By on December 17, 2018

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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114 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Mediocrity Personified in Sedans of 1996...”

  • avatar

    If we must stick to base engines only…probably buy the Contour (having rented many, many of these, I found them to be decent little commuters), drive the Stratus if nothing more than the extra room…and burn the Pontiac. I just never could warm up to that hunka-hunka plastic cladding.

    • 0 avatar
      Guitar man

      I don’t think these are the base models. The base GM J cars had a pushrod engine until the early 2000s, and the Chryslers a three speed slushbox until about the same time.

      These are all good clean cars, and they all go pretty fast in a straight line.

      • 0 avatar

        The Grand Am is not a J Car. It was an N body as described in the text.

        ‘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!’

      • 0 avatar

        Not a single cloud car (JA) ever had the TorqueFlite 3-Speed. You’re thinking of the Neon!

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Clarkson absolutely raved about the Mondeo, considered a ‘large’ car in the UK. Actually compared it favourably to the BMW 3 series.

    Buy: the Contour/Mondeo.
    Drive: the Grand Am.
    Burn: the Stratus.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      After reading all the other comments, I have changed my initial opinion.

      Buy: the Grand Am. As it will run much longer than the others, parts will be cheap and plentiful and when done with it, I could still ‘part it out’ or find a buyer.
      Drive: the Mondeo/Contour. It is the better ‘drivers’ car, but not as robust as the Grand Am and parts will be much more expensive to acquire.
      Burn: sorry Stratus.

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    I’d drive the contour, it’s the only one here I’ve had any seat time in and it wasn’t bad.
    Burn the Grand Am, the cladding makes my eyes hurt and the interior was hideous too.
    Buy the Stratus so I can say, Will Ferrell style, “I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS!”

  • avatar

    Buy: Grand Am. At least the drivetrain is reliable. And I’ve always found them welcoming and nice enough to be in. They’re still common to see on the roads while the other two are almost extinct.

    Drive: Contour. These were great handlers and the interior was nice for the day. Electrical gremlins and tranny issues would keep me from buying.

    Burn: Cirrus. Not too familiar with these, but I’ve heard they are complicated and unreliable, and impossible to work on. I’d prefer a old Plymouth Acclaim. Or a Grand Am.

    • 0 avatar

      This is my selection. I know the Grand Am will run for a long time, even if the components I actually touch aren’t too great.

      The Contour would at least be somewhat interesting to drive, and I don’t have to pay for expensive Mondeo parts when the time comes.

      I grew up with this era of Chrysler products, via their minivans. I wouldn’t want to buy one, or deal with their reliability issues.

      • 0 avatar

        I may grudgingly be the same. Those GM’s were cockroaches and not horrible to drive we either. I had a 97 contour fun around corners but the 4spd 4cyl combo was a driving and NVH mess. Also mine had transmission and other issues. I like cloud cars and the 2.0 was a bit better then the contour, but with autos the contour wins. With manual the cloud car could bring that 2.0 out which might make up for the handling deficit over the contour. Close call.

  • avatar
    Sam Hall

    The Contour was a great car, at least before the front-end restyle. Either engine was lively, and it came with a fairly slick-shifting five speed. Handling was as good as the motors. Notice I didn’t say there was nothing wrong with it. The back seat was tiny for a sedan, and it was expensive. Here’s your un-watered European car, guys, step right up. Guys?

    The Stratus was from the generation of Chryslers that went GM one better in the “Fisher Price Interior” category. The dashboards looked like they would echo if you knocked on them, and they did. The seat material was durable, but just somehow felt like bargain-bin stuff. Probably guilt by association with the rest of the car. These disappeared off the road quickly.

    This generation of Grand Am was part of the Pontiac lineup that turned that brand into a joke among car cognoscenti. Plastic ground effects! Excitement! And underneath was almost entirely the same N-body from ten years earlier. On top of all that, it was half a size too small, but the Wal-Mart end of the market lapped it up for quite awhile.

    Buy – Contour
    Drive – Grand Am (hey, the mechanicals were fairly solid)
    Burn – Stratus

  • avatar

    I’ll be the heretic.

    Buy the Dodge – say what you want about it, but it looks good, and it has the most room of the three.

    Drive the Ford.

    Burn the Pontiac…and don’t breathe in any fumes from the burning plastic cladding.

    • 0 avatar

      Did you know to change the battery on a Stratus, you have to remove the driver’s side front tire and the fender liner, and take it out that way?

      • 0 avatar

        Chrysler still did that setup all the way up to the Dodge Avenger/Chrysler 200. I never understood why, why not put It in the trunk or rear seat (like Buick or air cooled VW Bugs)?

        Or why not under the hood?

      • 0 avatar

        These are the trifles one must endure to be a driver of a Cloud Car.

      • 0 avatar

        The larger LH cars also positioned the battery in the fender, but on the passenger side, I believe. Chrysler claimed that the increased distance from engine’s heat improved battery life.

      • 0 avatar

        Most people pay a shop to swap the battery anyway. It’s just more money!

