Ford Mondeo 1.8 SCi Ghia

There was a time when the Ford Mondeo could do no wrong. At its launch in 2000 it was the undisputed class leader, winning group tests left, right and centre. But new rivals, such as the Vauxhall Vectra, Mazda 6 and Honda Accord to name but three, have now caught up and surpassed the blue oval's finest.

The model charged with taking Ford back to the top of the family car market has got its work cut out against talented rivals. The external changes are barely noticeable, and the best news is the direct-injection 1.8-litre engine, which offers tax and fuel economy benefits.

There was a time when the Ford Mondeo could do no wrong. At its launch in 2000 it was the undisputed class leader, winning group tests left, right and centre. But new rivals, such as the Vauxhall Vectra, Mazda 6 and Honda Accord to name but three, have now caught up and surpassed the blue oval's finest.

Obviously, Ford wasn't going to let this state of affairs continue for long - so meet the latest Mondeo. Yes, this is the new car - we'll come to the external changes, or lack of them, later.

To view the most important of the car's 1,500 new components, you first have to lift the bonnet. Stamped on the engine cover are the initials SCi, which stand for Smart Charge injection and are Ford's way of telling you that this 1.8 is its first-ever direct injection petrol engine. The figures, though, speak for themselves. While the new unit has the same block as a standard 1.8, which continues in production, output has gone up 5bhp to 128bhp and it's also 3mpg more fuel efficient (39.2 on the combined cycle). In addition, exhaust emissions of 174g/km put it in the 18 per cent bracket - three CO2 groups lower than the previous version.

On the road, it's remarkably smooth, easy to drive and quieter than before, although with only 175Nm available at 4,250rpm, the torque benefits aren't as impressive as we had expected.

The newcomer's biggest potential problem, however, is pricing. Available only in Ghia trim and above, the 1.8 SCi starts at £17,500, negating the company car tax and economy advantages it enjoys. Even so, the Mondeo SCi meets the latest Euro IV emissions targets, and as Joerg Beyer, the car's chief engineer, said: "You don't do this sort of technology as a one-off - it's a starting point for the company." So expect to see SCi technology adopted across the blue oval's model line-up. The new six-speed gearbox is equally impressive. Standard equipment on the SCi, both V6 petrol versions and the TDCi, it's designed to improve economy as well as deliver superior performance. By adding an extra ratio, the engineers have increased the top speed of the flagship ST220 to 155mph. Slick and swift, the gearbox is great to use and can handle as much as 400Nm of torque. That means it could theoretically be fitted in the scorching Focus RS - watch this space!

Ford's trump card has long been the Mondeo's driving characteristics, and nothing's been done to dilute them. The steering is a delight, the handling crisp and the body control exemplary. The only revisions have been aimed at improving refinement levels, and, as a result, the car is not as noisy as it was - although we have yet to be convinced that it matches the Vectra or Toyota Avensis for quietness.

There's no doubt that the cabin is a better place to be, though. According to Michael McDonagh, the interior system engineering chief: "Our aim was to improve the textures and perceived quality." In other words, to move the Mondeo upmarket. His team has been partially successful, and details such as the new stereo and heating controls lend a more cohesive feel to the centre console. Yet despite being imp-ressively spacious throughout, the interior doesn't feel particularly special. Even so, it is well equipped and the Ford is the first car in the class to offer seats that both heat and cool.

As for the exterior, detailing such as a new-style chrome grille surround, revised front bumper and silver-effect inserts help freshen the look, but don't transform the Mondeo into a stunning car. One key criticism has been addressed, however; the door mirrors have been made usefully larger.

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