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?

  • Sayahh Is it 1974 or 1794? The article is inconsistent.
  • Laura I just buy a Hyndai Elantra SEL, and My car started to have issues with the AC dont work the air sometimes is really hot and later cold and also I heard a noice in the engine so I went to the dealer for the first service and explain what was hapenning to the AC they told me that the car was getting hot because the vent is not working I didnt know that the car was getting hot because it doesnt show nothing no sign no beep nothing I was surprise and also I notice that it needed engine oil, I think that something is wrong with this car because is a model 23 and I just got it on April only 5 months use. is this normal ? Also my daughter bought the same model and she went for a trip and the car also got hot and it didnt show up in the system she called them and they said to take the car to the dealer for a check up I think that if the cars are new they shouldnt be having this problems.
  • JamesGarfield What charging network does the Polestar use?
  • JamesGarfield Re: Getting away from union plantsAbout a dozen years or so ago, Caterpillar built a huge new engine plant, just down the road here in Seguin TX. Story has it, Caterpillar came to Seguin City council in advance, and told them their plans. Then they asked for no advanced publicity from Seguin, until announcement day. This new plant was gonna be a non-union replacement for a couple of union plants in IL and SC, and Cat didn't want to stir up union problems until the plan was set. They told Seguin, If you about blab this in advance, we'll walk. Well, Seguin kept quiet as instructed, and the plan went through, with all the usual expected tax abatements given.Plant construction began, but the Caterpillar name was conspicuously absent from anywhere on the site. Instead, the plant was described as being a collective of various contractors and suppliers for Caterpillar. Which in fact, it was. Then comes the day, with the big new plant fully operationa!, that Caterpillar comes in and announces, Hey, Yeah it's our plant, and the Caterpillar name boldly goes up on the front. All you contractor folks, welcome aboard, you're now Caterpillar employees. Then, Cat turns and announces they are closing those two union plants immediately, and will be transporting all the heavy manufacturing equipment to Seguin. None of the union workers, just the equipment. And today, the Caterpillar plant sits out there, humming away happily, making engines for the industry and good paying jobs for us. I'd call that a winner.
  • Stuki Moi What Subaru taketh away in costs, dealers will no doubt add right back in adjustments.... Fat chance Subaru will offer a sufficient supply of them.