        I don’t know the the Grand Am is like the Cavalier, but I remember having to remove the passenger side front tire to change the oil because there is an electronic module in the way to grab the filter from the top. We had the V6 Stratus and it only lasted 167k miles. Our 1998 Cavalier I only had to swap out an alternator at 85k miles and sold it with 140k miles with only the one issue.

      • 0 avatar

        How often do you need to change a battery though? I had my 05 Dodge Dakota from brand-new, and it had the same battery all 12 years & 130k miles that I had it. My 1996 Ford Thunderbird never had a battery change between 1998 and 2006 and I’m pretty sure it was still on the original battery when I got the car in 1998.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m with Mike. Although first I will mention that with a manual, The Contour and Stratus become legitimately under-the-radar fun and practical cruisers.

      The ride/handling of the Stratus is sublime for the time, super stable on the road with that wide stance and wheels pushed out to the corners, as was the interior room. Yes the mechanical layout of things like the battery are very frustrating. I had friend in a trailer park with a very well worn Breeze, and even in dilapidated shape I could still appreciate that it was above average in many ways.
      I have personal experience with a ’96 Mystique that has rolled over 250k miles that was well kept by it’s original owner, and now my brother. I can almost guarantee an automatic Contour with the C4DE wouldn’t make it to half that mileage without issues. But I’m just “driving” here. I got to zip around in my brother’s 5spd Zetec car and came away very impressed. More European feeling than American, like a FWD cheaper Bimmer or something. Very good ride/handling compromise. It was way too easy to make the skinny base-spec tires howl, the suspension is very confidence inspiring like that. Interior materials and thoughtful touches are also a pleasant surprise. It has held up well with mileage, just a bit of (soft) dash warping around the vents.

  • avatar

    Finding a Stratus with a neon 2.0 was impossible in the day— they all had the 2.4 upgrade.

    There was a run on 2.0 SOHC engines because of high neon demand. I spit y’all not— neons were getting a free DOHC upgrade because the basic engine was in such short supply.

    Stratus spanks the others in styling, room -and- dynamics. Contour second. Grand Am was never a contender.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I used to work with someone who bought a Stratus with the Neon 2.0 and the 5 speed. He was pricing a Neon at the time and came across the Stratus on the lot as a loss leader for about the same money. He was quite happy with it.
      When the Breeze was introduced they were only offered with the 2.0.

  • avatar

    Buy the Ford because you have to buy something

    Drive the Dodge because it is by far the best looking (although I do prefer the Cirrus) and you can enjoy that briefly without having to deal with the fact that their long term reliability and quality is crap.

    Burn the Pontiac because you have to burn something. Can easily switch the Pontiac or Ford though.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    Actually, the Contour was a pretty good effort, as far as engineering, performance, and fit-and-finish went. It was just expensive and ill-adapted for the American market, especially in relation to size.

    So, erm…

    1. Buy the Grand Am
    2. Drive the Contour
    3. Burn the Stratus

  • avatar

    ugh – only car I would drive or buy would be the Contour. I _almost_ pulled the trigger on one when they were being made; in SE/manual form.

    Dodge Stratus: rental special. Something my FiL drove.

    Pontiac Grand Prix – plastic fantastic; back in the day very popular around here. Most of the drivers in these seemed to think they were driving the fastest car on the road.

    • 0 avatar

      oops – Grand Am. Same thing applies!

    • 0 avatar

      I’d love to find a 1996 or 1997 SE manual. I’d even risk a 1995 even though it was more problematic.

      • 0 avatar

        Last spring, I jumped at the chance to buy a low mileage, mint ECRed ’95 Contour SE with the standard V6 and MTX. It’s my DD and I still enjoy every second I’m behind the wheel. It’s been trouble free so far – although I vowed not to subject it to NY’s salty wintery roads.

        If you see a Contour or Mystique in Central NY that still has its rocker panels, there’s a good chance its one of mine.

        Oh, I’d buy the Contour (for parts); drive the Stratus, and burn that Pontiac…

  • avatar

    1996 me would buy the Dodge for sure. It was gorgeous and felt modern inside compared with with the K-car I grew up riding in.

    I’d drive the Contour. If this were 1998 models I might have bumped it up to Buy.

    Melt the Grand Am, this model already looks like a half-melted ’92.

  • avatar

    Buy the Contour, it handles well and with a manual, its reliable and economical (35 MPG). 1996 was a good year as it avoids the first year issues and is well before the 1998 refresh (which I disliked).

    Drive the Stratus. I like the way they drive, but it’s not IF the head gasket will blow, but when. That’s why it isnt a buy. Decent handling, if not as sharp as the Contour. Roomier and not really bad looking. I’d rather have the Plymouth Breeze, but it’d still come in 2nd in this comparo. Some of the packaging was questionable, like the battery being buried in the driver wheel well.

    Burn the Grand Am. If it was an Achieva, might not have been quite so easy, but either way, it’s the oldest design, the ugliest and likely the poorest quality.

    Btw, the red Contour is a 1995. That chrome strip in the bumper was 1995 only.

    • 0 avatar

      100% with you, John, for largely subjective reasons.

