UNFORTUNATELY for some, the “blueblood” establishment – Mercedes, BMW and, to a lesser extent, Audi – dominate sales in the sporty family car market segment. But there are still motorists who like to be different, who want to stand out from the crowd, and for these folk, many exciting choices are available. One of these is the Ford Mondeo, which was initially available only in 2,0-litre Ghia form. But recently, in line with its drive to regain its performance image, Ford SA introduced the ST220 (launched overseas in 2002), offering 3,0-litre V6 power in a bid to capture hearts in much the same way that the “Big Six” Cortina managed to do in the 1970s.

Our test car was finished in Ford’s “performance blue” livery, with styling sharpened over the Ghia's by the addition of tasteful sporty extras such as aggressive front and rear skirts, a slim spoiler on the bootlid, and the ultimate “go-faster” giveaway, twin tailpipes, set far apart and neatly integrated into the rear bumper. The rear end still provides a modern-looking appearance, even though this Mondeo's shape has been around since 2000.

The ST sits lower than the standard models, with firmer springs to enhance handling finesse. To complete the stance, there are striking 18-inch, multispoke alloy wheels. Keeping all those spokes shiny might take a fair bit of effort, however.

Longitudinally-mounted castiron V6 powerplants such as the much-loved old Essex engine have long since given way to more modern installations. So the ST features a transversely-mounted 3,0-litre, quad-cam V6 unit that is very refined. The number –220 – in the name, as with some other members of Ford’s stable, refers to the engine's approximate output in horsepower. This may not work too well locally, as some onlookers assumed that this number referred to an engine size of 2,2 litres.

The gearbox is a new, lightweight design, produced with the help of Getrag. It uses twin layshafts with six forward ratios and two final drive ratios, one for first to fourth gears, and the second coping with fifth, sixth and reverse.

The interior ambience is more executive than sporty, the raciest items being the pair of superb leather Recaro front seats, which offer excellent side support and full adjustment, including squab tilt via electric motors (though the controls are a squeeze to reach between seat and door pocket). Heating is also provided for the front seats, but perhaps a different sort of warmth, in the form of body colour inserts (as offered on the Focus ST170), might have added extra zing to the interior.

That said, the all-black cabin is classy, with high quality materials and a good standard of fit. To break the sombre look, Ford has used instruments with aluminium-coloured bevels and white backgrounds, with the steering wheel also fitted with short aluminium spokes.

With the extensive range of seat adjustment and a fully adjustable steering wheel, anyone should be able to find a decent driving position. The only poorlywhich is mounted much too close to the driver’s left knee. Controls on the audio unit itself match the rest by using aluminium buttons, but these are rather small and awkward to use. The volume control knob, in particular, could be bigger, although this might then come a bit close to one’s left hand when changing gears. The digital display for the sound system is positioned behind a plastic panel that reflects sunlight and hampers visibility.

There is no left-foot rest, but there is lots of room to stretch your left leg. Interior space is no problem in the Mondeo, and legroom and headroom are generous all-round. To gain access to the respectably dimensioned luggage compartment from inside the car, release catches must first be actuated from within the boot, a welcome theft deterrent.

Performance is very impressive even though the ST does not initially feel fast. The power builds up progressively, becoming more evident between 3 000 and 4 000 r/min, when a shove on the loud pedal results in immediate forward thrust. Top speed was very impressive at a true 242 km/h, and the sprint to 100 km/h was dispatched in 7,55 seconds, certainly quick enough for most. The speedometer was pretty accurate at cruising speeds, but became slightly optimistic at higher velocities, reading 250 km/h at our recorded maximum.

The gearshift has a mediumweighted mechanical feel, and the action is precise and pleasant to use. However, springing is heavy – maybe just as well, because reverse is engaged by pushing the lever to the left and forward with no detent collar for safety. The clutch also needed more muscle than usual to engage. For the lazy amongst us, gear changes may be skipped with ease, the engine easily able to cope with speeds below 1 000 r/min.

Fuel consumption worked out to 12,17 litres/100 km, not too bad for a car with 166 kW on tap. The fuel gauge dropped alarmingly quickly from full to half, but at this point the tank would only take about 20 litres to fill up again.

Although the brakes need a very hefty boot to get retardation underway (unusual for a car equipped with brake assist), our emergency stop test showed that the ABS system does its job, recording an average stopping time from 100 km/h of 2,81 seconds, slightly better than we recorded with the 2,0-litre Ghia.

Handling is, in a word, excellent. There is hardly any discernable body roll, turn-in is quick and there is super grip from the low profile 225/40 section tyres. The only downside to this is that the composed and cosseting ride of the standard Mondeo has evolved into one that transmits small bumps into the cabin, though this was only evident on rough roads. On smooth tarmac, the ride is excellent. Road noise on rough surfaces is on the high side, but not unacceptable for a sports-orientated vehicle with low profile tyres. On the other hand, the engine and exhaust sounds are both very subdued for a performance car, not a bad thing, considering the Mondeo’s equally important family car role.

Traction control and ESP are integrated into the Bosch ABS system. And, from a passive safety aspect, dual stage front airbags are fitted, supplemented by side airbags and front and rear curtain airbags.

Test summary

The 2,0 Ghia is an impressive enough package, but the ST220 adds a combination of stylish, aggressive looks, great sports seats, and a refined 3,0-litre engine with a strong gearbox to provide a more sporting character. Driver controls are slightly heavier, but not to the extent of being unpleasant, rather conveying a message of strength and durability. Comfort and interior space are better than average. All the usual executive-style luxuries are included as standard, and there is a five-year, 100 000 km maintenance plan. The Mondeo ST220 stands out from the more usual sports saloons on our roads, providing a touch of individuality that many will appreciate.