What's New for 2002
New colors spruce up the outside, and all Cougars get the formerly optional Convenience Group (cruise, remote keyless illuminated entry and rear wiper/washer) as standard equipment. Evidently, the Zn (Zinc Yellow) feature car from 2001 failed to get buyers' pulses up, so Mercury tries again for 2002 with the XR package, which includes special red or black paint, a rear spoiler, a fake hood scoop and special logos. The Cougar C2 feature vehicle makes a return engagement for 2002. Sadly, the shelved Cougar S never materialized.
The Cougar stands out as one of the more distinctly styled vehicles on the road today. And don't expect Cougar customers to be cross-shopping for the Grand Marquis; this kitty kat is aimed at a different crowd.
Showcasing Ford's short-lived New Edge design theme, Cougar's look combines sleek, rounded main forms with creased straightedge detail. The most interesting parts of the Cougar's appearance are the cat's-eye headlamps with smoked lenses, large triangular taillights, sculpted doors and hood, and the character line that runs along the lower portion of the greenhouse.
Underneath this eye-catching skin are components that are much more familiar. The Cougar is built on the same European-engineered platform that spawned the old Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. It also shares roughly 70 percent of its parts with those two dead entry-level but fun-to-drive sedans.
As such, the Cougar is blessed with an excellent suspension, neutral handling characteristics and powerful brakes. This translates to plenty of fun on curvy roads. The only thing slowing the Cougar down is its heavy steering feel and engines that don't quite perform up to par with the car's exciting looks. Ford offers either a 125-horsepower four-cylinder engine or a 2.5-liter V6 that produces 170 horsepower. Compared to the motors found in the Acura RSX and the Volkswagen GTI, the Cougar is a bit shy on power. Traction control is available on the V6 Sport, but we aren't convinced you'll need it.
Mercury was originally planning to offer a high-performance version called the Cougar S last year, complete with the old Ford SVT Contour's stunning engine, but that car has been shelved. Instead, two special editions -- the XR and C2 -- are offered when you select the Cougar V6 Sport. The XR is sheathed in special red or black paint and rides on 17-inch machined aluminum wheels finished with black-painted ports and red center caps. It also has a rear spoiler and unconvincing fake hood scoop. The C2 gets unique French Blue paint, with French Blue instrumentation and a French Blue spoiler. The machined aluminum wheels have French Blue center caps. Why didn't they call it the Cougar FB? Because you can also get it painted in white, silver or black, too.
For all Cougar interiors, you'll find a conventional control layout with a decidedly unconventional appearance. Accessing the backseat is a breeze, thanks to a front passenger seat that slides forward when the backrest is folded and then returns to its preset position once riders are secured in back. The rear seats are firm and place the rider high in the car; taller adults will find that their heads are squashed into the headliner. Fold those seats down, and you're blessed with a huge cargo area.
A CD player is standard, which makes sense in a car marketed to young adults, and a handy six-CD in-dash changer is optional. The instrument cluster displays satin aluminum-faced gauges and graphics, and many components are finished with satin aluminum paint. Just like every other youth-oriented car sold since the Audi TT came to market a couple of years back. Side airbags are standard on V6 Sport models, but unavailable on regular Cougars. If you want ABS, you've gotta have a V6 engine.
Despite the relative lack of oomph, the Cougar still has a lot to offer. It's affordable, functional, fun to drive and neat to look at. But without more power and a diet, it can't hope to compete with cars like the Acura RSX and Toyota Celica.