      I have fond memories of my mother’s ’95 Contour, peering over the dash at traffic going by. With a manual, it was a fine car – I remember my grandfather (who had an Achieva, most likely with a 3.1, at the time) remarking that the Zetec had the pull of a V6. A different era, for sure… At any rate, the Contour made it to just shy of 100k before it was traded, with its second replacement flex pipe and manual locks that stuck closed.

      Later, learning to drive, I got a fair bit of practice in an automatic ’97 Mystique. Comparatively, it was a dog, as the CD4E *ruined* these cars… and to add NVH insult to torque-sapping injury, this Mystique had a failed mount that the mechanic couldn’t be bothered to find, so it had to be slapped into neutral or park at a stoplight to keep it from rattling the dash vents and any loose change in the cubbyhole by the clock.

      If I had to maintain any one of these three, I’d absolutely still take the Contour over the Stratus, no question.

      As for the Grand Am, based on my memories of a particular example, a pre-facelift model (so ’92, ’93 maybe?) that a friend of the family drove for a bit… well, it had leprous fleet-white paint, came with a quarter-inch-thick resinous layer of spilled soda, ashes, and loose change in the passenger footwell, and had a radio with a ‘fun’ station-skip feature over each expansion joint… well, some of that’s not the Grand Am’s fault, exactly, but I just don’t care.

      Contour it is. Make mine teal, in lieu of 1995’s Tobago Green, a tropical jungly turquoise-green that turned silvery-blue under sodium lights. I’m glad, too, that I’m not the only one who can spot a ’95 at a glance!

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, that red Contour is a base model ’95 four banger. The blue Contour up top is a ’96 (possibly ’97) SE with the standard 170 hp V6 and a suspension designed for handling – the Holy Grail of Contours if you’re into Contours. Just don’t get the automatic…

  • avatar

    Buy: Contour, its European and closer to the older Taurus in size, looks better than the silly catfish model of that time.

    Drive: Grand Am, it’ll be reliable at least. As a kid I always got these and Grand Prixs confused. I never did like the tacky plastic on these, it tends to collect dirt and cause rust.

    Burn: Stratus, I refuse to own a car that mimics a Honda Accord but couldnt be bothered to copy the Accords decent engineering, engineering like having the battery in the right place.

    • 0 avatar

      My 1995 Achieva was in worse shape mechanically with 100k miles than my Taurus is with nearly 250k. The 3.1L V-6 had leaks (intake gasket, coolant, oil, lol about the only fluid that didn’t leak was gasoline), and the automatic was about to give up the ghost.

      Also, when it rained, all four doors filled up with water. All the seals were there and in good shape, I never found what the problem was. I just drilled holes in the bottom of each door so it could piss out. There were all kinds of other little issues (like paint flaking off) that seemed well before their time (this was quite a while ago, so at the time, it wasn’t as old as my Taurus is now).

      I was very disappointed, I wanted so much to like that car, but it just ruined me on them. Yes, I’d still like a Quad 4/manual/coupe, but it damn sure wouldn’t be my only source of transportation, and I’d know to expect issue after issue.

      • 0 avatar

        Thats some pretty bad build quality right there, but that seems typical for GM. Even our 2013 Malibu has had some weird issues (CPS, water pump), havent messed with any of that on my Crown Vic.

        What I’d like to know is what voodoo GM did to make the Achieva SCX a competitive SCCA racer for its time, from what I recall it won a few events before Hondas stomped them into dust.

  • avatar
    Adam Tonge

    Although this is a sad BDB, it is also easy. But Corey and I discussed this last week, so I have that benefit.

    Buy – Grand Am. I have faith that I can get 150,000 miles out of an N-Body.

    Drive – Contour. It was a great driving car for the time. It also was a great breaking car at the time.

    Burn – Stratus. Poor SHAP had to build this, the Avenger, and 200 before finally getting the RAM this year.

  • avatar

    I actually bought the Contour new, albeit a couple of years later (post-refresh) and with the V6 and stick shift rather than the 4 banger slushbox mentioned here. It lasted me 12 years and was very reliable, the only thing it needed outside of regular maintenance were oxygen sensors at about 60k miles. Because of its European roots it was a much more involving drive than the other two cars listed here. Unfortunately it was a recall magnet, so much so that when I was negotiating to trade it in on a new Mustang they would give me next to nothing on the trade in because “those cars have a reputation for recalls so there’s not a lot of demand for them.” My reply was, “Explain to me then why I should waste my money on another Ford?” Obviously we didn’t end up doing a deal and I drove the Contour for quite a few more years.

  • avatar

    I owned a 1999 Contour SVT in black. Excellent stealth car. Drove it for 175K miles trouble free. Traded it in on a 2005 Mazda6. The Contour was a great car.

  • avatar

    Buy: Must I?

    Drive: Ford Contour

    Burn: Pontiac

    My sister had a ’96 Contour that was VERY reliable. I just parked my elderly aunt’s ’98 Contour for her on Thanksgiving Day. While it shows its age (cappucino-colored mouse fur upholstery) but it also has been a good car for her. A co-worker used to own an SVT Contour which I always liked.

