Curbside Capsule: 1985 Mercury Topaz – Unpolished Gemstone

I’ve ragged on the Mercury Topaz and Ford Tempo before for sticking around far too long, for using a bizarre, low-tech four-cylinder engine, and for setting a dangerous precedent for Ford. After all, the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique were effectively sabotaged by their predecessors’ penchant for incentives and fire-sale prices, teaching customers that a Ford compact had to be dirt-cheap. Earlier in the Tempo and Topaz’s run, however, they were a bit less objectionable.

Oh, sure, the idea of cutting down the ancient Falcon six to make the 2.3 “High Swirl Combustion” four-cylinder is simply laughable. GM did the same thing around this too, fashioning the 1.9 “Starfire” four out of an old Holden six and shoving it into a Holden Commodore that was far too heavy for it to be of any use. How often does this “make a little engine out of a bigger engine” work, anyway?

The Tempo and Topaz, however, looked the part. They used a modified version of the Ford Escort platform – a modern, front-wheel-drive platform and a solid basis for a Fairmont/Zephyr replacement – and were clothed in thoroughly contemporary styling.

The compact twins helped pave the way for the later Taurus’s acceptance by buyers. Of course, the Audi 5000 appeared to give Ford the inspiration for the Taurus, though Ford of course had been experimenting with aerodynamic concepts for several years at this point.

Nevertheless, releasing production vehicles that appeared to crib stylistically from more expensive European brands was something Ford had done before (Granada) and would do again – witness the Volkswagen-esque styling of the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego or the Aston Martin-esque grille of the Ford Fusion. But the Tempo/Topaz gave buyers a taste of more aerodynamic styling and helped transition Ford from the blockiness of the Fairmont and Granada to the sleekness of the Taurus.

It wasn’t just the exterior that impressed. The interior, too, looked pleasantly modern, with a dashboard design that still looks contemporary. The cabin of this base Topaz GS is in remarkably good condition, the owner taking exceedingly good care of their little Mercury. It’s also a non-smoker car, as that Turkish sign at the base of the center stack implores. Some contemporary reviews quibbled the cabin felt claustrophobic due to the high belt-line and thick pillars. That’s probably another reason it still looks so modern!

The Tempo and Topaz were 19.3 inches shorter than their Fairmont and Zephyr predecessors – 6.5 inches of that in the wheelbase – but sedan vs. sedan, they had identical rear legroom. They were 2.7 inches narrower, however, which was felt in the reduction of shoulder room.

Alas, the Tempo and Topaz were – unlike the Lincoln MKT recently featured here – pretty wrappers for rather uninspiring cars. The underpinnings may have appeared impressively modern for a domestic compact (four-wheel independent suspension!) but the suspension tuning was off, with poor bump control but flaccid handling.

Then there was that engine, referred to by some critics as a “tractor” engine. At least this Topaz has the five-speed stick so the owner could wring as much out of the pushrod lump as possible. Ford considered putting a 1.6 engine in the Tempo and Topaz as a base offering but wisely chose not to. Instead, the “HSC” four was offered in two different tunes – one with 86 hp at 4000 rpm and 124 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm, the other with 100 hp at 4600 rpm and 125 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm. Optional was a 2.0 diesel from Mazda, producing 52 hp at 4000 rpm and 82 ft-lbs at 2400 rpm – it stuck around for a few years but was gone by 1987.

In late 1985, the five-speed manual, previously an option, was now standard. Reverse also moved from the top-left to the bottom-right, allowing me to successfully pin down the year of this Topaz. The following year, both cars received flush, composite headlights.

As early as 1987, Consumer Guide was saying the car had dated quickly. At that point, an import rival would be about to go through a generational changeover. Not the Tempo and Topaz.

Ford would make some refreshing changes of the Tempo and Topaz’s run, from the option of all-wheel-drive (1987-91), a driver’s airbag (1985 onwards), the Taurus’s 3.0 Vulcan V6 (1992-94) and sporty models with nameplates like Topaz XR5. They never, however, gave the cars a four-speed automatic, nor did they ever replace the hoary old four.

Ford may have kept the styling contemporary, inside and out, but again it was a handsome wrapper concealing a disappointing car. One that Ford had to give bargain-basement pricing, sometimes even undercutting the second-generation Escort, so when Ford finally introduced a modern, sweet-handling, legitimately European compact, there were far fewer takers. Why pay that much for a compact Ford, after all?

Photographed in Strathcona, Vancouver, British Columbia in June 2019.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1988-94 Ford Tempo & Mercury Topaz – Sabotaging Yourself Is Easy

COAL: 1992 Ford Tempo GLS – SHO Little Brother That You Didn’t Know Existed