“Ford builds a Passat!” was a typical reaction when the Mondeo Mk3 was unveiled in October 2000. Beneath its conservative Germanic skin was a well-engineered, competent and capable car.
The 1993 Ford Mondeo Mk1 was a transformational car for its maker. Its predecessor, the Sierra, for all its futuristic aero looks, was resolutely conventional and exemplified Ford’s tradition of producing (no more than) adequately engineered and carefully costed cars that sold on showroom appeal, value for money and low running costs. If one wanted to experience technical sophistication or exemplary quality, one looked elsewhere.
Ford’s efforts at FWD engineering in its smaller models, the Fiesta and Escort, seemed to be moving backwards after an encouraging start with the 1976 Fiesta. This reached its nadir with the execrable 1990 Escort Mk5, a car that was dynamically so inept that Car Magazine dismissed it at launch as “not worth tooling up for”.
Consequently, by 1993, there was more apprehension than eager anticipation for Ford’s first FWD C/D-segment offering. Unlike the Sierra, the Mondeo’s styling, in saloon, hatchback and estate variants, was entirely mainstream and contemporary, to the extent that it could have come from any number of different manufacturers at the time. So far, so underwhelming.
The Mondeo’s dynamic qualities were, however, a revelation. Its handling and ride quality were good enough immediately to position it alongside the Peugeot 405 as the driver’s choice amongst such cars. At the launch event, there were plenty of Ford engineers on hand to talk enthusiastically to the assembled journalists about this most impressive new car. Chief amongst them was Richard Parry-Jones, the man credited with revolutionising Ford’s reputation as a builder of dynamically excellent cars.
The Mondeo was also well equipped and felt well screwed together. The car buying public were as impressed as the journalists and the new model flew out of the showrooms. The Mondeo won the 1994 European Car of the Year Award. It became symbolic of the aspirational working class in the UK to the extent that Tony Blair, then leader of the Labour Party, coined the phrase Mondeo Man to describe the type of voters New Labour needed to attract in order to win power in the 1997 general election.
By the end of the decade, however, the Mondeo was beginning to look rather dated. The original design had been facelifted in 1996 to create the Mk2* model. The facelifted car had a new front end with an oval grille flanked by large headlamps that gave it a rather startled look, but at least it could no longer be described as anonymous. Despite this, the organic curves of the original design were now rather unfashionable, and a new style was required.
Ford looked to its competitors, in particular Volkswagen, which had launched the very handsome B5 generation Passat in 1996. This was a coolly modernist design, with clean surfacing and crisp details. Ford was sufficiently enamoured of this car that it designed the new Mondeo virtually as a homage to the Passat.
Interestingly, Ford never gave a name to the style it used for this Mondeo and would use again for the 2002 Fiesta Mk5 and Fusion and the 2004 Focus Mk2. It was shorn of the New Edge flourishes that adorned the 1997 Focus but predated the Kinetic design the company would introduce with the 2005 Iosis concept car. Perhaps Ford regarded it as too generic to deserve a title? For my money, these models were all notably handsome and well resolved.
The new Mondeo was offered in four-door saloon, five-door hatchback and estate variants. The saloon and hatchback looked very similar at a glance, but the latter was distinguished by wider C-pillars, a more inclined rear glass and shorter rear deck. The estate, with its upright tail and high-level rear lights, was particularly handsome as it lacked the rather heavy-handed C-pillar treatment of its siblings. It was a quite colour-sensitive design: the lack of external brightwork could make dark coloured examples look somewhat dour.
The interior also took its cue from contemporary Volkswagens. It was very sober and rational, with noticeably improved material quality over its predecessor. The only slightly incongruous details were the rather chintzy oval shaped, white-faced analogue clock in the centre console and the unconvincing metallised plastic finish to the console itself.
Underneath the sharp and contemporary new bodywork was the 1993 Mondeo’s CDW27 platform, albeit with a new name, CD132, and a 50mm (2”) stretch in the wheelbase to 2,754mm (108.4”) to increase rear legroom and luggage space. Hence, the new model to a large extent retained the handling prowess of its predecessor. The engine range comprised 1.8 and 2.0 litre inline-fours, and 2.5 and 3.0 litre V6s, the latter featuring in the 2002 ST220 top-line model where it produced 226bhp. This gave it a 0 to 100 km/h (62mph) time of 6.6 seconds and a limited top speed of 249km/h (155mph).
Ford promoted the Mondeo’s safety features heavily, including ABS, an (optional) electronic stability programme (ESP) and its Intelligent Protection System (IPS) which was a system of sensors and software designed to optimise the deployment of airbags in an accident. Despite this, the car scored a disappointing four stars in Euro NCAP testing, supposedly because of its ageing platform’s under-par performance in front impact tests.
The Mk3 Mondeo remained little changed throughout its seven-year life. A facelift in 2003 brought revised engines and trim levels, a new centre console and a slightly larger front grille with a chrome outline. In 2005 the saloon and hatchback received revised rear lights with clear horizontal elements underlined by a chrome bar.
Sales started strongly and in 2001, the first full year the Mondeo Mk3 was on sale, a total of 286,794** were sold in Europe. That would prove to be its best year and, thereafter, sales declined steadily. In 2006, its last full year on sale, just 131,749 were sold. The Mondeo was falling victim to a growing preference for semi-premium or premium brands in its C/D market segment. European sales of the supposedly more exclusive BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 were 289,597 and 238,814 respectively in 2006. The Mondeo was outsold even by the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, European sales of which were 141,258 in the same year.
The Mondeo Mk3 proved reliable and durable in use and many ran up big mileages without trouble. Its sheer ubiquity and understated appearance made it easy to overlook, and an increasing number of potential buyers did just that. The dual onslaught of premium marques and SUVs have largely relegated the Mondeo to the status of an also-ran, with the current model selling fewer than 40,000 units in Europe last year.
* Annoyingly, Ford plays fast and loose with its ‘Mark’ designations and often awards its facelifted models a new number, as in this case.
** All sales data from http://www.carsalesbase.com