  • avatar

    Buy the Grand Am. It’s got the GM cockroach genes. It’ll run poorly for a long time.

    Drive the Contour. I recall these getting good remarks for handling, but I could be thinking of the SVT.

    Burn the Stratus. We had a ChryCo car from the 90s, and it had so many issues, both mechanical and electrical, that the merits of the design were more than offset.

  • avatar

    Buy: Contour. I always liked these things

    Drive: Stratus. I owned a V6 Cirrus and it was OK. It had lots of room and the interior was great for the time. If the Stratus doesn’t have the V6, I wouldn’t buy it.

    Burn: Grand Am. I know three different people who owned Grand Ams. They would all line up behind me to light one on fire. This also has the honour of being the only type car that has left me stranded somewhere.

  • avatar

    The Contour love here is shocking. It was junk when it was made and it’s junk today. Kill it with fire and then go after it with a hunting knife.

    Drive the Grand Am. For it’s day it looked ok, it had the Quad 4 so it was reasonably peppy for it’s day, and it had comfy velour seats for its day. And the stereo had too much bass. And the stereo was one of the first built in cd players. I liked those chunky gray buttons with the red backlighting. And the EQ.

    Buy the Cumulunimbus, drive it to Corey’s house and set it on fire.

    • 0 avatar

      “The Contour love here is shocking. It was junk when it was made and it’s junk today. Kill it with fire and then go after it with a hunting knife.”

      I know some Contours had problems, but as I posted above I got 12 pretty good years out of mine. It never actually broke down. It also felt much tighter and more responsive than the other two vehicles here. Despite the endless recalls, I’d still pick the Contour over the Chrysler and GM products here if forced to have one of the three.

      • 0 avatar

        Did you ever drive a Contour? The automatics weren’t too reliable, but the manuals held up pretty well and were a blast to drive. They went through rotors and wheel bearings with regularity, and the alternator was a major issue (especially in the V6), but they were far from junk.

    • 0 avatar

      Well junk or not, having spent some seat time in one with over 250k miles on fun country back roads just this past summer, I’m inclined to disagree. The original clutch finally need to be replaced at 245k, along with an oil pan gasket while things were apart. Suspension has gotten some refreshing, the most serious non-wear repair was the rear subframe that finally was weakened by rust and cracked, thankfully a new made-in-usa motorcraft replacement was just $200 or so.

    • 0 avatar

      And we agree.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      The forbidden, by our staff contributors, Contour SVT was a beast and the one to buy. Wrangle that four-square. The Dodge should’ve came with “How to be successful in Business!!!!” tapes as u drove away from the rental lot. The GrandAm devolved into a whale tail, tramp stamp baby momma machine very quickly. The burn marks were from dropped roaches and Virginia Slims.

    • 0 avatar

      Had a 1994 Achieva for a body shop loaner after the Honda dealer backed my Civic into a wall. I remember that stereo, a normal Delco ETR cassette unit, had way too much down low with the controls centered! (But it still sounded better than some of today’s “premium” units!)

  • avatar

    Buy the Stratus. I believe it will explode in the shortest amount of time allowing me to buy a replacement Bonneville.

    Drive the Contour. I’ve heard they drive well.

    Burn the *base* Grand Am. Holy sh*t, not a chance.

  • avatar

    Buy the Stratus (even though I’d rather have a Breeze Expresso with the white wheel covers and teal decals).

    Drive the Countour

    Burn the Grand Am.

    Around here cloud cars far outnumber the other two in surviving examples. I’d even go so far as to say there’s more cloud cars running still than the next-gen early 00’s Sebring/Stratus. I havent seen a Contour in years (still see Mystiques on occasion), and surviving Grand-Ams all seem to be either pre-facelift early 90’s models or mostly the late 90’s early 00’s version.

    My mom had a (first year, 1995, I believe) Contour in Coral Mist (pink). I don’t remember much about it other than the 1998 Corolla that replaced it was a massive step up.

  • avatar

    Buy: Grand Am
    Drive: Stratus
    Burn: Contour

    Grand Am is a buy because they are like cockroaches and will run (badly) for a long time.
    I actually owned a 97 Stratus 2.0 5speed base model. They were very roomy and held the road great. Took many road trips in my early 20’s, sometimes with 3 passengers, the huge trunk loaded, and bikes on the roof. Got over 40MPG on several occasions (not with bikes on roof…). The A/C was ice cold, and the control layout was ergonomically perfect. Yea it was noisy, plasticky, and had crank windows, but comfortable on long trips. Had a flat tire on one trip, in a remote-ish area, and the full size spare tire (!) was appreciated. A quick change and back on the road.

    I drove a 2.4 4-spd auto (yes rental car) and it was quieter and more refined, but a stupid move on a snowy road convinced me of the cars excellent handling balance. I still remember being impressed by the way the car recovered. The one I owned also demonstrated good foul-weather handling in the mid-Atlantic mix we get, stock Michelin all-season tires and the car could go anywhere.

