Yes, new cars have become quite expensive. They do hit the family countinghouse with hurricane force.

But if you think they beat up on your cash flow, consider the fiscal lot of the folks who build them.Ford Motor Co. just spent $6 billion to design and produce its new "global" car, which is really a triumvirate of virtually identical compact sedans that includes the Ford Contour, the Mercury Mystique, and Ford of Europe's Mondeo.

That's a lot of money, even by big-time automaking standards, and Ford has taken some heat for that expenditure in the motor press. But the company's management team isn't populated by people who can't learn how to tie their shoes. They are sharp folks with some solid business reasons for spending those kinds of bucks.

First of all, the company gets a "totally new, world class" car that is expected to sell all over the planet at the stunning rate of 800,000 a year.

The expenditure also gives Ford a string of brand new, state of the art manufacturing facilities, including engine, transmission and final-assembly plants in Europe and North America.

Finally, a lot of the fresh componentry used in the global car, notably its nifty new engines and transmissions, can be used down the line in other Ford products.

The global car began life in Europe as the Ford Mondeo. Introduced in March 1993, the Mondeo promptly won the European Car of the Year Award, and went on to sell more than a half-million copies.

Now, it is arriving in U.S. showrooms as the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. These cars for the domestic market are really little different from their European cousin. There are cosmetic changes to the front and rear sheet metal, slight variations in suspension tuning, and that's about it.

Introducing the car in Europe first allowed Ford a luxury long enjoyed by the Japanese, who often get the bugs out of a car in another market (Japan) before introducing it in the United States.

The sporty new Contour, and its more conservatively styled sibling, the Mystique, are roomy compact sedans that will be positioned between the midsize Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable and the subcompact Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer. Their primary sparring partners will be the Pontiac Grand Am and the Nissan Altima. Technically, the Contour and Mystique are replacements for the obsolescent Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz. But that is about where the kinship ends.

The Contour and Mystique are somewhat more upscale than the Tempo/Topaz, and aimed at a younger, more affluent and more educated clientele. The market research suggests that buyers of the Contour, which starts at $13,310, will be singles and young marrieds between 25 and 40 with annual earnings of between $32,000 and $55,000. Half will be college graduates, and half will be women. The Mystique crowd will be a little older, a little richer, a little better educated, and a little more female.

In addition to their demographic differences with their predecessors, the Contour and Mystique are light years ahead in quality and sophistication.

During a recent press introduction, an industry analyst told me he thought that from a design and manufacturing standpoint, the Mondeo, Contour and Mystique are the most accomplished cars Ford has ever done at any price. After spending several days in a Contour (not a factory test car, but a vehicle diverted from a dealership), I am reluctant to argue with him. The car was a delight to drive, and the fit and finish on it were excellent. The paint work, in particular, was just superb.

My only quarrel with these cars isn't a very substantive one: I really hate their names. I mean, what kind of a car name is Contour? It sounds like a brand of adult diapers. And Mystique isn't much better. For me, that name evokes a blue-light special in the Kmart perfume department.

I just know these cars were named by a 39-year-old quality-control supervisor who keeps his ball-point pens in a vinyl pocket protector.

But enough of these petty thoughts. Let's dwell a little on my pleasant discoveries during my interlude with the Contour.

This is a handsome sedan, for openers. The styling is civilized, but with a sporty, sprightly flair. The interior is cleanly designed, ergonomic, and quite roomy. The dash is attractive, and the instruments and controls are placed where your eyes and hands have ready access to them. The seats are comfortable, and have an exceptional amount of side bolstering to hold the driver in place during fast turning maneuvers. Visibility is good, and the back seat has enough legroom for most adults to sit comfortably.

The Contour is available with two hi-tech engines: the standard, 2-liter, 16-valve four that develops 125 horsepower, and an even more sophisticated V-6. Equipped with dual camshafts and 24 valves, the all-aluminum, 2.5-liter V-6 puts out a lively 170 horsepower.

The V-6 is notable on several counts. Ford believes it to be the smallest, lightest V-6 in the world. Thanks in part to its platinum-tipped spark plugs, it is able to go 100,000 miles between tune-ups.

When equipped with this engine, as my test car was, the Contour is also fitted with a tighter suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and more performance-minded tires.

Interestingly, the test car still rode well, even with the stiffer version of Contour's fully-independent suspension. Thanks in part to the passive steering feature built into its rear suspension, the car corners well with either the standard or sport undercarriage.

By virtue of its firm, but supple suspension, and its high-revving engines, the Contour has a very European feel. This is particularly evident in the higher-performing V-6 model.

The Contour has an impressive repertoire of safety aids, and is expected to meet 1998 federal standards. These include "safety cell" body structure, standard dual air bags, and optional anti-lock brakes and traction control. The traction-control system, which employs both brake and throttle intervention, is unique in class because it operates at all speeds, not just the lower ones.

The Contour has two other significant innovations, both of them standard. One is an air-filtration system that filters out the spores and pollen that trigger hay fever and asthma. This is a feature that had been found previously only on a few luxury cars. The system is economical to maintain, requiring a filter replacement once a year, at a cost of about $20.

Also of note is the placement of the releases for the split, folding rear seat in the trunk. With this convenient touch, you don't have to go inside the car to release the back rests when you discover the cargo you want to put in the trunk is too long.