Concluding the story of the original Ford Mondeo and how it confounded the expectations of those who drove it.
The launch of a new Ford was always big news in the UK, so it fell to BBC Top Gear motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson to pronounce upon the Mondeo. Clarkson tested the car in 1.8 litre manual four-door saloon form shortly after its launch in March 1993. He was underwhelmed by the car’s appearance but impressed by both the interior design and quality of finish.
However, he criticised the cabin space, which he described as merely “adequate”, and noted a shortage of headroom in models fitted with a sunroof. Clarkson remarked favourably upon the car’s “vast” boot, which could be extended by folding down the rear seat backs, although access was restricted by the shallow boot lid opening.
Surprisingly, he described the handling as “competent but dull”. This sounded more like his expectation of a typical FWD car than the reality of the Mondeo. Performance was good, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 10.5 seconds and a top speed of 121mph (195km/h) although the engine was somewhat rough when stretched and the gearbox was “woolly”. Clarkson was, however, impressed by the available safety features; side-impact bars, driver’s airbag, anti-submarining(1) seats and (optional) ABS and traction control, the latter also available with adaptive damping.
One Ford boast that Clarkson repeated without apparent irony concerned the Mondeo’s security measures: the locks, it was claimed, would keep even the most determined car thief at bay for four minutes. Such was Ford’s poor reputation in this regard that this was probably considered a major advance!
Notwithstanding Clarkson’s slightly tepid review, reaction from the European automotive press and public was overwhelmingly positive and the Mondeo would go on to win the 1994 European Car of the Year award, ahead of the Citroën Xantia and Mercedes-Benz W202 C-Class.
Ford also promoted the new Mondeo in a unique way in the UK: it commissioned a promotional film, presented by former F1 World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart, whom Ford had engaged as a consultant on the project. Stewart extolled the virtues(2) of the car in the 17 minute long VHS videotape, which was given away with the March 1993 edition of What Car magazine. The video may be found on YouTube here.
Ironically, given the root of the Mondeo’s name, it did not make the transatlantic crossing successfully. The equivalent model was called the Ford Contour in North America, with a Mercury version called the Mystique. Launched in late 1994 for the 1995 model year, both were available only as four-door sedans. They were manufactured at Ford’s Kansas City, Missouri and Cuautitlán, Mexico plants.
While sharing the Mondeo’s platform, inner body structure and mechanical package, both the Contour and Mystique were subtly but extensively redesigned to better suit American tastes and shared no external body panels with their European sibling. This was a repeat of what had happened with the previous Ford World Car, the 1980 Escort. Partly as a consequence of their European origins, the Contour and Mystique were considered too small for US mid-sized models(3) and were criticised by many reviewers for their limited interior space, particularly in the rear.
The Mondeo received its first update in May 1994. There were a raft of minor cosmetic and equipment changes, but the most important development was the addition of the US designed all-alloy 2,544cc 168bhp (125kW) 24-valve 60° V6 Duratec engine to the range. This featured in the Ghia model and also a lower specification version, badged simply 24V. The V6 engine would also be used in the sporting ST24 model introduced in 1997 and, in reduced 2,495cc capacity but more powerful 202bhp (151kW) state of tune, the 1999 ST200 limited edition model.
Car Magazine tested the Mondeo V6 Ghia in September 1994. The UK price had not yet been finalised for this model but was expected to be around £20k for the manual version and £21k for the automatic, making it roughly £1k to £2k more expensive than its obvious competitors. The reviewer was not complimentary about its appearance, which he described as “anonymously globular”. Inside, the mock-woodgrain trim on the dashboard and door pull inserts was described as “vulgar” but the busy looking switchgear worked well in practice. The car was quiet and comfortable with supportive bolstered seats, although the left-hand driver’s seat bolster did catch the elbow when changing gear and the gear change was described as “sticky”.
The Mondeo excelled in its handling. The V6 model’s wider tyres improved feedback and added heft to the steering, to the extent that it bordered on heavy at parking speeds. The switchable traction control eliminated torque-steer and the Mondeo’s “poise and fluency when hustled through S-bends and roundabouts [was] exemplary” although the ride had “suffered marginally from the use of wider tyres”. The V6 engine also impressed for its wide torque band and smoothness up to its 6,750rpm limit. 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took 8.0 seconds flat and top speed was measured at 138mph (223km/h). The overall fuel consumption on test was 24.1mpg (11.7Litres /100km)
In October 1996, Ford attempted to give the Mondeo a stronger identity with a major facelift. The front of the car, now dubbed the Mk2, incorporated a large chrome-ringed oval grille and much more distinctive headlamps that swept back into the front wings, giving the car a permanently startled look. Both saloon and hatchback versions received new and enlarged rear light clusters, with those on the saloon wrapping over the tops of the rear wings.
The rear end of the estate remained unchanged. Whether or not this facelift improved the Mondeo’s appearance is a moot point, but it could certainly no longer be dismissed as nondescript. The facelift was accompanied with the usual tweaking of trim and equipment levels.
A year later, the Ford Contour received a new front end more closely resembling (but still not identical to) the Mondeo’s, while the Mystique received similarly enlarged headlamps but a uniquely shaped grille. A performance version of the Contour, the SVT, featured a tuned V6 engine similar to the one fitted to the European ST200 model.
Unlike the Mondeo, which was a consistently strong seller across Europe in the 1990’s, the US Contour and Mystique suffered from the fact that they were considered small and were too expensive compared to both their predecessors(4) and competitors. Likewise in Australia (and New Zealand) where the Mondeo replaced the Mazda 626-based Ford Telstar in late 1996, it faced stiff competition from domestic and Japanese rivals and did not sell well. It was discontinued after four years.
In 1998 the Mondeo spawned a three-door liftback coupé called the Cougar. It was sold as a Ford in Europe and, from 1999, a Mercury in the US. The Cougar was styled according to Ford’s then current New Edge design, but it was neither attractive nor successful. It shared the Mondeo’s long 2,704mm (106½”) wheelbase, so looked rather over-bodied or under-wheeled and lacked the visual appeal that is essential in a coupé.
The first-generation Mondeo was phased out in October 2000 and replaced by a new second-generation (Mk3) model. The Mystique and Contour ended production in December 1999 and October 2000 respectively. Ford US did not introduce a direct replacement model until it launched the Mazda-based Fusion in October 2005. The Mondeo and Fusion would remain separate models until the 2012 second-generation Fusion became the fourth and final-generation Mondeo in 2014.
The 1993 Mondeo and its siblings may have been underwhelming to behold, but, together with the 1998 Ford Focus, it transformed Ford’s reputation for chassis engineering. The company is today regarded as producing some of the very best handling FWD cars on the market.
(1) An odd expression to describe seats that stop you sliding out beneath the seatbelt in the event of a frontal impact.
(2) Sir Jackie did, however, sound less than entirely convinced or convincing about the virtues of the standard fit pen-holder.
(3) The situation would be reversed with the current generation Mondeo, which was sold in North America as the Ford Fusion. Being designed primarily for that market, it was considered overly large for Europe by some commentators. That said, the current (GM designed) Opel/Vauxhall Insignia is even larger.
(4) The Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz were actually shorter both in wheelbase and overall length than the Contour and Mystique, but were outdated models priced very cheaply at the end of their production run and their more boxy design afforded them better interior space.