MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Ford Probe 2.0 16V in 0-60 seconds

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HOW would history have panned out if humans had invented the motor car earlier? We'd all have choked to death by now, I hear some of you say, but that wouldn't be entering into the proper 1994 spirit. No, what we all have to do these days is think positive - like everybody in the motor business.

Freedom] That's what today's car ads promise, and that's how history would have been different. Suppose Joan of Arc had been a GTi owner, for instance. She could never have been unhorsed at Compiegne, could have done a deal with the Burgundians from a position of strength and, who knows, maybe

retired to a little franchise in the

district, with a nice little wine exporting business on the side.

The current Ford Probe advertising campaign features the latest in this particular kind of make-believe. Chris Rea coolly growls 'Go your own way/Doesn't matter what the others say' while the car sweeps imperiously through landscapes of terrified wildlife. The Probe hit the showrooms in April, and the reason for the freewheeling easy-rider advert is that this car is supposed to be the Ford Capri of the 1990s - a more or less affordable (well, under pounds 20,000 anyway), groovy-looking coupe intended for younger buyers. A testament to auto internationalism, the Ford Probe is fundamentally a Mazda MX6 (which it distinctly resembles), built in Detroit at a plant which is jointly owned by Mazda and Ford. Unusually in the motoring world, the vehicle has been entirely styled by a woman as well.

Is the Ford Probe any good, or is it just a piece of niche marketing that looks nice but feels bland? The test car was the smaller-engined 16- valve four-cylinder version, and with this you certainly need to keep the revs up if sparky performance is to be sustained (an argument for the punchier V6, perhaps). But this is far from a characterless car, and with both the Mondeo and the Probe in Ford's showrooms inside a year, the company has convincingly put imaginative engineering back at the top of its agenda - even if it is with Mazda's expertise. The Probe is cramped at the back, and its angled rear seating and front-door access make entry no joke for bigger or inflexible citizens. The boot, on the other hand, is so roomy that you wonder why they didn't borrow a bit more for the legs. Roadholding is good, the engine fluid, the body- styling original and well-finished - and there are twin front airbags.

GOING PLACES: Very smooth-

running Mazda engine, though bet-

ter performance below 3,000 revs

per minute would make the Probe

feel more responsive and enhance

the sporty image Ford is claiming

for it. Excellent crisp gearshift, but

gear ratios not ideal. Does 0-60mph

in a shade over 10 seconds.

STAYING ALIVE: Standard airbags

for both driver and front passenger,

with self-tightening seatbelts and standard anti-lock braking system. Side-impact protection beams, good visibility. Safe and predictable handling, though ride knobbly on urban roads. Rather inert steering sensation blunts the edge of its otherwise grippy and deft handling.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Very definitely a two-plus-two, the rear two being children or short people. Supportive, high-backed sports seats in front, height adjustable. Rather stiff releases for access to rear. Surprisingly good boot space.

BANGS PER BUCK: Dual airbags, good spec generally, including alloy wheels, power steering, anti-lock braking, ignition immobiliser,

central locking, rear wash/wipe, tinted glass, power antenna, dual sun visors with illuminated mirrors. Fuel consumption approximately 29mpg in town, 35mpg at motorway speeds. Price: pounds 16,000.

STAR QUALITY: Very sleek and eye-catching appearance, excellent Mazda mechanics.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Poor rear legroom. Engine lacks power low in the rev range. Steering dull.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Vauxhall Calibra 2.0i 16v ( pounds 18,195): prettiest of all the coupes, good engine, slack handling, roomier, not cheap. Toyota Celica 2.0 ( pounds 19,230): distinctive styling and eager appearance, good handling, roomy, nice interior, expensive. Volkswagen Corrado V6 ( pounds 20,000): boxier shape, but a unique coupe-beater with phenomenal performance but meagre spec.