(first posted 3/19/2013) Although the powertrain provided adequate motivation, no one would ever mistake one of the vast majority of Tempo/Topazes with a milquetoast 2.3-liter, four cylinder engine and three-speed automatic for any flavor of sports car. But would the addition of a Vulcan V6 engine make it at least sporty?
When the original Tempo/Topaz debuted back in 1983 (as a 1984 model) it was clothed in aerodynamic styling that might have presaged the daring 1986 Taurus. Despite its sealed-beam headlights, it was certainly more slippery than anything in its price range offered by GM and Chrysler; what’s more, the improved aerodynamics paid off in less wind noise and better fuel economy than its rear-wheel drive Zephyr predecessor. While the front-wheel drive Tempo/Topaz might have looked like a brand new design, it actually borrowed heavily from the Ford Escort; it sat on what was essentially a stretched Escort platform (the Tempo/Topaz did use a different rear suspension, but the cars were very similar to the Escort from the firewall forward), and the inevitable weight gain meant the Escort’s CVH engine would no longer do.
Instead of using the 2.3-liter OHC inline four found in such various rear-wheel drive vehicles as the Mustang, Thunderbird and Ranger, Ford chose to develop another 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. Looking to the past for a strong and torquey motor, Ford based the new engine’s design on the old inline six from the Ford Falcon by basically cutting off two cylinders and updating it to 1980s acceptability with a feedback carburetor (multi-port fuel injection would be fitted later). The result was about as far from sporty as one could imagine. The engine quickly ran out of breath and was quite thrashy, even at moderate rpm. What it was, though, was an engine very well-suited to a three-speed automatic and the driving style of most North Americans. While the standard manual transmission eked out more miles per gallon and trimmed down 0-60 times, the 2.3-liter’s low-end torque characteristics did not encourage enthusiastic driving. A Mazda-sourced diesel engine was also available during the car’s early years.
The suspension was a bit mundane, with struts front and rear, but at least it was fully independent–certainly a cut above some of the rear straight axles used by its competitors. Brakes were class-standard front discs and rear drums. The four-cylinder models did without a rear anti-roll bar, but you can bolt in one from a V6 model if you were so inclined. I’ve had a lot of time behind the wheel of a couple of base-model L coupes, and the body roll can be pretty dramatic. Steering was rack-and-pinion; on the first generation it could be had with or without power assist, but after 1988 only power steering was offered. The phrase “unremarkable but competent” comes to mind when describing the handling (and perhaps the whole car).
In 1988, the Tempo/Topaz sedans received a exterior redesign, although under the skin things remained pretty much the same. The Tempo received a grille featuring thick horizontal bars; the Topaz, aiming to be different, sported a grille of thin vertical bars. Topaz four-door sedans also got a more upright, formal roof line.
While the sedans got a full makeover, the coupes soldiered on, with a face lift most noticeable up front, thanks to new grilles and composite headlights in place of sealed beams. The rear tail lights were also changed a bit, but their overall shape remained similar. If you look closely at the two-doors, you’ll notice that the front bumper is higher than the rear bumper as a result of blending the restyled front end into the otherwise largely unchanged body. They even tried to hide the fact that the bumper rub strips don’t line up by using a thicker front strip, but once you’re aware of it, it’s impossible not to notice.
The interior was redesigned for both two- and four-door models. I always thought the first generation had a more vertical design, and the second generation more of a horizontal layout that is (at least to my eyes) much more attractive. I do have to say that the two rotary dials flanking the gauge cluster work very well. The block of buttons for the HVAC system was a little less intuitive, but they worked well enough once you’d memorized the layout.
Actually, it wasn’t uncommon for a button’s face to fall off after a while. I distinctly remember repairing the rear defrost button on my parents’ car with a bit of plastic model-kit glue. It took a bit of the black paint off at the edge, but the repair held up for the rest of their ownership.
The 1992 model year brought another visual refresh that included body color bumpers and trim. The bumper height mismatch was now much harder to notice. Once again, grilles were updated: The Mercury got a fake light bar, while the Ford received a body color grill. As seen on our otherwise rather nice example, the light bars tended to yellow with age.
Back to the crux of our sporty argument – the V6 engine. Starting in 1992 a 3.0-liter Vulcan engine was borrowed from the Taurus. Although a redesigned camshaft made it a bit less powerful, it still made a healthy-for-the-car-size-and-era 130 hp (135 hp in 1994), with 150 ft-lb of torque. When combined with the Tempo/Topaz’s relatively low weight, it yielded an entirely respectable 0-60 mph time of 7.8 seconds, and a quarter-mile run of 16.1 seconds at 85 mph. Because the five-speed manual gearbox from the four-cylinder car couldn’t handle the V6’s torque, a similar but stronger gearbox from the high-performance Taurus SHO was used (which opens up visions of a SHO DOHC V6-powered Tempo/Topaz for those of us who enjoy imagining possible engine swaps). While the wiring would likely be the biggest challenge and you’d have a fast car to show for it, at the end of the day you’d be left with a Tempo/Topaz that’s not (yet?) retro-cool in the way a Pinto is.
The small V6 badge ahead of the driver’s door is the only visual indication that this Topaz packs an extra two cylinders.
Our featured car is a GS, which means it is not the ultimate in Tempo/Topaz sportiness. That honor belongs to the Tempo GLS/Topaz XR5 two-door and the LTS four-door. Besides a standard V6, they came with stiffened shock absorbers, a thicker front anti-roll bar up front and a rear anti-roll bar. One-size-larger 15” aluminum rims (from the old Escort GT and EXP) completed the performance upgrades, and additional body cladding, fog lights and two-tone paint rounded out the visual upgrades. Inside were a leather-wrapped steering wheel, upgraded door trim, sporty gauge cluster and bucket seats.
Given that the base Tempo/Topaz was by then a rather old design, the GLS/XR5/LTS did not sell in huge numbers and thus were available only in 1992. With a total production of 4,203 units (including Fords and Mercurys in both body styles), they were rare even when new. With a mere 464 copies made, the Mercury Topaz XR5 was the rarest variant of all, and given the generally poor Tempo/Topaz survival rate, I have to wonder how many exist today. Does this mean you should scour the country looking for one to stash away in the hope of cleaning up at Barrett-Jackson in 2020? I wouldn’t count on it–but in any case, you’d have one of the most rare Ford Motor Company performance specials of the 1990s!
The whole Tempo/Topaz line bowed out after 1994 to be replaced by the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique.