Making a great supercar is tough, but compared with making a great family car, it’s an absolute breeze. Which is why so few auto manufacturers get it right, and why despite having driven hundreds of exotic cars, I’ve got a real soft spot for a Ford Mondeo with just 123 hp. Let me explain.
In Europe in the late 1990s, Ford and Volkswagen were implying entirely different approaches to make the best family cars in the game. While Volkswagen went big on refinement, adding soft, high quality plastics and damped grab handles to get customers cooing, Ford concentrated on handling.
That battle is best remembered as one between the all-new 1998 Ford Focus and the Mk4 Golf. But the same companies were applying the same principles both in the class below occupied by the Fiesta and Polo, and in the one above where the Passat and Mondeo duked it out.
The fifth-generation B5 Passat actually predated the Mk 4 Golf by two years and so was first to showcase VW’s luxurious new interior philosophy. Mated to VW’s new sophisticated design language, it looked and felt like a cut-price Audi, which in effect it was: the A4 and A6 both used the same platform.
But the Passat, like most VWs of this period, was stodgy to drive. It was comfortable, but slightly underdamped, the controls were mushy and you just never felt motivated to hustle it. And for guys who needed a roomy family car, but didn’t have BMW 5-Series money to spend, or were about two promotions away from accessing one on their company car scheme, but still wanted something fun to drive, that was a problem.
And it was a problem only partially solved by opting for a Mk1 Mondeo instead. The original Mondeo, launched in 1993 in Europe (and sold in substantially modified form in the U.S. as the Contour) had already won praise for its great handling, but the rear space was tight and it looked about as stylish as tour grandma’s underwear. So when Ford set about building the Mk2 Mondeo, it decided to combine the agility of the first Mondeo with an exterior and interior design that would knock VW sideways.
It failed. Yeah, I know this is supposed to be one of the best cars I’ve driven, but even on-a-run, turn-of-the-Millenium Ford didn’t get everything right. Design-wise, the Mondeo kind of sucked. It wasn’t slick and polished like the Passat, or edgy and interesting like its Focus little brother. But the surfacing was pretty tight and Ford execs obviously loved it because they rinsed out the same look for the Fusion and Five Hundred that were sold in North America.
Inside, you almost needed an upside down periscope to view the radio (or optional sat-nav screen) from the driver’s seat, so low down on the console were they mounted. But the interior quality and ambience was a huge improvement on the old car’s, and so was the rear legroom, one of the few major gripes with the Mk1. Sedan, hatchback and wagon bodies were all on the menu, and every one was huge inside.
And it was even better to drive than before. There were quick ones, like the 223 hp (226 PS) V6-powered ST220 (pictured above), but what made the Mondeo so great is that even the humblest versions were a hoot. The simple 1.8 Zetec was no fireball, its naturally aspirated inline four sending an anaemic sounding 123 hp (125 PS) and 125 lb ft (170 Nm) to the front wheels, meaning zero to 62 mph (100 km/h) took 10.2 seconds. But those figures were par for the course in entry level European family cars 20 years ago.
What wasn’t, was the Mondeo’s sharp steering, keen turn-in and hot hatch-like body control. Honestly, you couldn’t possibly believe how much fun it was to punt about having only seen it from the outside. It was like a parkour champion disguised as an insurance salesman. And it’s quite possible that plenty of people who bought a Mondeo and had never previously given a multi-link rear end about steering feel discovered that ordinary cars could be really fun to drive. It was the best affordable family car on sale in Europe by miles.
You could reasonably argue that the Mk3 Mondeo that replaced it in 2007 was superior, and it’s true it looked smarter, had a higher quality interior and was even roomier. But then I’d argue that the Mk3′ S-MAX MPV brother did the family thing even better, and moved the game on more comprehensively.
Today, the once mighty Mondeo is preparing to be killed off in March 2022. The current car has plenty to offer, but people want crossovers and SUVs like the Kuga, and as for the second generation Mondeo, it’s all but forgotten. The few that remain are mostly old clunkers, and while the original Focus occasionally gets a namecheck as a game-changing family car, you’ll never hear anyone giving its big brother the credit it deserves. Consider this a hat doff from me.