The finest car Ford ever launched in Europe: Gavin Green gives the new Mondeo nine out of ten. Currently the class leader, it would have been unbeatable if only they had got the engine right

FORD'S new Mondeo, which replaces the ubiquitous Sierra in Britain this March, is the finest car the company has ever launched in Europe. Not only is it good by Ford's own fairly modest recent standards, it is probably the best car in the class.

The old Ford philosophy - simplicity before sophistication, adequacy rather than brilliance - has been thrown out. Which is not to say the Mondeo is beyond improvement - try as it might, Ford just cannot get its engines right. But more of that later.

The Mondeo's suspension is supple, yet the handling is good. Steering is light, yet sharp, responsive yet impressively linear. The car is roomy, comfortable and, in some areas, technically intriguing. It is the first mainstream model to offer a standard driver's-side airbag, an important safety first. It follows the safety lead established by the '85 Granada, the first big volume car to offer anti-lock brakes as standard.

Novelties such as traction control (to eliminate wheelspin) and adaptive damping (to improve both ride comfort and handling), are available on the upper-range Si and Ghia versions. These, too, are firsts on mainstream cars.

If only the engines - three petrol motors, of 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 litres capacity - lived up to the rest of the car. They spin too busily and intrusively, booming where more sophisticated engines (Japanese particularly) rev with sewing-machine sweetness.

It is not as if the Mondeo engines are geriatric left-overs being pressed to serve long after their sell-by dates - which is true of many Fords, including the cheaper Fiestas and most Granadas. All the Mondeo's engines are from the new-generation Zeta family, built in Bridgend, Wales (the cars themselves are assembled in Genk, Belgium). They deliver competitive outputs and fuel frugality, but little aural sweetness.

Still, this blemish apart, fleet reps and family buyers - the staple purchasers of the Sierra and, before that, the Cortina - are going to love the Mondeo.

For starters, the styling will offend no one. It is curvy and rounded and pretty and simple, if not the trend-setter the Sierra was when it was launched in 1982. The Mondeo is shorter than the Sierra but substantially roomier, if also noticeably heavier (partly an upshot of the new safety features, which include side anti-intrusion beams as well as the airbag).

The cabin, one of the unhappier styling areas of recent Fords, is excellent. The facia is handsome, and the door casings, armrests, interior door-handles and dashboard are beautifully detailed. The seats are comfortable, although the leather trim used on top-range versions looks a bit tacky. I'd opt for the standard polyester cloth, handsomely patterned and with the added bonus of being more practical.

Central locking is standard, and other security high points include optional double locks (making it impossible for a thief to open the door after breaking a window). An alarm, linked to an engine immobiliser, is standard.

There is only one cabin blackspot: headroom in the rear of the hatchback is on the mean side for 6ft adults. Leg room, by the expanding norm of the class, is also a little tight in both the hatchback and saloon.

Ford expects these two models to deliver similar sales. Both have big boots, with the hatchback's luggage space especially praiseworthy. There is also a commodious estate - the most handsome model in the range.

For styling attractiveness, then, if not for innovation, the Mondeo scores well. But it is in the suspension department that this mid-

range Ford really excels. There has never been a Ford that feels more composed over broken tarmac, undulating secondaries and fast-sweeping A-roads.

Indeed, such composure has been alien to even the newest Fords. The Escort, although recently improved, has one of the least able suspensions in its class; it is deficient both in handling and ride. The Fiesta is competent enough. But drive a Renault Clio or a new Nissan Micra and the difference in suspension finesse is glaring.

The Mondeo, on the other hand, has the sort of chassis sophistication that one normally associates with the better French cars. The Peugeot 405 is the only other model in the class with so praiseworthy a mixture of supple suspension and limpet-like handling. Push hard on winding B- roads, and the composure is both sharp and benign. Bumps and pot- holes are dispatched with aplomb. The steering never weights up, even when you're driving hard. The whole car feels fluent and composed, never taxed and wanting. The difference between the Mondeo and a new Escort or Fiesta is enormous. It's a sign that Ford's priorities, after cynically underestimating its customers for far too long, have changed for the better.

The firm has genuinely tried to introduce the best car in the class, instead of merely trying to produce the best-selling (rarely the same thing, more's the pity). The Mondeo won't need to rely on a big dealer network, competitive pricing, sweet-talking salesmen or the implied benefits of the blue-

oval badge (reliability; lots of other people have them; easy to fix; easy to sell) to succeed. It will sell because, in nearly all important areas, it is a fine car. The last time I said that about a mainstream Ford was when the Sierra was launched 11 years ago.

If only the engines were as good. They're not too bad, to be fair. The power outputs are competitive, and they pull keenly from low revs. The on-paper specification is impressive: twin overhead camshafts, fuel injection and 16 valves on all three versions. There are also sophisticated computerised ignition control and the now mandatory catalytic converter. The 2.0-litre pumps out 136bhp, good for a mainstream saloon, if not the best-in-class.

Trouble is, try cruising at the 70-85mph that most motorway reps do, and rather more buzzes and whirrs will emanate from in front of your toes than you might expect. The 2.0-litre is particularly disappointing. In one I drove, even the gear lever vibrated, feeding small engine shocks and imbalances all the way through to my left hand.

Bigger-capacity engines often rev less sweetly than their smaller brothers, but the 2.0-litre's problems are compounded by its having the shortest gearing. In other words, at any given speed, it is revving higher. The 1.6 and 1.8 are more refined, if still not at the class cutting edge. Most Rover and Vauxhall four-cylinder engines are noticeably superior.

These Zeta fours were developed by Ford's European wing. The upcoming new V6 units, however, are being engineered in the United States for this, Ford's first post-war 'world' car. Europe was also responsible for the body engineering, styling and manual gearbox (a five-speeder, which is notchier than Japan's best). The Americans developed the more sybaritic ingredients, traditionally their speciality: the power steering, automatic transmission, electronics (including the cruise control) as well as the V6, to be fitted to luxury and sporty variants late next year.

It's a pity that the Mondeo is not the real world car that Ford pretends. It is more accurately a transatlantic car. Had the company tapped into its pool of Japanese talent (Ford owns a big chunk of Mazda), it could have benefited from that country's renowned engine and manual gearbox expertise.

In those circumstances, a very good car would probably have been even better.

SPECIFICATIONS

Ford Mondeo. Prices not yet announced; on sale late March. Five trim levels: base, LX, GLX, Ghia and sporty Si.

Three engines: 1.6 (90bhp), 1.8 (115bhp) and 2.0 (136bhp). Turbodiesel (88bhp) available probably in May; 2.5-litre V6 coming in late 1994.

Three body styles: five-door hatchback, four-door saloon and estate. Performance: 1.6 (maximum speed 111mph, 0-60mph in 12.8sec); 1.8 (maximum speed 121mph, 0-60mph in 10.5sec); 2.0 (maximum speed 126mph, 0-60mph in 9.1sec).

(Photograph omitted)

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