  • avatar

    I am sorry Corey, I look forward to these but I can not do it, I will pass on these “fine” choices and take mass transit and bike or borrow a friends car. If this is the best 1996 has to offer in fairly cheap transportation , I can only hope in the future there is a company that will let me hail a taxi anywhere and take me where I want to go.

  • avatar

    Almost bought a Mystique. Did I dodge (no pun intended) a bullet?

  • avatar

    I could buy/drive the Pontiac or the Dodge interchangeably. Just make it a manual…automatic 4 bangers are total slugs. Either way, Im not a midsize sedan guy. I honestly wouldn’t want to drive, much less buy ANY of these…the closest REAL answer in 1996 is the Avenger coupe with the twincam 2.0 and 5spd.

    Burn that miserable POS countour and piss on the ashes!! When it dries out burn it again to be sure. An ex g/f had this exact car, a base 1996 in 1999: powder blue with that crapcan 4/auto combo. I absolutely LOATHED that car. The interior was made from cheap hard plastic that creaked, squeaked and slowly disintegrated. The 4cyl/auto moaned, groaned and buzzed while nothing resembling acceleration ever happened. She bought it as her first financed car all by herself before we met and didn’t take anyone savvy along with her so she got hosed at 20-something percent interest. In its defense it was dependable…it was just a wretched heap.

    • 0 avatar

      “The interior was made from cheap hard plastic that creaked,”

      Are you sure? The ’96 Mystique I’ve driven/ridden in had higher quality materials and more soft-touch surfaces than any recent midsize car I’ve been in. That and the nice soft velour, it’s sad how far we’ve regressed.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t think of it as high quality personally. Mine still looked Ok but it did creak at 120,000 miles. Also the cup holders broke if you looked at em wrong. And on mine both sunvisors started to come apart. all around 10 years old. To me it was slightly above average for an American car at the time, but my 93 Golf was way nicer inside. Same with my brothers 96 Maxima. It seemed aboput on par with may parents 95 Corrolla.

  • avatar

    Jesus Christ, burn them all. I’m walking. All of these were quality/maintenance nightmares.

    If you’re going to force me:

    1) Buy the Stratus – in the battle of the least reliable cars you could buy in 1996, the 2.0L 4 in the Stratus in marginally better

    2) Drive the Grand Am – gads an awful car but in GT trim at least you have the illusion of fun

    3) Burn the Contour – cramped, the transmission was a grenade with the pin pulled straight from the factory, decontented, cheap, lousy dynamics. Kill it with the purifying flames of fire.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I’m in the flames for all camp. The Contour needs a stick, the Grand Am should have the V6 (my mother had a 93, not exciting but very pleasant to drive), and I like the looks of the Stratus but don’t have much faith in the drivetrain.

      Regarding the Contour being cheap, wasn’t it actually one of the most expensive vehicles in its segment? Seems like the R&D savings didn’t actually pan out.

      • 0 avatar

        You’re spot on @Russycle – the Contour/Mystique carried one of the highest base prices in the class. Additionally although a D-segment midsize it was really a “tweener” sitting closer to the C-segment, one of the smallest cars in the class.

        gtem eludes to the Mercury version with obfuscates the original exercise. In 1996 the Mecury version was only in GS and LS trim, and there was technically no “base” model. A stripper version of the Mercury was introduced in 1997 (as well as a value edition Contour) to try and prop up sales. By that point, the problems with 4-speed automatic had reared its ugly head along with the V6 engine (and the two combined was a reliability match made in Hell).

        I was very much in Ford’s camp during this era and I really wanted to like this car, but there was just so much to hate.

        In 1996, D-segment, there was only one answer.

        Toyota Camry.

    • 0 avatar

      Decontented from what? The later ’98+ cars perhaps (never been in one, don’t know), but as I’ve written above, the ’96 Mystique I’m familiar with would absolutely shame most modern mainstream compact/midsize cars as far as the quality of materials and amount of soft-touch plastics it has.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, you could option up if you checked off the boxes, and then the price became uncompetitive in the class. The Contour/Mystique were a disaster for Ford. They were less reliable than the Malthusian Tempo/Topaz they replaced (the 2.3 was sorted, the Vulcan was stupid reliable, and the transmission was Soviet grade). It had a cramped back seat smaller than the Tempo/Topaz, the trunk wasn’t class competitive and the transmission was an abomination, including the manual (which was improved in 1997). Ford came out with “value editions” in 1997 after dropping some trim and other bits on the 1996 model to try and get the price down.

        In 2001 the Contour was dead and the all things name “F” started – we got the much better Fusion.

        Bang for the buck – there were way better options, and Mercury was a blue hair brand.

        • 0 avatar

          My brother’s is a basic GS: hubcaps, roll up windows, but A/C and cruise control. Base cloth interior. Like I said, the materials shame most modern compacts and many midsizers. Better seat cloth, more soft touch surfaces.

          Not sure what the criticism is with the shifter, on the 250k mile mystique it is fantastic: surprisingly short throws, very smooth. The faster you shift it the better it feels.

