The point, we believe, is valid. So we decided the only real answer to these durability/reliability concerns the accelerated aging process of a long-term test. From the 10-engine group of 1995's Best Engines winners, we flagged two for long-term evaluation.

Choosing two engines from our original 10 Best Engines of 1995 was difficult, but in the end we decided on one domestic and one imported engine, both in vehicles new to the market in '95: the Ford Contour SE with the 2.5L DOHC Duratec V-6 and Mazda's Millenia S, powered by the 2.3L Miller-cycle supercharged V-6 (the first Millenia report comes in Jan. '96).

We ran up more than 11,000 miles (17,700 km) in the first three months after taking delivery from Ford. We recieved the "Electric Red" Contour SE with just under 1,000 miles (1,600 km) on the odometer and not a problem worth note, other than some small interior trim pieces that some drivers thought to be poorly matched. The astested price of the well-optioned SE ($19,375) cleared a few throats, however, considering that it steps right on the heels of a "stripper" '96 Taurus.

Along with the award-winning Duratec V-6, that sort of dinero buys a Contour with an AX4N automatic transaxle, traction control/antilock brakes, remote locking, air-conditioning, power windows/locks and other minor options.

With the Duratec's 100,000-mile (161,000-km) major service interval, we're not too worried about scheduled maintenance breaking our budget. The only real service required for the first 30,000 miles is an oil/filter change every 5,000 miles (8,045 km), prudently combined with a tire rotation.

We conducted our first two scheduled maintenance visits at two seperate dealers, both of whom went about their duties with reasonable dispatch. The first dealer, however, refused to rotate the Contour's tires because the odometer read less than the mandated 5,000 miles. Both submitted bills a tad under 40 bucks, which to us seems a bit dicey for an oil change and a rotation, but that's close to what you'd pay independents for the same service.

At the second service at around 12,000 miles, we asked the dealer to take a look at a stiff throttle pedal mentioned by several drivers. A three-hour wait resulted in a blanket "No problem" pronouncement. Funny, but that pedal still feels stiff...

The Contour's logbook is primarily positive regarding the Duratec; only a slight tardiness at low revs - in part attributable to the sometimes-lazy 4-speed automatic - irritated drivers around town.

"Absolutely titanic from 70 mph to 90 mph," reads the entry of one of our more energetic drivers, "although there are a couple of flat spots where a stomp on the pedal simply will not produce the downshift you need," it continues. "Great passing power," and "90 mph or 100 mph comes up pretty easily," said others.

While the engine is so far living up to our expectations, everyone waffles about the Contour's packaging. Major complaints: rear seat room (no surprise there), marginal cup holders and the glaring omission of a tilt wheel (not coming until the Contour's first major interior redo next year, we understand). But many drivers liked the "intimacy" of the package, along with its tenacious and delightful chassis and damping that we believe is a dead-on benchmark for all compact cars.

Despite hard driving and the pounding Michigan's roads can deliver, the Contour remains airlock solid - with absolutely no squeaks or rattles. Shortly after delivery, we had the Contour independently tested for certain engine-related "baseline" performance and NVH figures; we'll compare these "as new" numbers with duplicate testing at the end of the Contour's year with WAW.

The Duratec's overall fuel economy for 11,947 miles (19,225 km): a fraction more than 27 mpg. Lotta highway mileage.