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From out of nowhere: When Mondeo fought Mediocrity

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Recently, I’ve been finding it really difficult to come to terms with the rate that time passes at. While idly flicking through the music channels this morning, Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirty’ ditty came on – a song which is now, shockingly, fourteen years old. Of course, age has added nothing to the majesty of that recording, but it only really seems dated due to its sheer familiarity.

It still gets airplay on some of the lower-budget radio stations out there, and every time I hear it it passes over me as if it were a weather system. ‘Dirty’ by Christina Aguilera has become a standard. Musically it’s so lacking in depth and content that there’s nothing much about it that can actually date. Its spirit and explosive yet benign delivery will always be relevant. It’s hopelessly of its time, yet somehow timeless. I don’t like it, but I acknowledge its genius.

Which brings me handily to the 1995 Ford Mondeo 1.8 LX, a car which I definitely do like. It represents the absolute opposite of ‘Dirty’ by Christina Aguilera because, while it physically appears more dated than a worn VHS recorded 1970s remake of Pride and Prejudice, deep inside beats a heart of enduring, perennial brilliance.

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When the Mondeo arrived in UK showrooms in 1993 it did absolutely nothing to further the art of automotive design. Whereas the Ford Sierra had been a cautious foray by Ford into the brave new world of grill-less front ends and sculpted-by-the-wind aerodynamics, the Mondeo seemed like a modern car-by-numbers. In fact, the aerodynamics were bang up-to-date, particularly – Ford took great pains to point out -around the outside mirrors, which created particularly low levels of turbulence. Exciting stuff.

Car reviewers weren’t exactly bowled over by the appearance of the new car, and resorted to saying that it looked ‘too Japanese’ which was a rather lazy dismissal. Being derivative wasn’t the end of the world, though. In fact, blending in with the crowd was a good thing as far as the big fleets were concerned. They had been scared away by the unusual looks of the Sierra in the early ’80s and many bought cars from Vauxhall instead. There was no way Ford was going to let that happen again. And at any rate, the outside looks of the Mondeo were basically meaningless – the body was just a sturdy dust-jacket to protect the inner manuscript which was, undoubtedly, a work of rare and devious aplomb.

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When you look at a magazine review of a new, European built Ford these days you have come to expect statements like ‘best in its class for steering feel’ and ‘perfectly judged balance between ride and handling,’ and, occasionally even ‘more driver appeal than premium German rivals’. Well developed chassis have become a stock in trade for the Blue Oval, and the ’93 Mondeo was instrumental in cementing this reputation. In fact, journalists had every reason to be surprised when they first sat behind the wheel of the Mondeo, because Ford hadn’t exactly been at the top of its game for a good while.

The ’90 Ford Escort was roundly condemned for its lacklustre ride and handling, while its engine line up was far from stellar, too. The Fiesta had been launched in ’89 and it, too, had failed to set the world on fire, while the bigger Scorpio (Granada in England) was good, but only against its rivals, most of which dated from the mid 80s anyway. Expectations were brought still further groundward by the fact that the the Sierra replacement was switching to front-wheel drive, meaning it no longer shared common mechanical ground with the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes W201. Although there were rumblings of something great being afoot, the journos expected the launch to consist plenty of fireworks, a delicious lunch and a drive of a thoroughly mediocre car.

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What they experienced instead was shock and disbelief. Somehow, it was universally agreed that the Mondeo was a genuinely superb car to drive. Few knew how Ford had pulled it off, but they did. What had actually happened behind closed doors was an extensive testing and development programme, with some great names, including Jackie Stewart, being involved. It was truly worth Fords effort.

I’m in a ’95 Mondeo right now, on a pretty demanding proving ground in Bedfordshire. Oh, all right then, metaphysically – I’ve not yet mastered the skill of word-processing behind the wheel while travelling at speed, an art which would make working from home an even sweeter deal. I did take some pretty thorough notes, though, and it turns out I didn’t really need to. Yes, the experience of driving a 1995 Mondeo 1.8 LX is so cerebral and rewarding I’ll be able to recall the sensation for months to come.

