Motoring: The Mondeo gets six appeal: Ford has made an already good car even better by giving it a smooth, American-built V6 engine. Roger Bell gives it a warm welcome

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Drive a car with a good six- cylinder engine and you will never again be satisfied with the timbre of a four-cylinder. The difference that two cylinders make is the difference between a cheap transistor and a good hi-fi - one sounds irritating, the other uplifting. Ask Ford. Gremlins known as N V and H (noise, vibration and harshness) have been exorcised from the latest Mondeo by a refined new six-cylinder engine with a sweeter delivery than the 'four' that it supplements.

Ford's global strategy is behind the Mondeo 24V, powered by a deep-chested American V6, each of the cylinders breathing through four valves. And not before time. Most of its competitors already have V6 engines in their mainstream, middleweight models, as BMW and Mercedes have for decades. Of the Mondeo's main rivals, only the Citroen Xantia, Peugeot 405 and Rover 600 are without the option of six appeal. (Volvo's oddball five-cylinder engine in the 850 is so smooth and refined it counts as a 'six'.)

Ford describes its new Ohio- made engine, developed with Porsche's assistance, as one of the smallest and lightest V6s in existence. With all the hi-tech gismos required for the modern world (the exhaust is fed through three cleansing catalytic converters), it is a far cry from the lumpy old 'six' that still powers the ageing Granada.

There are faster rivals (Vauxhall's Cavalier V6, for instance) and quieter ones (Renault's Laguna V6); but the Mondeo Ghia 24V on test did everything expected of it smoothly, effortlessly, and in impressively hushed tones. Anyone graduating to the new 2.5- litre V6 from the Mondeo's harsh 2.0-litre 'four' will notice a dramatic improvement in sound quality and performance.

Apart from the new 170bhp engine, Ford's best effort for ages, this Mondeo also gets traction control (to prevent the driven front wheels from spinning on slippery roads) and ABS braking, making it as immune from skidding as a car can be. Performance is strong, the tractable engine punching its weight all the way from idling to almost 7,000rpm. A pity that the gear change of the manual on test was stiff and notchy - an argument for specifying the automatic version, at extra cost.

The underpinnings of a fine car were already in place before the arrival of the new engine. In comfort, accommodation and quality, the Mondeo has from the start been up among the class leaders. The seats and driving position are excellent (the steering column adjusts for height and reach) and the equipment on the flagship Ghia is comprehensive. It includes an airbag on the driver's side, part- powered seat adjustment, alarm/immobiliser and air-conditioning.

If the 24V's ride sometimes feels less than composed (it can be quite jittery on neglected B-roads), its handling is beautifully fluent for what is essentially a family car. Three variants are available: a four-door saloon, a five-door hatchback and a classy estate, the best-looking of a rather anonymous trio. Prices start at pounds 15,970 for the standard 24V. The test Ghia costs pounds 19,600, and aesthetes will cringe at the vulgar mock wood on the fussy facia - which cheaper models are spared. Nevertheless, I liked and respected the Mondeo 24V. Pound for pound, it is the best car Ford makes.

COMPARISONS

Alfa Romeo 155 V6, pounds 16,679 Goes well, keenly priced, but ride, handling and refinement not up to Mondeo 24V.

Mitsubishi Galant 2.0 V6, from pounds 19,469 Performance of 2.0-litre engine indifferent, but smoothness exceptional. More economical than Mondeo 24V. Feels solid and well- made, but looks bland. Five- door costs pounds 19,909.

Renault Laguna V6, pounds 18,565 The Mondeo Ghia 24V's keenest rival. Price includes automatic transmission (no manual alternative), air- conditioning, two airbags, anti-lock brakes, CD player and a trip computer, but comfort, quietness and fine handling are its greatest strengths. Performance and economy of 3.0-litre engine indifferent.

Vauxhall Cavalier V6, from pounds 15,860 Cheapest of the V6 middleweights, and one of the fastest. Terrific verve and spirit but lacks the Mondeo's refinement. Beginning to look and feel its age, but still good value. Same engine available in the Saab 900.

SPECIFICATIONS

Ford Mondeo Ghia 24V, pounds 19,600 2,540cc V6, 170bhp at 6,250rpm; manual (5spd) or auto (4spd); 0-60mph 8.0 seconds (manual), top speed 140mph; 23-27mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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