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Depending on how old you are, you probably have different recollections of the Mercury Cougar: Baby boomers will likely remember the original V8-powered pony car and its evolutionary change into a big, personal luxury coupe. Car enthusiasts of a younger vintage are probably more familiar with the Cougar as a small, spry front-wheel-drive sport coupe. About the only common link between all Cougars is their Ford genetics.
Debuting in 1967, the first Mercury Cougar was closely related to the second-generation Mustang. Mercury's version was marketed as being more plush and European. Coupe and convertible versions were offered, and this was the first time that "XR-7" appeared as an option package. From a performance standpoint, these early Cougars were highly regarded, especially as they could be equipped with a variety of powerful V8 engines.
By the mid-1970s, however, the focus on performance had diminished. The Mercury Cougar of this era was more of a personal luxury car. Mercury even experimented with sedan and station wagon variants. The Cougar finally settled into its role as a luxurious coupe at the dawn of the 1980s. As a close relative of the Thunderbird (atop Ford's new "Fox" chassis), the Cougar remained rear-wheel drive and could be V6- or V8-powered.
With consumer tastes shifting away from this type of vehicle in the 1990s, Mercury cut all previous ties for the Cougar's final iteration. As a smaller front-wheel-drive coupe with a focus on style, this Cougar was meant to draw in young buyers who otherwise perceived the Mercury brand as being old and out of touch. However, this approach didn't quite work as well as Mercury had hoped. Faced with disappointing Cougar sales, Mercury finally pulled the plug on one of its most popular and well-known nameplates in 2002.
Most recent Mercury Cougar
The Mercury Cougar spanning from 1999 to 2002 was based on the Ford Contour (and the associated Mercury Mystique), a small sedan with European breeding. Mercury hoped these underpinnings would give the Cougar a sparkling on-road personality while the coupe's sharp "New Edge" styling did the rest, yet this generation of Cougar never met with much success. Some say the car's branding as a Mercury ruined its chances with the younger consumers the company was after, though our experience with the car gives us a few theories of our own.
The Cougar had the makings of a credible entry-level sport coupe thanks to its accurate handling, head-turning exterior styling and an available 2.5-liter V6 with a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic. It also had a generally well-laid-out and comfortable interior (rear seats excepted), a surprisingly utilitarian hatchback body style and a price that was considerably less than other competing models of the time.
On the other hand, the car was merely adequate in a lot of ways. Steering feel was heavy, and acceleration was nothing special, even with the 170-horsepower V6 (the standard four-cylinder put out a meager 125 hp). Outward visibility was also poor. In a comparison test of six sport coupes we conducted in 2001, the Mercury Cougar finished last.
Needless to say, this wasn't one of our favorite sport coupes. Shoppers still interested in a used Cougar from this vintage, however, can pretty much look at any year, as Mercury didn't make any significant changes during the model's four-year run. Slightly altered front styling went into the '01 model, when the instruments and steering wheel were also revised. For the Cougar's final year, Mercury released the 35th Anniversary Package with chrome wheels, hood scoop and an in-dash CD changer. There were also a few special appearance packages, such as the C2, the Zn ("Zinc Yellow") and the XR.
Past Mercury Cougar models
The last and best of the traditional Mercury Cougars came along in 1989. Along with the still-related Thunderbird, the Cougar was redesigned atop a new chassis with an independent rear suspension, and to everyone's surprise, gave up its V8. Instead, this Mercury Cougar used a pushrod 3.8-liter V6 with 140 hp (supercharged to 210 hp in upscale XR-7 trim).
The 1991 model year saw the demise of the five-speed manual transmission and the dropping of the supercharged V6 in favor of Ford's classic 4.9-liter pushrod V8, rated at 200 hp. A better 205-hp 4.6-liter SOHC V8 replaced it in 1994, when the body got a styling refresh and the motorized seatbelts were traded for dual airbags. More styling changes came in 1996, and the interior was made over for the Cougar's last year in 1997.
The basics stayed consistent throughout this Cougar's model cycle. A 200-inch-long body, roughly 3,600 pounds of weight and numb steering kept it from being truly sporty, but rear-wheel drive and the all-independent suspension gave it respectable handling and a rather serene ride. Acceleration was fine with any engine besides the basic V6, though gas mileage was pretty dismal regardless. Interiors are attractive (despite Ford's old hard-to-use radio) and four adults will fit, though the Cougar's interior space and comfort are more in line with that of a midsize car than its size and weight suggest.
There are definitely smaller, lighter, faster, more efficient ways to cruise the streets in two-door style, but if rear-drive, a V8, a decent-size backseat and a low price are of top importance (and muscle cars aren't your thing), this generation of the Mercury Cougar is probably a pretty good pick.