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No joke, either. Here is a car that doesn’t rely on a surfeit of grip to claw its way through the corners. Sitting on modest 185 section rubber with generous sidewalls, the Mondeo is poised and decisive and has a feeling of precision lacking from so many modern cars. Indeed, compared to tackling a serious corner in a Mk1, the current Mk5 Mondeo feels like you’re wearing boxing gloves behind the wheel. Naturally, the newer car has wider, stickier tyres and, in fact, will tear through the corner carrying far more speed than its distant predecessor. But the Mk1 has the moral victory.

It’s like cheating in the Olympics. Athletes get heavily penalised for their use of performance-boosting drugs because victory should be earned, and a Gold Medal should be a symbol of excellence, developed through years of intense practice and determination. But, then again, what if the entire field was using steroids? What if every athlete was artificially boosted to near-oblivion? It would certainly make good TV, wouldn’t it? Ever faster, stronger and longer lasting, athletes would manage some incredible feats.

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This is what I feel is happening when I drive a modern car. With massive wheels and tyres, and typically a big, lazy slug of torque from a heavily turbocharged diesel engine, even if the chassis on the current Mondeo is brilliantly designed, any natural talent it possesses is irrecoverably masked by dozens of layers of flabby modern must-haves. And there’s absolutely no point in complaining, because development like this is a totally irreversible phenomenon.

The greater safety and on-board technology of a new car requires greater weight, which requires more powerful brakes, which require bigger wheels, which means bigger tyres. And that’s without considering the fashion side of things. The default choice when buying a 3 Series is the M-Sport, so that photocopier salesmen can rumble down motorways from one sales event to the next while being jiggled around by big wheels and stiff springs, but can relish the admiring glances of the other salesmen when he arrives at the Holiday Inn. Big wheels and tyres are de rigueur for a number of reasons, and they ain’t going away.

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Who cares, anyway? I’m all right, Jack. I’ve got a fleet of cars at my disposal which are too old to be affected by this march of progress, and this Mondeo is another brilliant alternative to a new car, while being worth about as much as a deposit on a new Mondeo. And it does everything you could possibly need, with the possible exception that it doesn’t have air conditioning – you’d need a Ghia or the LX’s original owner to have ticked the option box to get that. But you do get a brilliantly nailed together interior which still looks agreeable today, and Ford’s legendary 2000 series radio cassette unit (this is the 2006, the 2007 came standard in the Ghia, while Ghia X versions also got a separately controlled 2040 CD Changer).

There’s an impossibly nifty pen-holder between the seats, and Fords 1.8 Zetec engine, which was widely regarded as the worst of the Zetec lumps, neither as smooth as the 1.6 nor as rorty as the 2.0. It doesn’t feel sluggish today, though, pulling well and feeling flexible throughout the rev range. The exhaust note is entirely undistinguished, admittedly, but there’s still a certain charm to it nature that gets lost in the plumbing of todays heavily restricted motors.

On the move, the inverse to my rant about excess grip is true of the Mondeo’s ride quality, which is no doubt polished to an unnatural sheen thanks to those unfashionably deep-profile tyres. It rides brilliantly, not floaty in a sick-inducing way but confident, smooth and resolved. The secondary ride is particularly impressive- sudden ridges and pock-marks in the road don’t shudder through the car but are rounded off as if the car knew they were coming and had braced itself for the inevitable. Yet there’s no real body roll in corners. Citroen had spent ages perfecting its Activa augmented version of its oleopneumatic suspension system which resulted in uncannily flat cornering, but the Mondeo came pretty close to equalling it with good old fashioned gas-filled dampers and metal coil springs.

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The only failing I was able to find of the 1995 Mondeo was that it’s a 1995 Mondeo. If you were to eschew the showroom for your next car and choose a ’95 Mondeo instead, you’d be forever having to explain your buying decision. Thanks to its omnipresence on British roads, the Mondeo became a commodity that wasn’t deemed worthy of reverence or aspiration. A Mondeo was a car that people bought by default, because they didn’t know any better – was enormously ironic that few of its rivals were as good, and it took a BMW 3 Series (SE, not Sport) to beat it for handling feel and ride.

