relatives / religious adviser, maybe even lawyer. He waited for me to lock up before he came out, fixing me with a glassy stare. I was just taking a breath for my 'this is a public place . . .' routine, when he ran a hand over the sleek front wings of the Mondeo. 'Only good car Ford ever make,' he said with the finality of a man who has tried some of the others.
The last car I drove that attracted as much attention as the Mondeo - apart from the Morris Traveller whose back wings fell off on a roundabout in front of a panda car - was the new BMW 3-series, or possibly the Mazda RX7. But wait a minute . . . this is a Ford.
'Just collected it, have you?' the onlookers said - for this was the week the Mondeo went into the showrooms. 'Right,' I took to saying, after a bit. Since motoring columns and the car weeklies have been full of the Mondeo since the turn of the year, it would have been a long story to explain why I was driving this car for the purposes of informing the public so long after everyone else. This paper's policy on refusing invitations to flashy press launches (most British writers sampled the Mondeo in the south of France earlier in the year) is laudable enough, but it's hard to explain to a total stranger in a sentence.
This car has occupied more press space than any other since it was first unveiled, stimulating massive public curiosity. At Autocar & Motor they devoted no less than three cover stories to it. 'It was a big story because it was replacing a car as important as the Sierra,' says editor Mike Harvey, 'but also because it's exceptionally good - much better than we expected after the disappoinment of the Escort. It's a fabulous handling car and riding car - and it will sell everywhere, including America. They say it's a world car, and it is.'
Ford is reported to have sent out a million brochures in response to Mondeo enquiries on its 0800 hotline. Even before it went into the showrooms last week, it was in the British sales top ten on pre-sale registrations to fleet buyers.
'We also had half a million people show up to Ford dealerships to look at it on the launch evening,' says director of sales Eddie Thompson. 'A high proportion were people who were driving our competitors, and wanted to see what the fuss was about. There's always been a lot of fleet interest, but this is the first time retail customers have been so keen. I dropped someone off at a station the other day, and all 12 drivers on the cab-rank wanted to sit in it.'
For Ford, selling this car is a make-or-break operation - so a lot of this is just the hype that goes with a big-budget publicity campaign. But once you drive the Mondeo (priced at around pounds 14,600), it's obvious that its enthusiastic reception is due more to the public's, the experts' - and probably the company's - surprise at just what a cracker of a motor car it has genuinely turned out to be.
Ford was looking down a deep hole after the new Escort of 1991. Its redesign was obviously a compromise - and customers being offered attractive alternatives from France, Germany and Japan weren't impressed. Ford Europe's profits were hammered by this costly error - and the recession. But, ironically, the Escort debacle was the Mondeo's gain. It gave the company's engineers the clout to confront management with the need to rethink completely a car that was meant to meet changed public expectations in terms of handling, refinement, build quality and safety. The result was a chassis of such forgiving agility that it's hard to believe it's a bread-and-butter Ford. The specialist press has even put it up against a BMW 320 and come out surprised.
Driving the Mondeo for about five minutes confirms that Ford has finally learnt the lessons of the 1980s. Unlike the 10-year-old Sierra, the Mondeo is a front-wheel-drive machine. Though its engine is still toneless (which is characteristic of Fords), it is quieter, more refined, almost tuneful. It has a new gearbox, with higher gearing in the 1.8 model, which improves its fuel consumption over the 2.0-litre version and makes it quieter at cruising speeds.
Though the suspension is pretty standard at the front, it has a complex multi-link set-up at the back which gives this Ford the best combination of cornering stability and absorbency that a family Ford can ever have had. The designers have also managed to integrate all these structural virtues into what borders on an upmarket interior package.
The steering wheel is adjustable, both telescopically and for angle. The swollen boss of the wheel contains an airbag as standard, a significant factor in clinching the pounds 10 million deal the company has just made with Hertz to provide 75 per cent of its mid-range fleet. An orderly-looking fascia makes the driving controls easy to reach, though the electric-window controls and the interior door handles themselves aren't so reassuring to the touch; they're just about the only parts of the Mondeo that feel as if they came from a job-lot bin.
