Oblivious to one of the Midwest's nastiest winters in memory, our long-term test cars didn't stop rolling for even a day.

Ford Motor Co.'s stupefyingly agile Contour SE and Mazda Motor Corp.s' surprisingly complete Millenia S both feature top-notch traction-control systems that abide no nonsense from foul weather.

The Millenia's traction control was editor-in-chief Dave Smith's unflappable copilot for a deep-snow trip into Michigan's northern peninsula. "It got me out of some tough spots," is his terse logbook entry.

The Millenia's power-packed 2.3L Miller-cycle V-6 remains a startling powerplant. Frequent oil-level checks -- some of us worried this engine might be a lubrication burner -- proved a waste of time. At no time in this car's 24,000-odd miles (38,600 km) has the Miller-cycle required the addition of any oil between scheduled services.

The amazing Miller-cycle moves the biggish Millenia with astonishing, calm authority. One editor's relative, a man accustomed to big American iron, simply refused to believe there are just 2.3 litres pulling the Millenia. With the Millenia's instant-on supercharger, most drivers don't miss the displacement deficit; in fact, some think the Miller-cycle V-6's performance is equal to that of the 3L V-8 that powers BMW AG's 5 series.

We've noticed just two problems with the Miller-cycle. First, the power delivery is at times slightly unpredictable. Sometimes a prod of the throttle whips the tiny V-6 into a delightful, power-producing frenzy, while the same throttle input at a similar engine load might on a different day produce a markedly more lackadaisical response. Perhaps related to this, we've also found the Miller to be somewhat sensitive to fuel quality, a particular annoyance since the engine requires premium-grade fuel.

The Miller-cycle requires normal service at every 7,500 miles (12,075 km) and nothing major has broken, so we haven't seen much of the dealers. The dealer performing the 15,000-mile (24,150 km) scheduled service looked after a sticky brake light switch that also played tricks on the cruise control and fixed the funky, chunky-knobbed radio after its funky, chunky knobs got gummed up with spillage from the cup holder.

We initially felt bad for Mazda, replacing a perfectly good radio simply because of gunked-up controls, but they deserve it for placing the wimpy cupholder in such an inane location.

The dealer did it all in one day, though, and Mazda sent the radio, in a remarkable example of just-in-time parts stocking, overnight. Our only dismay: The dealer found some way to jack us to the tune of $127.13 for what should have amounted to little more than a charge for an oil/filter change -- something that had twice before cost just 30 bucks. All the other problems were covered under the Millenia's bumper-to-bumper 3/36 warranty.

Meanwhile, Ford's Contour SE and its coltish 2.5L Duratec V-6 continues as a staff favorite. We've come to overlook the Contour's smallish interior, uh, contours in consideration of the car's truly remarkable dynamic qualities -- and the satisfying performance of the Duratec V-6.

We've got to mention it again, just so everybody's straight on this one: The Contour's steering "feel" is absolutely spot-on, and its power-assistance is equally perfect. Wrap that in with a chassis that runs almost dead flat in even the hardest cornering and you've got the best-handling American car of all time. Best of all, although the Contour SE's ride is definitely firm, it's rarely harsh.

But that wonderful steering did give us some fits. The Contour's power steering pump whined and fussed as soon as the temperatures dropped, and it continued even when the engine was fully warm. Repeated attempts for relief at the dealership finally met with a technician willing to listen to our description of the symptoms. Pump replaced, problem gone.

For the 30,000-plus miles (48,280 km) that the Contour's been in Ward's charge, the Duratec V-6 has exhibited only one problem -- a faulty idle-speed sensor, replaced under warranty.

The Duratec's right at home with 80-mph (129 km/h) cruises -- and readily accommodates three-figure speed requirements, if that's your thing. Our only quibbles with the Duratec amount to a heavy flywheel feeling that makes the engine a tad stingy with the horses until some significant rpm is shown on the tachometer, and the 4-speed electronically controlled transmission, which also at times doesn't always allow one to get at the power.

This engine is a delight in the higher rpm ranges and we simply wish it would "spin up" a bit faster. We've noticed 5-speed equipped contour SEs permit the Duratec more latitude in this matter.

Dave Smith's recent logbook entry sums up our feelings to date about the Contour SE: "As a former Tempo owner, the Contour is like night and day -- sophistication versus old, doggie plodder!"