Monday, 22 November 2010

Driven #8:- Mk 3 Mondeo 2.2 TDci

In 1997 Grand Theft Auto was released in all its anarchic, top-down glory. Here was a game where you were encouraged to steal any and all vehicles found prowling the mean streets of Liberty City. The choice was huge, with public utility vehicles like ambulances, coaches and police cars, as well as motorbikes and supercars. Some of these were recognisable. The Ferrari Testarossa made an appearance, as did the Escort Cosworth, both iconic machines. You could understand their inclusion.

One car, though, stood out to me. Why have they included that? Also, why have they awarded it such an insulting in-game name? That car was the Ford Mondeo. And that name? Mundano. And a new cliché was born.


The Mondeo was launched in 1993, with some fanfare, to a world denied of genuinely competent Ford products for far too long. The old Sierra had been been in production since 1982 and, as good as it was, was now looking badly dated in the face of European competition.

Just as the aerodynamically sculpted Sierra had been a shock to the styling system at launch, the Mondeo had an equivalent effect on people. Except this time the surprise was how bland the thing looked. Journalists seemed worried that, in developing the Mondeo, Ford had simply opted to copy the Japanese, and there were indeed similarities between the Ford and recent models from Toyota, Mazda and Nissan. It was all looking as if the Mondeo was going the same way as the Fiesta and Escort and turning out to be an earnest, worthy car of no particular merit. But then somebody drove it.

Suddenly, superlatives went flying. “Fords new family car hero barely sets a foot wrong” were the words of Autocar magazine. They were right. In sheer handling and fun to drive, the Mondeo was unassailable. The engines were pretty good, too. Word got around and soon the Mondeo was popular not just because it represented the line of least resistance like so many prior Fords had, but because it was good to drive. It was a genuine drivers car, and pretty soon a very convincing V6 model swelled the ranks of Fast Fords with some effect.

Meanwhile, though, the backlash was forming. Just as “white van man” was a recognised stereotype in British popular culture, “Mondeo Man” had been adopted as the generic term for anybody who's job entailed blasting up and down the motorways of Britain. Yes, the Mondeo had been recognised as the official vehicle of choice for travelling carpet tile salesmen, and that pretty much put paid to any chance of it becoming an aspirational vehicle.

It was a great shame. Ford chose the name Mondeo for its similarity with the Latin Mundus, or World (reflecting the later sale of an adaptation of the Mondeo as the Contour and Mystique in the USA) and because it was a totally new name, as yet untarnished by familiarity. Sadly, the philistines who so readily belittled the Mondeo seemed unaware of the fact that the BMW 3 Series was fast catching up with the Ford in terms of popularity as a fleet vehicle. Company car users were switching towards the Germans for their higher residual values and more thrusting image.

Today the Mondeo is enjoying something of a renaissance. Fords Kinetic design language has made for a car that looks bang up to date, and in fact more interesting than the Jaguar XF to my eyes. Perhaps because the car as never done anything wrong, Ford decided to keep the slightly maligned Mondeo nameplate. Astonishingly, the current machine is already about to undergo a facelift. It's easy to forget that the shape of Mondeo I have in front of me has already been out of production for three years.

After the radically facelifted Mondeo of '96 with its New Edge headlamps, the 2001 Mondeo was an altogether more sober piece of work. Although having recognisably Mondeoey features, there was clearly a lot of VW and Audi influence. They, after all, were holding the family car design zeitgeist at that time. Ford would be onto a winner if they could combine something of Audis' desirability while emphasising drivability, by now an accepted Mondeo trait. Ford were riding a wave of positive press at the time, The Focus, Ka and Puma were winning plaudits all over the place, and there was no surprise at all when the Mondeo followed suit. The only surprise was how much better the new car was than the old one. It was never really broken, but Ford did a damn good job of fixing it anyway.