Acceleration with the 1.8 engine (which will certainly be the sales success of the range) is moderate to good - 0-60 mph in around 10 seconds, and the 30-50 mph overtaking dash in a little over eight seconds. When accelerating briskly from low revs, the engine emits a baritone throb noticeably noisier than the high, turbine-like hum of many Japanese units. But raunchy sportiness is going out of style, and it certainly isn't part of the Mondeo's image. Because the entire frame has been toughened for safety reasons, this isn't a light car - contributing to an average urban fuel consumption of around 26 mpg.
Along with modest rear leg room, this drop in economy is one of the Mondeo's few drawbacks. But the car's solidity and handling balance more than compensate for these inadequacies. Even on city corners the Mondeo feels like a car with a remarkably well- tuned chassis. On a series of undulating bends on faster roads, its freedom from roll is downright astonishing - whether with a full load or just the driver.
The safety features that impressed the fleet buyers include the standard airbag, pre-tensioned seatbelts, a toughened body and anti- lock braking on the Si and Ghia models - the latter an option throughout the range. They have also built the Mondeo to resist bandits for a full four minutes.
Hertz's Doug Sawers applauds these measures. 'We have a lot of our cars stolen, and the Mondeo's security package is very impressive,' he says. 'We also self-insure to a large extent - so, to put it baldly, if our customers aren't so badly hurt in a crash because of the Mondeo's safety features and the standard airbag, it's a very significant saving.'
If the Mondeo isn't enough to pull Ford Europe out of the jam the Escort drove it into, it will be very surprising. Neither will it be long, of course, before competitors react to the problems Ford has set for them. Nissan and Peugeot are assuring waverers that there will be drivers' airbags in all Primeras and 405s this year, for instance. But what if you're a would- be Ford buyer, armed with a smaller budget and a degree of scepticism about all this bally- hoo surrounding the Mondeo's high-profile launch? Buy a cheap, cheerful, dated but reliable Sierra instead. Its run-out prices have hit rock bottom.
Auto biography: The Ford Mondeo 1.8 GLX in 0-60 seconds
GOING PLACES: Moderately quiet but very flexible 1.8-litre engine and new, well-spaced gearbox, offering robust mid-revs pulling power. Top speed 122 mph, 0-60 mph in 10 secs; 30-50 mph takes 8 secs in 4th gear, 5.5 secs in 3rd.
STAYING ALIVE: Safety beams in the doors, stiffened frame, excellent progressive brakes, beautifully predictable handling and suspension, well-weighted power-steering.
CREATURE COMFORTS: Well-designed and organised cabin, comfortable and supportive seating, good sound system with optional CD. Headroom and luggage room good, rear legroom average.
BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, ABS standard on two models, optional on all; seatbelt tensioners to quicken lock-up on impact; cheap to insure; alarm with ignition immobiliser; excellent seating and steering adjustment; fuel consumption 26 mpg in town, approx 40 mpg at motorway speeds. Price: approx pounds 14,600.
STAR QUALITY: Truly remarkable handling, not just for a Ford but for any family and rep-oriented car; intelligent integration of all its features into a coherent whole; state-of-the-art safety and security features, including driver's airbag on all models; build-quality and interior finishing above usual criteria for the class.
TURKEY QUOTIENT: Engine noise level still noticeable compared to some Japanese competitors; door handles and window switches cheapskate, with windows electric only at the front; rear accommodation average only: smooth but anonymous body styling; boring continuation of Ford policy of high list price to encourage dealer-haggling.
AND ON MY RIGHT: Cavalier 2.0 GLS ( pounds 13,185): reliable, economical, good motorway car, handling and ride now dated . . . Nissan Primera 2.0 SLX (pounds 13,100): strong competitor in quality, performance and ride . . . Peugeot 405 2.0 GRi ( pounds 13,405): fine machine, recently updated and still high in the class for handling . . . Toyota Carina E 2.0 GLi ( pounds 14,199): excellent engine, handling not as sharp.