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1998 Mercury Cougar

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

The 1999 Cougar coupe is a crucial car for Ford's Mercury division.

Its mission is to inject sufficient pizzazz into the line to lure younger, more plugged in buyers looking for something different. The marketeers also are after more female buyers and more university grads.

The rest of the Merc fleet Mystique, Sable, Grand Marquis and Villager minivan is solid enough, but not exactly awash in charisma.

What's more, each has a Ford counterpart (in the Villager's case, a Nissan the Quest) undercutting its exclusivity in the marketplace.

But the Cougar is pure Mercury. In North America, anyway; in

Europe, it's sold as a Ford.

The wedgy little two-door, which went on sale in North America last May, has another claim to fame, according to its maker.

Its the first car designed in Europe, by largely Europeans, for international buyers, but built solely in the United States. Cougars are assembled at the AutoAlliance International plant, a Ford/Mazda joint venture in Flat Rock, Mich., south of Detroit.

The front-drive coupe is derived from the Mondeo sedan, which, for North American consumption, became the Contour/Mystique. It competes in the market's "small specialty car" segment. Winners there have to be affordable, good looking and fun to drive, Ford notes.

The Cougar offers two engines, borrowed from the Contique:

A 2.0 L, 125 hp, inline four, which Ford calls the Zetec.

A 2.5 L, 170 hp V6, known as the Duratec (durable technology, get it?).

The firm bills the latter, all-aluminum power plant as one of its most advanced. And hang on to your Canadian pride/Fierte canadienne – its block and head are cast exclusively in Windsor, Ont.

Cougar's SecuriLock anti-theft system is manufactured only at Ford Electronics in Markham. This is the first four-cylinder Ford product to get SecuriLock.

Both motors have double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.

The four-cylinder can be linked only to a five-speed manual transmission, while a manual or four-speed automatic is available with the V6.

A four-cylinder/automatic combo "originally was part of the equation," Ford of Canada spokesperson John Arnone said. "But it was pulled from the mix around launch time do to extremely high demand for the V6 model."

My tester was a spunky Zetec Cougar done in Laser Red, with a black cloth interior that wouldn't have been out of place to a car several classes higher.

(For an appraisal of the Duratec Cougar with five-speed manual box, see V6 Cougar passes Sin Test, by John Terauds, Wheels, July 25, page G18.)

Ford says the six-cylinder model outsells the four by a wide margin. But, with a base price of $19,995, the fuel sipping 2.0 L car certainly has an affordability edge on its more muscular sibling.

The V6 model starts at $24,295, but you can run the tab up to $28,000 or more, plus tax, if you have a taste for extras. My nicely equipped car topped out at $23,225.

Some Cougar elements that work: The New Edge styling, which features curves meeting to form creases. It's rich in surface drama and has a tomorrow air about it. The car's overall look, while a bit outre, grows on you.

And you have to love those blister style headlamps, which throw plenty of light down the road.

New Edge is said to be tricky to build, but seams on my copy lined up well (although I drove a V6 with an ill-fitting fuel panel).

The avant garde instrument panel and nicely tilted controls on the driver's door. A lot of creative effort when into this effort, and it shows.

Handling is supple and forgiving of the occasional overexuberant move. The Cougar's Euro suspension was adjusted and extensively tested to take on U.S. and Canadian roads, which are often rougher than the Old World's pampered thoroughfares.

Less successful is this coupe's back seat, confining even by the undemanding standards of the class. The scooped out seat bottom angles sharply downward to maximize headroom, but not overall comfort.

The rear side windows don't open, and you can't lower the 50/50split seatback to access the 350 L trunk from inside the car.

Zetec Cougar options include power tilt/slide sunroof ($826), side airbag system ($500), deck lid spoiler ($329) and cruise control ($312).

The Cougar nameplate dates back to the fall of 1966, when Mercury's response to the original Ford Mustang debuted as a '67 model.

The final Cougar the big, rear drive XR7 coupe arrived in 1989 and soldiered on to the end of the '97 model year, when it left us forever. Seven months later, its successor bowed in.

Some car designs look back, archly attempting to evoke past glories (the Jaguar S Type comes to mind). Others face the future in a resolute quest for new frontiers.

The '99 Cougar belongs in the second category. This imaginative little cruiser speaks to the millennium minded and does indeed pump excitement into the Mercury brand.

PRICING INFORMATION

Mercury Cougar, $19,995

Air conditioning: $1,059

Anti-lock brakes: $731

Convenience Group (remote keyless entry with cabin illumination, rear window wiper/washer: $500

Upgraded AM/FM radio with CD player: $100

Federal a/c tax: $100

Price as tested: $23,225, plus tax

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