The Mondeo before you is one of the later cars, an '06 car. Shown in range-topping Titanium X trim, it represents the absolute pinnacle of Fords fleet-car offerings. Aside from the V6s and ST models, this is the ultimate Mondeo. Certainly it looks the part, the shape has dulled thanks to the Motorways being lined with the things, but the Tango Red paint worn by this car does a good job of bringing things up to date. The polished alloy wheels could tip the balance towards the obnoxious, but doesn't. They look good. Considering this car would be expected to live its life slogging up and down motorways, it really manages to look special.

Indoors there is nothing that stands out as particularly novel, but the whole place feels really solid and the ergonomics are beyond reproach. After the facelift Ford took the strange decision to use Sony-designed hi-fi equipment in their top models, and we see one such unit here. It sounds good and has a 6-disc changer buried within, but looks a little incongruous with the rest of the dashboard. No matter, though. Equipment is lavish, in the Titanium X it runs as far as heated and cooled seats that are firm but comfortable and offer plenty of support and adjustment. Everything falls readily to hand to create a commendably stress-free driving experience. 

The atmosphere isn't soured when you turn the key. The two-litre diesel Duratec engine isn't the last word in smoothness, but this 2.2 litre version seems to have had a thin layer of cream poured over it. I don't think its any less refined in this application than in any similarly powered Jaguar. If anything, it's a little quieter. Aim to provoke forward movement and you can do so with some fervour if you wish. There are 155 horses to call on, and they deliver their goods at nicely accessible parts of the rev-range. Admittedly, as per diesel practice it's all over by four and a bit thousand RPM, but the huge slab of torque is available right from the get-go.

But as with any Mondeo beforehand, it's the corners that count, and this generation was as good as ever. It's a similar comparison to that of the current Focus against the first one, in as much as the early version had a more scalpelly feel, but the latter model majors on maturity. Whatever, you don't feel hard done by and the car still devours corners with utter contempt. The Mondeo feels like the gift that keeps on giving. If you're given one by your company as a hack to throw up and down the M1, you feel as if you should be keeping secret the fact that it's so much fun, lest you get accused of enjoying yourself too much at work. There is a split personality at work, the Mondeo can either jet you swiftly from one provincial outpost to another as easily as you like, or let its hair down and let you party on the back roads. It's that good.

The only demerit is the driving position. While super-comfy, and with a great view out, it feels too high up to ever feel sporty. Were you able to sit that little bit lower you'd feel far more involved in the action. Perhaps this is a ploy towards moderating your behaviour, discouraging yourself from too much mischief at the wheel. Perhaps the government got involved.

I won't tell you that you shouldn't buy a BMW 3 Series, that the MK3 Mondeo is the real Ultimate Driving Machine and represents the finest drivers-car bargain money can find. It isn't, quite. But it does the very best it can with the resources available to it. It only ever prods you gently and asks you to be reasonable in extremis, other than that it rarely reminds you that it's front wheel drive when you give it hell out of a roundabout. Moderate your enthusiasm in such manoeuvres by about 5% and the rewards are manifold. At most other times the Mondeo just gets on with what you tell it to do.

The slight lumpiness to the ride is gone by the time you reach a brisk jog and passengers in the climate controlled, spacious interior get almost as good a deal as the driver. If you're determined to have absolute smoothness you could have opted for a lesser model, the Zetec, Titanium and ST models have this more sportily calibrated suspension. Neither setup should give anybody cause for complaint, though, both offering a decent compromise between sportiness and comfort.

It's largely vice-free, then. An accomplished machine and perennial class leader, it is damned only by being “just a Mondeo”, but on the other hand you could argue that choosing Mondeo instead of the now default German choices shows a certain degree of enlightenment. A highly equipped MK3 does show remarkable value for money in comparison, and certainly isn't epochs behind in ability. Best of all, though, is the smug feeling when you arrive at Allied Carpets safe in the knowledge of the fun you'll have on the way home. Not bad for a Mundano.