Open verdict

Ford has gambled a reported $6 billion in production of the Mondeo, a front-drive middleweight destined for Europe and the USA (and, thence, to Japan). In Europe, of course, it replaces the Sierra.

The Mondeo’s sporting career has already been mapped out, via a British Touring Car Championship programme with Andy Rouse Engineering. The multiple British champion is teaming up with New Zealander Paul Radisich this season.

British showrooms receive their first Mondeos (in three body styles, four-door saloon, five-door hatch and estate) in March, but we recently had a taster of all three 16-valve Zeta-engined options, albeit in lhd trim on French roads. Later this year, the V6 (Ford America’s own design, rather than one of Mazda’s) will be made available worldwide.

No prices had been announced when this was written, but they are expected to start at a relatively expensive £12,000.

Many tempting features – electronic anti-lock braking and very effective traction control – are options. Driver’s air bag and power steering are standard throughout the range.

A 4×4 model will appear this summer, featuring the transverse engine system that was initially developed for the Escort RS2000. Engineering vice-president John Oldfield explains: “It is a lightweight 4×4 layout, unique in that it will use our electronic traction controls rather than limited slip differentials.”

We experienced saloon and hatchbacks, most rather misleadingly specified with Ghia trim and many options installed. We began with the 136 bhp two-litre, the biggest (84.8mm) stretch of the iron block; Bridgend manufactured Zetas all share an 88mm stroke. The two-litre was guilty of promoting harshness that Ford always swears it overcomes thanks to its ’60s NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) philosophy. The good news was that this was by far the worst offender. The original Zeta 1.8 and new 1.6 (90 bhp) proved to be much sweeter all the way to the designed 7000 rpm limit.

The 1.8 Zeta has also been offered with 105 and 130 bhp in spunkier Escorts and Fiestas, and is emerging as the jewel in a dohc engine range that has now largely replaced the unloved sohc CVH and Pinto designs.

In racing, the Zeta motor will form the basis of the new Formula Ford regulations in 1993, but is not the motor chosen for the Mondeo BTCC programme. Its pedigree as a design for good emissions and public highway user friendliness works against competition development priorities, so the racing saloons will utilise a V6. The target output is around 285 bhp, transmitted via either a 4×4 or rear-drive layout.

Back on the Riviera roads, I appreciated the Mondeo’s low wind noise and the huge advances Ford has made in crosswind stability. Handling has been geared towards safety and exploitability, though some customers may prefer a softer approach. We will need experience on British roads before commenting further on the ride, which is – at very least – extremely well damped.

Ford is particularly proud of the role Jackie Stewart played in development of the Mondeo chassis. I gather the triple world champion was best pleased with the progressive action of the brake pedal.

Customers have most cause to be thankful to JYS in that his persuasive character has ensured that Ford (outside the specialist SVE department) has taken ride, handling and cornering capabilities seriously since the 1990 Escort debacle.

Overall, I thought the Mondeo competent beneath its Japanese clone design. It will win Ford back much of the ground it has been losing to GM in Britain.

Do not believe the PR hype about mechanical refinement or the hysterical school of journalism proclaiming that ‘the Mondeo is King’ — a dubious, and foolhardy, prediction given that prices had not been announced for a contender in the most price-conscious class of all.

The Ford Mondeo is pleasant, rather than revolutionary, and has an outstanding front drive chassis and brakes, but its cabin is let down by a shortage of rear headroom. I also felt that some of the interior details were not so well finished as the obvious GM opposition and, surprisingly for Ford, its ergonomics were occasionally unsound.

Those Zeta engines are no more than competitive against the fierce opposition found in this class from British-made Toyotas and Nissans, not to mention the existing Rover 400 (or, indeed, the forthcoming 600, another Honda co-production). Then there are the faithful Vauxhall Cavalier (surely well overdue for replacement) and the durable Volkswagen Passat. The Mondeo is welcome evidence that Ford is fighting back, but it needs more than a brief drive in a glamorous location to assess whether or not it is properly equipped to compete in the tough trading climate of the fleet sector in the 1990s.