What makes a car stand out from the bunch, win awards, get picked as Car of the Year?
What convinces judges to select one car over another?
Ford's Mondeo is such a car. It's a multiple award winner, including the coveted New Zealand Motoring Writers' Guild Car of the Year, an award chosen democratically by the guild's members from throughout New Zealand.
What's special about the Mondeo?
Acquaintances who run old model Mondeos as company cars can't imagine that anything could be special about Ford's 2.0-litre middleweight.
Most of them have little good to say about the Mondeos they're running. They don't like the handling, don't like the overall feel of the car.
The most vocal of the critics of the old model Mondeo wagon knocks it for a lack of power at low speeds - "it wouldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding."
He doesn't like the handling, either. "It's got a floating feeling on the road and the tail end seems light." He thinks the roof pillars, front and rear, cause bad blind spots.
The Mondeo gets moderate approval for highway running - "it cruises all right" - and fuel economy - "it's not bad on juice."
So he was surprised when the Mondeo picked up the Car of the Year award from the motoring writers' guild and various magazines.
Should he have been? I didn't think the old Mondeo was that bad, though he drives one day in and day out and I don't. In fact I haven't driven one in years and the last one I drove was a high-performance version.
And the new one? I think it's a good all-round package, and that's the consensus among NZ motoring journalists.
It's good enough, in fact, for one of the toughest critics and most accomplished drivers in the motor writing fraternity to have bought one.
Like me he didn't have the Mondeo at the very top of his Car of the Year voting paper, but it was within a few points.
Why did he buy a Mondeo hatchback? "I think it's the leading car in its class. It's better than anything else (among 2.0-litre saloons).
"I like its dynamics, the way it steers and handles. It's the best drive in its class. There are other good things too. The space inside and the value for money, But mainly it's the handling."
After reacquainting ourselves with the Mondeo with a base model 2.0-litre wagon, we're inclined to agree.
The wagon is neatly styled, and the big taillights that run the length of the C-pillar give it a highly distinctive look.
We don't think Ford does the car justice with the base model's frontal look, though.
Front foglights aren't standard on the Mondeo wagon. What's left are two eyeless sockets which give the car an unfinished look at best and a "hey-they've-left-something-off" at worst.
The impression was made worse by the test car's white paint scheme which accentuated the empty sockets.
Ford's not alone in this awkward effect: Holden makes the Commodore S's front end look unfinished by leaving the foglight sockets empty.
The lines of the bodyshell give the Mondeo wagon a dynamic look, and that's accentuated by the 16-inch wheels (steel on the base wagon) which fill the wheelarches nicely.
The cockpit is roomy with good leg and headroom, and it's a nice place to be.
The seating and driving position and feel of the controls are big contributors to a driver's judgement of a car.
My hack Toyota Corona with its soft, Japanese-spec suspension, automatic gearbox and a mere 1800cc four to carry a not inconsiderable car loaded with electronic gadgetry could scarcely be called a driver's car.
But its excellent seats, superb leather-wrapped steering wheel and good seating position make it pleasant to drive, whether in the city or attempting to run briskly along winding roads.
And the Mondeo appeals in much the same way. The steering wheel is padded and has a nicely-chunky rim. The multi-adjustable seating position is just right. You feel in command even before you turn a wheel. As with the Toyota, there's evidence of much thoughtful design. You get the impression the Mondeo has been designed to be an enjoyable place for people to be; and to be enjoyable to drive.
The steering is direct and offers good feel, the turn-in to corners is crisp and the chassis has an unflappable feel.
Naturally it understeers, but the understeer is well masked.
The wagon is nimble and lots of fun to drive.
The clutch takes up cleanly and is light enough not to be tiresome in stop/start commuter traffic.
The gearbox shifts cleanly and quickly and ratios make the most of the free-revving 105kW DOHC four.
It's a quick car, with a 0-100km/h time of around 9.2 seconds and a top speed of 210km/h.
The dashboard-mounted single disc Compact Disc player - with four speakers - produces good sound.
Standard equipment levels are good. Standard gear includes manually-controlled CFC-free air-conditioning; electrically-wound front windows; heated, power adjustable exterior mirrors; roof rails; full-sized steel spare wheel; tinted windscreen and wide windows; perimeter alarm; anti-theft stereo; engine immobiliser, and remote-control central door-locking with deadlocks.
The driver's seat has adjustable lumbar support and the seat height can be altered electrically. The rear seatbacks split-fold 70/30, and the rear seat cushion flip/folds to increase cargo capacity. A cargo-covering blind is standard, a good feature. Ford offers a cargo net as an added-cost extra.
Storage space includes a lit glovebox; front centre console; front and rear door map/oddments pockets; roof-mounted sunglass box, and handy pockets in the backs of the front seats.
Safety equipment includes dual front and side airbags; ABS anti-skid braking with electronic brake force distribution; anti-whiplash head restraints; rear foglights; anti-submarining front and rear seats; anti side intrusion beams in the doors and lap/sash seatbelt for all five occupants.
The Mondeo wagon is a good all-rounder. Everything it does, it does well. It's a worthy Car of the Year winner.
The base wagon sells for $39,250 (manual) and $40,600 (auto).
AutoPoint road test team; words and pictures by Mike Stock.