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The finest car Ford ever launched in Europe: Seven challengers that are revving up

THE Mondeo is probably the best car in a crowded and increasingly competitive sector, which accounts for about 25 per cent of the British market. It is better than the 11-year-old Sierra in every way. Particularly impressive, compared with the Sierra, are its ride, handling, attractive cabin and sprightly performance.

But, to be number one in the class - and that is Ford's target - the Mondeo will need to see off a trio of fine, British-built Japanese competitors, rejuvenated old-timers from Peugeot and Vauxhall, a new Rover, and an upcoming new Citroen.

When Ford researched the Mondeo, it identified the Nissan Primera - built in Sunderland, to a specification largely determined by the Japanese - as the class best. It's a close call between the two. The Primera is a slightly sharper handling car, if not so fluent on winding roads. It has better engines - particularly in the 2.0-

litre sector -but a less yielding ride. If sheer driving enjoyment is paramount, the Primera is probably the more compelling buy, but for family motoring, the Mondeo is the wiser choice.

The two other Mondeo-class Japanese cars being built in Britain are the Toyota Carina E, which has just gone into production in Derby, and the latest Swindon-made Honda Accord, due on sale in the UK in May.

The Carina has the Mondeo easily covered in interior space - it's a massive family car - and offers more sophisticated engines and slicker-shifting manual transmissions. The Mondeo is more fun to drive, and has a much more composed suspension on poor- quality roads. The Accord, like the Carina, is a dull-looking and dull-

to-drive car, although it boasts a smooth engine, a wonderful gear- change, and is impressively roomy.

Initially, the Mondeo's main competitor will be the Vauxhall Cavalier, the Sierra's biggest sales rival. Go for the Mondeo. The Cavalier, like most Vauxhalls, boasts sweet revving and powerful engines, and is well made and reliable. But its suspension offers nothing like the suppleness of the Mondeo's. It is thus a substantially less comfortable car, as well as being less roomy.

A more serious rival is the Peugeot 405, my personal choice before the arrival of the Mondeo. Built in Ryton, near Coventry, it has a marvellous ride/handling balance, although its steering is less sweet than the Mondeo's. It is also not as well built, not quite as roomy, and not quite the balanced all-rounder that the new Ford is.

Harder to rate is the new Rover 600, due in April and officially still secret. It is, however, based closely on the new Honda Accord, so is likely to be roomy, beautifully finished inside (like all Rovers), and mechanically refined. Given its Honda antecedents, don't expect the chassis composure of the new Ford, though.

The car most likely to steal the class-best crown from the Mondeo is the new Citroen Xantia. No journalist has driven one yet, but this BX replacement - on sale in the UK in June - promises to be roomy, distinctive, supple-riding and brisk.