Buy/Drive/Burn: Mediocrity Personified in Sedans of 1996

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
buy drive burn mediocrity personified in sedans of 1996

You’ve seen all of today’s contenders before on the roads, likely more times than you can count. Forgettable because of how middling they were, hundreds of thousands were sold.

Which one would you actually buy with your own money?

The year is 1996 and you’re a family sedan customer. You don’t want to spend a lot of money, and it’s not important that your car be exciting in any way. Base model middle American, that’s you.

Ford Contour

The most exotic of our trio today, the Ford Contour was an experiment in saving money. Rather than develop separate family sedans for Europe and North America, Ford developed a single car for both markets — a “world car,” if you will. In Europe, this new model was sold as the Mondeo, replacing the Ford Sierra. In the United States, it replaced the aged Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz.

By the time the Contour and its Mercury Mystique sibling arrived in the U.S. for 1995, the Mondeo had been on sale in Europe for two years. The base engine is our selection today, and it’s a 2.0-liter Zetec inline-four. 125 horsepower travel to the front via the four-speed automatic. European!

Dodge Stratus

Dodge went in a new direction in 1995, as the Cloud Cars replaced stalwart K-car predecessors that had been stretched and broughamed as long as humanly possible. Specifically, the Stratus was a replacement for the Dodge Spirit and Dynasty. The LeBaron made way for the upscale Chrysler Cirrus version, while the airy-sounding Plymouth Breeze muscled out the Acclaim. Cab-forward design meant more room and a more aerodynamic shape than Chrysler’s boxy designs of old. Wheels were pushed to the corners, which shortened overhangs and gave the new Cloud Cars a more aggressive shape.

Today’s base Stratus is powered by a 2.0-liter inline-four engine it shares with the Neon. The single overhead cam unit delivers 132 horsepower through a four-speed auto. Forward shapes!

Pontiac Grand Am

Unlike the other two choices, the Grand Am name was certainly nothing new over at Pontiac. In its fourth generation for the 1992 model year, Grand Am is the oldest car here. The new Nineties design resided on the same N-body platform as the prior version, which debuted back in 1985. For 1996, the Grand Am received a bit of mid-cycle refreshing. More aggressive front and rear styling worked with additional side cladding for more Pontiac-ness, as the company continued to add additional plastic trim to each of its designs with each passing year.

While the GT is pictured here, our selection is the base model. Under hood (in all trims), the old Quad 4 was replaced with a more aggressive 2.4-liter dual overhead cam L4 engine. 150 horsepower raced through the front wheels via a new four-speed automatic; the three-speed passed away (finally) after 1995. Driving thrills!

They were all big sellers in their day, and delivered perceived value and reliability in the hot compact sedan segment. Which one’s the Buy for you?

[Images: Ford, Dodge, GM, IIHS]

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  • GenesisCoupe380GT GenesisCoupe380GT on Apr 10, 2020

    To be honest they all suck but given this crowd I would pick Pontiac. I can't say for certain why. I guess it's really just a matter of "better the devil you know than the one you don't".

  • MyerShift MyerShift on Aug 28, 2021

    BUY Dodge Stratus. It may have odd niggling issues and a front end in constant need of repair, but it's a double wishbone, upper and lower A-Arm design just like the Accord has and gets praise for. Best driving car, best looking car, and best interior space utilization. I had a Breeze. It was immensely enjoyable for a basic, 2.0L I4 and 4-Speed UltraDrive transaxle. DRIVE Ford Contour. As the global Mondeo, it's a great driving, Euro car. Unfortunately, its 2.0L is extremely buzzy and the interior is ridiculously cramped. Ford spent more developing this versus Chrysler and the Cloud Cars, and STILL came up with something worse! BURN Pontiac Grand Am. Terrible styling update, creaky and cheap GM interiors, OLDEST platform here, the typical demographic associated with these cars and the brand itself in later years. At least it should run like crap the longest, right?

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion:
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?