          It is indeed a fairly compact car, with a very small trunk opening (which then became the norm years on). It is comparable in room overall with my ’01 A4, both struggle to comfortably accommodate one grown man sitting in front of the other. You sit low in it, it feels Honda-like. As a family car it has less utility than a taurus/Camry/Accord of the same year.

          The Tempo is to the Contour as a 2006 Taurus is to a 2013 Fusion. Might have some tried and true technology and cheaper to run, but one is literal decades and billions of dollars of progress ahead in terms of ride/handling, ergonomics, dynamics, etc.

          I didn’t have a strong opinion about these Contours/Mystiques until I spent some time around one, and especially after driving one on a fun back road with the stick shift. Try it before you say it has an “abomination” of a manual transmission or that it has lousy dynamics, or a bad interior. My own relatively fresh experience with one seems to contradict your magazine/second-hand info on just about every point.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Contour- I used to occasionally take out a government issue one and was impressed with it.
    The Zetec is a nice motor and the quality is very European like.

    Drive: Grand Am-good drivetrains which explains why they are still around like roaches in many places. Too much cladding.

    Burn: Stratus- The cab forward was innovative but not good enough.
    Honorable mention: Oldsmobile Achevia the Quad 4 with the lack of cladding is an attractive package.

  • avatar

    Buy: the Stratus. Love the design (if not the materials) inside and out. Roomy with the best ergonomics. Surprisingly capable of fun even in base trim. The chassis (double wishbone front suspension!) responds well to a +1 wheel/tire upgrade.

    Drive: the Pontiac, because, well, um…it looks as if it was penned in collaboration with Fisher-Price and I’m gonna burn the Contour.

    Burn: the Contour. I can cheaply purchase its spiritual successor in the 5th generation Buick Regal.

  • avatar

    Buy and drive – Ford Contour. I had one, a bare bones 2.0 ZTech with five speed. Definitely a car you could do some tuner stuff to, and have one neat oddity on the street on a Friday night. Very underrated driver. To my knowledge they were all either five speeds or automatics.

    Burn – the Pontiac Grand Am. “Redneck BMW.”

    The Stratus was just too “meh” for anything but forgettable transportation. Absolutely nothing about it that could give me reason for an opinion.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Burn the Grand Am and the Contour.

    Buy the Stratus and drive it.

    I had a 95 Stratus with the optional Mitsubishi 2.5 V6. That was a sweet, high-revving engine – small-displacement V6 that almost nobody produces anymore (except the Italians). It was terrible to service. Oddly, it had a cam-mounted old-school distributor laid on its side, which made it more susceptible to water ingress. Besides that, the car was fun to drive and looked great.

  • avatar

    Buy: Grand Am and keep its plastic liberally sprayed with 309 protectant to preserve it for future generations.
    Drive: Stratus, roomy feeling and good enough.
    Burn: Contour, puke-ugly blobmobile with 90s Ford misery, no thanks.

  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    I had two Contours back to back with the Duratec V6. Being in sales and driving 3,000 to 4,000 miles a month-I found it to be the perfect business car. Great handling-and with the V6 a real fun car to drive.

    However-both cars were disposed of just shy of 100,000 miles with the awful CD4E auto transaxle stating acting up. They were HORRIBLE automatics for long term reliability.

    One was traded in-and one was towed to the junkyard.

  • avatar

    If there’s a 5-speed manual available, I’ll take that one. The other two can get crushed.
    Contour: Slow seller, huge depreciation, expensive parts.
    Grand Am: Buy here, pay here, watch the plastics crack, rattle and fade here.
    Stratus: Not Chrysler’s finest moment, to be kind… The only person that I knew who drove one hated it. But you could get one for very little per month, as long as you wanted to pay for the greater part of a decade.

    A ’96 base Accord would have all three of these beat in terms of quality, engineering and long-term ownership costs. You can still find them available today (in non-snow states), and get some more good years out of ’em.
    So the choice is between haggis, sesos or spotted dick. No thanks to all three.

    • 0 avatar

      Heck you can easily find a 4th or 5th gen Accord in the salt belt no problem. With the ’96-’97 facelift the Accord seems to have gotten much more rust resistant in the rear quarter panel areas, but even the earlier cars as they might rust there, the subframes and structural areas stay solid. Automatic contours died early deaths, early cloud cars are still not an uncommon sight around here, but I will say that generation of grand am is pretty sparse on the ground around here for some reason.

    • 0 avatar

      Haggis is actually pretty good. It’s one of those things that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

  • avatar

    The one most likely to still be running (although poorly) would be the Grand Am. (GM cars run like $hit longer than most cars run.)

    The “bang for the buck” – biggest interior for smallest footprint would be the Stratus.

    The Contour takes the “most European” crown.

    However given that I live at altitude and all those 4 pots would be barely adequate in cars one size class down from these I say – BURN THEM ALL!

  • avatar
    FWD Donuts

    Buy: Contour

    Ford spent $6B developing that platform and it’s good. When the Jaguar X-Type came out — Brits who smelled like old damp wool and pipe smoke got all bent over it — never mind it was the most advanced and sophisticated platform to ever carry the Jaguar name at the time. Ford really blew it by not getting out in front of that bias as a start — then really going after any old cod who kept moaning about it.

