Curbside Classic: 1996 Mercury Mystique – No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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When it comes to the domestic manufacturers, the products of Ford Motor Co taken as a whole rank low on my list of desired models.  However, that’s not something any open-minded, well-informed enthusiast can apply across the board, given the multitude of different models, developed at different times, and when considering the automotive landscape of the 1990s, a lot of Dearborn’s cars shot past their domestic competitors.  An excellent example is the now forgotten Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique.  Nearly twenty years after their launch, they remain some of my favorite sedans of the ’90s, and I’ll try to do them justice.

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Coinciding with then-CEO Alexander Trotman’s “Ford 2000” Project, the Contour and Mystique’s CDW27 platform, shared with the Mondeo, was the first to truly use the company’s European product-development network to bring a new compact car to market.  When development of the new “World Car” began in 1986, the most recent Honda Accord was chosen as the car’s benchmark but as it was quickly eclipsed by newer rivals, the 1990 Nissan Primera (Infiniti G20 to North American readers) replaced it as Ford’s bogey.

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It was an ambitious project, replacing both the Tempo/Topaz in the US and the Sierra in Europe, and one which necessitated new engines, transmissions, and production facilities, all totaling about $6 billion dollars, about $9.5 billion today (and over a billion more than Saturn’s start-up costs).  A good $2 billion went into developing and producing the new CD4E automatic transmission (the same unit which spectacularly failed in the 1993-2002 Mazda 626).  Other costly developments, the twin-cam Zetec four cylinders and Duratec sixes, found their way into other Ford products.

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But what of the Contour and Mystique themselves?  They replaced two cars which often sold for less than their smaller, cheaper Escort/Tracer stablemates and were meant to both satisfy the same buyers who made their forebears so popular and to steal customers away from import showrooms.  While they were less than successful on both fronts, it had little do with the qualities of the cars themselves, with a few exceptions.

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A major initial complaint was price.  Many of the cars came to dealerships fully loaded, surprising the customers who would ordinarily be expected to look at a Ford or Mercury compact.  As this well-equipped beige example shows–its finish still reflecting the high quality paint Ford used in those years, the main goal in its design and dimensions was wooing import buyers away from the Accord, firstly, and other imports, more generally.  In this sense, it wasn’t necessarily overpriced, since it cost slightly less than the Japanese sedans it sought to compete with.

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The interiors were certainly a pleasant place to be, with generous use of upholstered surfaces in places where many competitors had abandoned cloth for vinyl (such as on the bottoms of door panels) and unexpected touches like footwell lighting and illuminated interior door handle recesses.  The firm, well bolstered seats, too, reflected the cars’ international origins, as did the thick-rimmed, small diameter steering wheel.  For even the most cynical, import buying fanatic, this airy interior made a good impression, at least where front seat passengers were concerned.

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Rear seat space was another matter.  People like to speculate that its lack was the reason for the car’s failure in the US.  While that argument makes sense, when considering the cars Ford benchmarked, and how well they sold in the US (the Accord) and in Europe (the Primera), we can see that Dearborn hoped that such generous attention to their new cars’ other qualities would more than make up for the problem.  From the looks of things, that didn’t happen, and Ford made changes to the interior of the Contour and Mystique almost yearly, first making functional improvements by scooping out the backs of the front seats, and less pleasantly, lowering the rear seat cushion, thereby trading thigh support for the head and leg room created by putting rear passengers into a knees-up position (an old, dirty packaging trick).  But by the end of the production run in 2000, decontenting lead the rest of the changes, with an ugly new center console, Mercury’s loss of its unique dash panel and the deletion of many of the illuminated cubbies and upholstered surfaces.

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What never changed were the car’s chassis dynamics, with a firm but well damped ride complementing hefty, slack-free control inputs.  The same magic evident in the Sierra, the Fiesta, the Ka and the 1999 Focus was on full display in the Contour and Mystique, a hallmark of Richard Parry-Jones’ and Jackie Stewart’s involvement in the car’s development.  This was easily the car’s greatest asset and a reason the Contour and Mystique are two of my favorite American cars, period.  None of their rivals came close to handling and riding as well and comparisons to a front-drive BMW are entirely apt, though the effect was more comparable to that of a Peugeot 405 with some of the softness and throttle adjustability removed.

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As spoiled by powerful new cars as we are in 2014, it’s hard to remember how (mostly) satisfying the new Mystique’s engines were up the car’s release twenty years ago.  Despite Mazda’s similar solutions to powering a car of this size–a two-liter, twin-cam four and a 2.5 liter quad-cam V6–Ford decided to push ahead with the development of its own new engines.  On one hand, its European front-drive compacts desperately needed new powertrains, regardless of this new model range, and on the other, the Taurus’s Vulcan V6 was becoming hoary and the Yamaha unit in the SHO was only a limited-production proposition.

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Compared to the pushrod-operated droners which it replaced, the new four-cylinder was a model of civility, and even compared to some of the throbbier large Japanese fours, was smooth and happy to rev.  The problem was, however, that by this time, most competitors were fielding more powerful base engines.  At 125 horspower and 130 lb/ft torque, it had its work cut out for it pushing 3,000 air-conditioned pounds, often latched to an automatic transmission.  Compared to the torquier 2.2-2.4 liter engines fielded by rivals, this was not enough.  At about nine seconds to sixty with a seventeen second quarter mile at 81 mph (Car and Driver, October 1994), a five-speed Mystique GS offered performance more on par with cars like the Civic, and don’t even mention the Neon.

