Best Cars I’ve Driven #4: Ford Mondeo (yes, really)

Making a great supercar is tough, but compared to making a great family car, it’s absolute child’s play. It’s why so few automakers succeed, and why despite having driven hundreds of exotic cars, I have a real soft spot for a Ford Mondeo with just 123bhp. Let me explain.

In Europe in the late 1990s, Ford and Volkswagen involved entirely different approaches to making the best family cars in the game. cushioned sustain to make customers coo, Ford focused on handling.

This battle is best remembered as the one between the all-new 1998 Ford Focus and the Mk4 Golf. But the same companies applied the same principles both in the lower class occupied by the Fiesta and the Polo, and in the one above where the Passat and the Mondeo clashed.

The fifth generation Passat B5 actually predated the Mk 4 Golf by two years and was therefore the first to feature VW’s new luxurious interior philosophy. Mated to VW’s sophisticated new design language, it looked like a cut-price Audi, which it actually was: the A4 and A6 both used the same platform.

Related: 2023 Ford Mondeo China Leak Revealing Production Model Styling

But the Passat, like most VWs of this period, was heavy to drive. It was comfortable, but slightly under-cushioned, the controls felt limp, and you never felt motivated to jostle it. And for the guys who needed a roomy family car, but didn’t have the BMW 5 Series cash to spend, or were about two promotions away from getting one on their company car program, but who still wanted something fun to drive, that was a problem.

And that was only a problem partially solved by opting for a Mk1 Mondeo instead. The original Mondeo, launched in 1993 in Europe (and sold in significantly modified form in the United States as the Contour) had already won accolades for its great handling, but the rear space was cramped and it looked as elegant as grandma’s underwear. So when Ford started building the Mk2 Mondeo, it decided to combine the agility of the first Mondeo with an exterior and interior design that would knock VW on its side.

It failed. Yeah, I know this is supposed to be one of the best cars I’ve driven, but even running around the turn of the millennium Ford didn’t do everything right. Design-wise, the Mondeo kind of sucks. It wasn’t smooth and polished like the Passat, or edgy and interesting like its little sibling Focus. But the coating was pretty tight and Ford executives obviously loved it as they rinsed the same look for the Fusion and Five Hundred sold in North America.

Inside, you almost needed an upside-down periscope to view the radio (or optional sat-nav display) from the driver’s seat, so low on the console they were mounted. But interior quality and ambience were a huge improvement over the old car, as was rear legroom, one of the few major issues with the Mk1. Sedan, sedan, and wagon bodies were all on the menu, and each was huge inside.

Related: Ford Will Kill Mondeo In 2022, Nameplate Removed After Nearly 30 Years

And it was even better to drive than before. There were some fast ones, like the 223-hp (226-hp) V6-powered ST220 (pictured above), but what made the Mondeo so great was that even the lowliest versions were a hoot. The mere 1.8 Zetec was no fireball, its naturally aspirated inline-four sending an anemic 123 hp (125 hp) and 125 lb-ft (170 Nm) to the front wheels, meaning the Zero to 62 mph (100 km/h) took 10.2 seconds. But those numbers were on par with entry-level European family cars 20 years ago.

What wasn’t was the Mondeo’s precise steering, sharp cornering and control over the hatch-like body. You honestly couldn’t believe how much fun it was only seeing it from the outside. It was like a parkour champion disguised as an insurance salesman. And it’s entirely possible that many people who bought a Mondeo and had never given a multi-link rear about steering feel found that regular cars could be really fun to drive. It was the best affordable family car on sale in Europe by kilometers.

You could reasonably argue that the Mk3 Mondeo that replaced it in 2007 was superior, and admittedly it looked smarter, had a better interior and was even more spacious. But then I would say the brother Mk3′ S-MAX MPV did the family thing even better and pushed the game forward more fully.

Today, the once-mighty Mondeo is gearing up to be killed off in March 2022. The current car has a lot to offer, but people want crossovers and SUVs like the Kuga, and as for the second-generation Mondeo, it’s almost forgotten. The few that remain are mostly old jalopies, and while the original Focus is sometimes hailed as a game-changing family car, you’ll never hear anyone give its big brother the credit it deserves. Consider that a thumbs up from me.

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