    Drive: Stratus

    Only because it looks better than the Grand Slam.

    Burn: Grand Am

    Then pay the fine to the EPA for all the fumes caused by the plastic.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    The Grand Am will likely burn itself, though if it were one of the high strung quad 4 variants with a stick I could be talked into driving it a couple of weeks until the headgasket pops. Still, burn it. The Stratus looked better, I guess buy it because I have to buy one and I darned sure dont want to drive either of these crapboxes.

    Drive the Contour. It is actually a decent driving car. The SE when it came out I remember being lauded as a “baby SHO”. I liked them. The SVT of course is still fondly remembered.

  • avatar

    The Grand Ams were absolute, total and complete unmitigated garbage. You bought one falling apart. They might run poorly for a long while, but they were every bit the GM cars of the day. Garbage.

  • avatar

    Buy: Contour. I had a 93 Escort for awhile that left me with warm feelings even though it was pretty gutless with 88hp from the Ford 1.9. Also, at the time my family leaned toward Ford.

    Drive: Grand Am. Though if the Alero were a thing at that time I’d go for that strictly based on looks. I drove my brother’s 95 SE with the 3.? litre V6 and it was pretty nice and fast enough for my 16 year old self.

    Burn: Stratus. I don’t know enough about them, but if the engine is related to that in the Neon I’d run only because power is a bit of a joke and that car looks heavy. I recall driving my friend’s Neon fully loaded and it was terrifying to try and get on a ring road with 60 mph speed limits.

    Side note: I continue to be amazed at the engines that got stuffed into these fairly large cars. When I was little I thought anything midsized or above was at least a V6. Then again I vaguely recall my dad talking about large 4 cylinder engines; I never really knew what he meant until I got my first midsized car with a 2.4 (an 03 Accord). I didn’t realize that would be sufficient in a vehicle that large.

    • 0 avatar

      How is 132hp in a neon “a bit of a joke” when you were just fondly remembering an 88hp CVH-paint-shaker 1.9? Doesn’t make sense. Maybe because the neon was “fully loaded” with passengers?

      • 0 avatar

        It’s probably more that the Neon was fully loaded with roughly 1000 pounds of passenger, no joke.

        I was only ever by myself in the Escort, so that engine was never taxed quite so much.

    • 0 avatar

      One of the car mags of the time confirmed that the 2.0/5spd combo was the fastest powertrain of the “cloud cars”, outpacing the V-6 with the then-novel “AutoStick.” The Neon engine was fairly powerful for its time, but yes a bit agricultural in character.

  • avatar

    Thinking back to the era and filtering out later impressions…

    The Stratus’ sibling Cirrus was Motor Trend’s Car Of The Year. The ‘cloud cars’ and the Ford midsizers were both collectively worthy of Car & Driver’s 10 Best. I remember being surprised at an (IIRC) C&D test that showed the 2.0/5-speed Stratus as decisively quicker than the V6/auto version. But the rules say we aren’t terribly interested in excitement, so:

    Buy (under the understanding that this also means regular, near-daily-driver usage): Dodge Stratus on account of both the MT and C&D accolades.
    Drive (occasionally and temporarily): Ford Contour.
    Burn: Pontiac Grand Am, since it’s from GM’s “excitement” division after all.

  • avatar

    We may not have the opportunity to buy, drive or burn that particular Contour (the red one): from the photo, I believe it was an IIHS crash test car.

  • avatar

    Out of curiosity, I looked up on the Indianapolis craigslist 1st gen cloud cars, contour/mystique, and Pre-’99 Grand Ams. The final tally:

    0 Dodge Stratus
    2 Chrysler Cirrus
    1 Plymouth Breeze
    1 Ford Contour
    0 Mystique
    2 Grand Am

    Geez, I hadn’t realized the attrition was quite this bad. Then again I keep forgetting just how old these things are now in 2018.

    Within the same age constraint (max model year 1998):
    3 Dn101 Tauri
    2 Sables
    14 Camries
    4 Avalons
    10 Accords

  • avatar

    I did buy the Contour (Mystique actually, which is a little better). If you take care of it, it’s a great car. 200K miles on it, still looks good, still drives great. I see it regularly, as the guy across the street owns it now.

    The other two? Don’t care.

  • avatar

    I bought a ’99 contour new and drove it for 17 years. I really liked it.

    It was LX base as they come, about $11,000 w/ rebates. The 4cyl 2.0 Zetec + manual had reasonable power and good economy. It had good (cloth) seats, good shifter, good driving position and simple controls. I miss the simple control layout compared to today’s cars. I drove it 17 years 150k miles and the paint was still shiny, the AC worked great, seats looked brand new. The handling was decent, and it even came with alloy wheels (an allow of iron and carbon of course).

