Ford Motor Co.'s $6 billion gamble to lure the American baby boomer behind the wheel of a small domestic car begins today with the formal introduction of the Ford Contour and its sister car, the Mercury Mystique.
While the jury is still out on Ford's latest offering, there are some early indications that it will be Japanese carmakers, not Ford executives, who will be losing sleep in the days ahead.
The editors of Motor Trend magazine predict that the Contour and Mystique will deal the imports a heavy blow, especially as the rising value of the yen makes Japanese cars more expensive in the United States. Ford's Taurus has been battling Honda's Accord for the title of best-selling car in America.
The magazine concluded that Ford has finally learned what it takes to compete in the compact car market.
"It's a wonderful car," said Alan Abramson, president of Archway Ford on Reisterstown Road, as he ran his hand along the roof of a top-of the-line, fully-equipped, red Contour four-door sedan with a $20,970 price tag. "It's Ford's best offering in some time."
"It's a lot more exciting than the Tempo," which Ford has discontinued, he added. "It has a fresher style. It's better engineered. It's designed to go 100,000 between tune-ups. All you need to do is change the oil."
Jeffrey Davis, a senior research associate with the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, agreed.
Comparing the Contour to the Tempo, he said: "The engine has a lot more power. The acceleration is vastly improved. The ride is improved. The handling is improved. There's less noise and less vibration. It's a much better car."
Tom Fowble, a salesman at Dulaney Motor Co. in Timonium, said the Mystique should bring new business to the Lincoln/Mercury dealership. "I think it will bring us some buyers we weren't attracting in the past, primarily the import buyers."
"People want to buy American," Mr. Fowble continued, "but they want the quality that has traditionally associated with imports. With this car [the Mystique] we can offer them what they want."
The editors of Motor Trend called the Contour and Mystique "something special," but they warned that if the financial gurus are correct, Ford will be lucky to break even on its investment.
"Regardless, the money was spent in the right places," the magazine concluded, "resulting in world-class cars, automobiles as comfortable in the fast lane of Germany's autobahn as they are hauling an American family and its luggage on a vacation to Yellowstone National Park," they wrote.
"Yes, there's a risk" in investing so much money on new products, said John B. Tome, a spokesman for Ford, "but every new product is a risk. But we are convinced that it was worth the investment. We are convinced they will be a smashing success and the leader in their segment of the market."
Much of Ford's optimism is based on the sales performance of its European version of the Contour/Mystique, the Mondeo, which was introduced in March 1993.
Mondeo was voted European Car of the Year by the automotive press and posted sales of about 500,000 units in its first year of production, according to Mr. Tome. This was a gain of 25 percent in sales over the Sierra, the vehicle that it replaced.
Ford is projecting annual worldwide sales of nearly 800,000 Mondeos, Contours and Mystiques.
Mr. Tome said Ford expects to sell between 350,000 and 400,000 Contours and Mystiques in the United States. Last year combined sales of both the Tempo and Topaz were about 295,000.
Ford is aiming the Contour, which costs between $13,000 and $21,000, at singles and young marrieds between the ages of 25 and 40, with annual earnings from $32,000 to $55,000.
The Mystique will cost about $2,000 more than the Contour and is marketed a slightly older (30 to 45) buyers with income ranging from $38,000 to $65,000 a year. More than half are expected to be women.
"They are definitely winners," said Mr. Davis, the University of Michigan auto researcher. "They represent a quantum leap in quality and technology when compared with Tempo and Topaz."