A large capacity four, Chrysler’s solution for its JA-sedans, would have been a better option.  Mazda needed one, so it would’ve made sense for Ford to co-develop such a unit with Hiroshima for use in their new sedans and, possibly, the next Taurus, but like VW, Ford of Europe tends to shun such units.  That’s a shame, too, because large fours have served the perennially popular Japanese sedans quite well and in any case, Ford ended up using Mazda’s 2.3 it as its next generation four-cylinder in the Fusion and Focus.  Live and learn (unless you’re VW, whose solutions for the mainstream US market now consists of complex, small capacity turbo fours).

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The high-strung 2.5 liter V6 was an altogether more impressive power plant, and sold in surprisingly large numbers, with a substantial proportion were mated to five-speed transmissions, underscoring the cars’ most notable qualities.  So equipped, a Contour SE did the sixty and quarter mile benchmarks in 7.4 seconds and 15.9 seconds at 87 mph, respectively (Car and Driver, September 1994).  In testing, it scored three mpg less than its four cylinder counterpart.

When tied to an automatic, it didn’t give Camry or Maxima level performance, but in its own price class, it was good enough.  Even better, it was an uncommonly smooth and quiet unit, one which could be punched out to 3.0 for duty in larger cars, making for easy swaps into the Contour/Mystique today.  At the time, Ford claims its unique “Cosworth” casting process made it the lightest, most compact V6 of its displacement in the world.  Oddly enough, Mazda’s K-series V6 was touted for the same reasons.  If any readers have extensive experience with both these units, please share your thoughts as to how they compare.

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The V6 and the excellent chassis reached their fullest potential in the 1998-2000 Contour SVT, helping the increasingly de-contented car go out with dignity.  Unlike most of Detroit’s contemporary efforts at making a hotted-up sedan (think Spirit R/T or Grad Prix GTP), the little Ford was more than just a big engine.  With 200 naturally-aspirated horsepower from its 2.5 liters, its beefed up chassis had power to back up its large amount of grip, and at one point, Car and Driver called it the best handling car under $30k, which meant that it knocked the previous winner of that title, the Prelude SH, off its perch (though the final Mercury Cougar, which shared a dumbed-down version of the Contour and Mystique platform, couldn’t hold a candle to Honda’s coupe).

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Blaming the Contour and Mystique’s failure in the US market on its rear seat space and pricing fails to account for some of its bigger problems; namely, a lame base engine, indifferent styling and, compared to imports, a lagging reputation for quality.  The cars the Mondeo, Contour and Mystique replaced were known for their breakthrough styling when released and if such factors limited their initial appeal, they also allowed for continued their popularity through a very long production life.  The new cars, however, seemed very much like products designed with a huge reliance on consumer focus groups and, as a result came across as very generic (in the Contour’s case, even slightly formless). The Mystique, despite being the most obscure model, got the nicest set of duds, with full-width taillights and a smoothly integrated grille.

More disappointing, however, was poor crash test performance in the US, where the twins earned IIHS’s lowest rating, “poor,” in a 1995 test.  This despite pretensioners, and a very solid feel over the road.  Finally, the cars were not nearly as reliable as Japanese competitors.  The Contour and Mystique weren’t necessarily quality disasters, as material quality and fit and finish were impressive, but compared to the likes of Camry or Accord, they weren’t trouble free and when things did go wrong, they weren’t as cheap to fix as they were in the Escorts and Tempos people traded in to buy them.  Think mid ’90s VW and you won’t be far off.

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All this is simply to explain why Ford’s attempt to sell sophistication over sheer capacity or sex appeal was a bit of a failure.  As a car buff, if given the choice between a reliable, dynamically mediocre car and a shoddily built, sophisticated corner carver, I would choose the latter.  Unfortunately, most mainstream shoppers don’t necessarily feel the same.  As Ford’s first honest effort at a true world-car, it wasn’t a complete waste of money when considering how much of its power train engineering was shared with other cars, and what an immense success the Mondeo was in Europe.  Its up-to-date engineering also allowed it to be stretched, re-bodied and sold through 2007 in second generation form.

In the US, Ford let high-trim Focus sedans take the Contour’s place before eventually swallowing their pride and using Mazda’s new engines for the Focus’s facelift and along with their new midsize platform for the vastly more successful Fusion.  The man responsible for bringing the Contour to the US, Alex Trotman, is also infamous for telling Ford designers that their proposals for the 1996 Taurus weren’t “scary enough,” and forcing an over-reliance on SUVs.  He tapped Jacques Nasser as his successor and left the company to tail spin into another near-death experience. Ford’s latest recovery, ironically, can best appreciated in the excellent new world cars we see in the latest Fiesta, Focus and Fusion, developed with the same continental sophistication evident in the Contour.

Related reading: Ford’s Déjà Vu Moment, Ford Tempo – A Car I Love To Hate and Merkur XR4ti