No matter how fundamentally right the Mondeo was, it was never likely to endure. Thanks to its non-premium place in the market, its forgettable experience and tragic lack of aspirational appeal, Mondeos were worked hard, used up and thrown away like the consumer durables they effectively were. The American market Contour and Mercury Mystique versions of Ford’s CDW27 ‘world car’ were even more ill-fated – not only were they rather decontented over the European versions in terms of interior materials, fit and finish, but the American buyers saw little point in them when the bigger Taurus and Sable models were barely any more expensive. In the end, globally, it didn’t matter what the Mondeo could do if nobody cared it could do it.

Today a basically meaningless fourteen-year old pop song is regarded as still worthy of our ears, while Mondeos of the same age are routinely shredded for a new life microwaving noodles. It doesn’t seem fair, but it boils down to a few simple truths – ‘Dirty’ may not be very good, but it has a killer hook that’s recognised and appreciated by millions of people around the world. The ’95 Ford Mondeo is an improbably good car, but it’s just an old Ford, and nobody seems to want one of those.

(Images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2016. Thanks to Newspress for the use of the Mondeo. Nice car, and they’re aware that the GLX wheeltrims are incorrect)

  • gnitto

    I recently bought a book called “Mondeo: the story of the global car” It covers the whole design process and development with a lot of pictures. Really interesting.

    • It’s on my bookcase too, right next to a similar book about the Citroen XM

  • Maymar

    If nothing else, the sight of a radio that could be removed with nothing more than a few glorified paper clips takes me back.

    • Dean Bigglesworth

      Also HVAC(HV?) controls you can operate with thick mittens on and without looking. The latest new car i drove had a bigass touchscreen with tiny “buttons” for that.

  • I’m driving a 2016 Hyundai Elantra as a rental car this weekend, and in comparison to my recently-acquired ’92 Prizm GSi, your boxing gloves analogy is bang-on.

    Where the Elantra is quiet and solid, it also feels heavy – road-hugging weight providing that solidity. The GSi in contrast, feels feathery, there’s a few rattles and clunks – likely due more to age than anything – but the overall experience is less cocoon and more butterfly. Lower belt line, less raked windshield and significantly less imposing dashboard help too.

    I can’t wait to get back home to my 24-year old tarted-up econobox.

    • Maymar

      I had a Kia Cee’d GT Line as a rental a couple weeks ago (think Forte, think top spec, but think dreary diesel engine), and I half suspect it’s the exact car Rusty’s describing. Mind you, I think the sales reps who’d want the big wheels and needlessly firm suspension wouldn’t want the Korean badge. I might’ve appreciated it more if I wasn’t timid from driving on the wrong side of the road, but as it were, rough and anodyne. At least the Chevy Spark that followed it was memorable (I might have Stockholm Syndrome though).

  • Dean Bigglesworth

    Parents bought a 1994 Mondeo in 1996, an appliance-white CLX 1.8 wagon. Crank windows, no AC, no ABS, but it did have cruise control. Noisy as hell inside on long trips. Big enough for two to sleep in on race weekends. Trouble free and mostly unwashed for 200.000km before mom totaled it.

    The Mk1 Focus was probably the last Ford that felt like this Mondeo, every car after that has been fatter and more numb.

  • Dean Bigglesworth

    Oh and speaking of tires… The new Reanult Talisman with 4ws has 245/40 19″ tyres. 245! And they weren’t eco tires either, but Conti SportContanct 5.

    And if the tires are oversized, the fuel tank is the exact opposite. 48 litres on a large wagon! Granted the twin-turbo 1.6 diesel is pretty economical, but the realistic range is around 800km. Even the much smaller Volvo V40 has a 62l tank, so the range is 1300km+ wiht a similar diesel.

  • Ayreonaut

    Old ford’s always look particularly dated to me.

  • cronn

    I find it funny that the UK seems to get these generic names for trim levels. I haven’t heard of a BMW 3 series “SE” or “Sport” anywhere else.

    My guess is that it’s so copier salesmen can (or couldh compare cars even though one has a 316i and the other has an A4. The Audi guy is obviously better off because he has an SE and the BMW guy only has an S.