    The problem w/ the contour as #1 US was in love with the “big iron”, everyone wanted a expedition etc, the few people who wanted small car wanted foreign car. #2 problem it was decontented pretty bad, example no pass through to trunk. Funny car mags (and people like me) screamed for years for Ford to bring Euro cars over here, this was largely a euro car (with bigger motor, people in Europe got small 4 bangers) but a failure in the market. Final problem is that the auto trans was junk and most ‘Americans want the auto.

    • 0 avatar

      I opted for the auto (prior car was a stick) with a V6. I’m not sure why you’ve the impression it’s junk. Mine was flawless. Mechanics I worked iwth didn’t have any issue with it either.

      • 0 avatar

        According to the service records I had with my 97 the auto started acting up at 30k and was replaced at 65k, then had some work done again (around a grand ) at 75k miles. I bought it with just under 100k at 8 years old and luckily the transmission was fine for the 30k miles I owned it, well ok in that it didn’t break,it wasn’t very smooth and shift points always seemed off.

  • avatar

    Burn all three beyond recognition.

    Buy Toyota or Honda of that time period.

  • avatar

    Burn the Pontiac. Period. I know, it’ll run longer poorly than the other two will at all. But that styling, the shoddiness of it all. Ew.

    Buy the Contour

    Drive the Chrysler

    I owned a 95 Contour LX V6 with a 5 speed for 36 hours. I was on a Ford lot to look at a Mercury Cougar V8 and I drove it and the Contour. I loved my big coupes at the time (1998) but I really enjoyed the Contour. 170hp V6 and the 5 speed was fairly strong at that time and it just drove so well.

    On the way to work the next day, I heard a ticking sound at a traffic light. I drove home and realized it was getting worse. Back to the dealer, who determined it was a bent valve. They offered to fix it, but I gave it back and got the Cougar instead for the same money (a decent deal if I remember). The Cougar was a good car and I kept it three years, but I missed that Contour.

    I worked for Enterprise in the late 90’s and drove more than my share of Contour/Mystique 4 cylinders, “Cloud Cars” and GM N bodies. I always liked the way the Chryslers looked and drove ( except the Plymouth Breeze with the SOHC Neon motor and a 3 speed) and they withstood rental abuse pretty good. They were a bit crude and didn’t drive was well as the Ford’s, but better than the GM stuff, especially inside. Always liked the Chrysler’s interiors too, decent style and materials for the time for Chrysler, especially compared to the GM cars.

    • 0 avatar

      The Cloud cars never had the 3-speed unless it was a limited run in 1995. I’ve still the 1997 sales brochures for cloud cars, and my 1996 Breeze 2.0L had the 4-speed automatic. There’s no mistaking that peculiar “bunches of springs” sound the solenoid packs made when selecting a gear or downshifting into first at a stop.
      The 2.0L Chryslers had the 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic. The Neons had the 3-speed automatic though.

  • avatar

    At this late date, the Grand Am is the most plebeian of the three, but most likely to still move under its own power. Buy.

    The Contour was a great effort, and a massive improvement over the Tempo/Topaz, but it was always obvious it was a European car first. Great to drive, but you hardly see any anymore. Drive.

    The Cloud cars. All the great design of the parts you see. All the crappy mechanical design and shoddy workmanship hidden under the surface. Burn.

  • avatar

    Buy the Contour, not a horrible car to drive, made a LOT of $$$ off of them years back tho with all their issues…

    Drive the Grand Am as they’re a certified Cockroach of the Road™, they seem to run forever with little to no maintenance…

    Burn the Cloud Car, they were shit when new and time hasn’t done them any favors.

  • avatar

    BUY: The Ford (I suppose; have to pick something). I had a friend who owned a 2.0L car with the automatic, and though it seemed quite reliable, it was the most cramped, BUZZY/noisy, and unrefined car listed here, and I’ve been in all three.

    DRIVE: The Dodge. Best looking, most spacious, best to drive, and reasonably refined. Atrocious long-term reliability though- Chrysler’s poor 4-speed electronically controlled transmission, engine management electronics/sensors, and a horrifically cramped engine bay to have work done in. The battery, though annoying, is the least of the problems to be complaining about. I OWNED a 1996 Plymouth Breeze 2.0L. Right around 100K miles, everything started going wrong, and incessantly.

    BURN: The Pontiac. Unattractive inside and out, with GM’s typically cheap and rattly dash and door cards. Not to mention the image and typical white trash/redneck demographic to go with it. The most embarrassing car here.

  • avatar

    Surprised to learn the Contour had tranny problems. Bought a V-6 automatic with traction control, ABS and A/C new in 1995 for $14K. Has 170 hp, and it’s still going strong with 100k miles. Never had a problem, aside from a recent intake system gaskets and rubber parts rebuild. Great car, great paint, but it’s nowhere near the fun as my 325ci. In the winter I put 15″ studs on it, and it’s an in-town snowmobile. No rust, either. I treat my cars lovingly and don’t redline them much.

    However, had a ’96 4-cylinder automatic Contour I bought used for my daughter to learn on, and I don’t think there was an interior or exterior trim piece not broken, missing or misaligned. Seemed like a completely different car.

  • avatar

    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”.

  • avatar

    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?

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