, and the LTD Elite, and, if one goes back far enough, the ’57 Mercury and ’58 Lincolns (the ugliest cars ever built), the Edsel (which has entered the language as the supreme gaffe/or merely a tragically stupid, tasteless, mistake), and more recently, the Australian-built Capri.

The same company also produced the exquisite pre-WWII Lincoln Continental, the original Mustang, and even some superb appliances like the original Falcons. I have no idea what their batting average might be but this isn’t a baseball game.

A year or so ago Ford introduced, in Europe, a car called “Mondeo” that got great notices. It was sold in various versions to serve diverse markets like Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the United Kingdom, all of which have different requirements.

Ford does not have a great record in bringing their European cars to the U.S., the latest losers being the Merkur XR4Ti and Merkur Scorpio—basically nice cars sold by dealers who didn’t understand them to a population that also didn’t understand them, and they were underdeveloped for the U.S.

Then we heard that they were going to build the Mondeo here and call it Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. The guy who told me said “Ford Torture and Mercury Mistake.” Please.

What we didn’t need, I figured, was one more dismal, front-drive, semi-econo sedan with an undistinguished drivetrain, thin seat cushions, cheap plastic interior, and a heavy advertising campaign. I went off to see and drive the Torture and Mistake.

OK, SO I WAS WRONG

The car(s) that I described—dismal, undistinguished, thin—are the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz, prototypical rental slugs, beancounter cars. The Mondeo twins are about the same size, the same price, and they too occupy the slot between the Escort and the Taurus. Ford says they are not replacements for the Tempo but the positioning is hard to escape.

People who bought the Tempo (and Topaz) were those who thought they were getting appliance/cars more upscale than the Escort because it had slightly nicer upholstery, a trunk instead of a hatch, and a larger engine. They were conservative, frugal/impecunious, and, if the Tempo was upscale to them, must have had a rather poor self image or been dangerously poor judges.

For convenience, let’s just call the new cars Mondeo (I wish Ford had), and for further convenience, let’s talk about the upscale equipment levels—they’re more fun. The Mondeo actually has a longer wheelbase, more legroom and more headroom than the Taurus, It’s about five inches narrower but it has as much usable interior width. Remember, this is the Taurus we’re comparing it to. Ford would like you to compare it to the Accord or Nissan Altima.

Ford Mondeo Mk 1 (illustration by Terry Collins for Ford Motor Company)

The Mondeo has (optional) a nifty V6 2.5 liter engine with 20 hp more than the Taurus, roughly the same power as a Volvo 850 or a Buick Regal with a 3800 V6 half again as big as the Ford. The great thing about the engine (for the appliance buyer) is that it has a 100,000 mile tune-up interval. The lousy thing is that for the enthusiast, there is no excuse (or much opportunity) to get in there and fiddle with all of those valves, camshafts, advanced engine management systems, etc. Look for an SHO model with 200+ hp sometime in the not too distant future.

Remember that this is a smallish sedan that Ford has aimed at people who can’t afford a Taurus and aren’t sporty enough for a Mustang—it’s not a car for the enthusiast but it should be..

There are cars that perform well but don’t feel or sound very good doing it—the Neon, for instance. And there are cars that feel good but don’t perform well—a BMW 318i perhaps. The Mondeo has both a level of performance and a precision of control feel that would lead an enthusiast to believe that there is some exotic badge on the front—certainly not Ford or Mercury. The sad part is that Ford dealers, like all dealers, will follow that well-trodden path of least resistance and sell the Mondeo on price—somewhere between $13,000 and $18,000—to those who would really rather have a Taurus but can’t afford it or just need a replacement for the old Tempo. More pearls in the pig pen. Pity.


Top image: Ford Mondeo Mk1 (from the archives of the Ford Motor Company)

Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996 at the age of 60. During the next few months, we will be re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”, and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano