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.
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
Back in my Car Rental Manager days, Ford Motor Company would “comp” us a top of the line model for every 50? plane jane modeIs. I had that exact V6 model shown. The same color. It was fast, but the 3 speed automatic was awful!! It was wound tight at high speeds. I preferred the V6 Probe that we had at the same time.
One of these with a 145 hp 3.0 V-6 would be fun to me, I didn’t mind high revs like I do now but the handling would be…uninspiring.
My only experience with the Tempaz was when the local Ford dealer was flogging ’87 & ’88 models in 1991 for $1999 (might have been $2999) and offering financing. They had 50 or so of them, and they must have come from a rental company. Some had obvious damage (my friend bought one that was in good shape otherwise but was missing a back seat, the salesman put a non color matched cushion) or mechanical issues. The test drive was not enough to convince me or my then-wife to buy, as we each needed commuters for our 60 mile a day round trip, we decided to stay with our 100,000 mile Subarus
Alright, I’ll admit that the interior is in excellent condition and that this likely helped move these cars when new, I don’t think I’ve seen one that good in over thirty years now. That seat material was very comfortable, Ford was doing a good job on that back then.
I drove a few as rentals, always the three speed automatic, the last time in 1992 when we took a vacation to Colorado with our then one year old son. Not fun on winding back roads, but even the handling was better than the lack of power at 10000 feet above sea level. For reference our family car at home then was a Wasserboxer Vanagon, but at least that had four speeds to pick from.
Wow, very nice, unmolested find! I can’t remember the last time I saw a first generation Topaz, and the last first generation Tempo may very well have been the one owned by a classmate and friend’s parents when I was in kindergarten over 20 years ago!
Certainly the availability of the driver’s airbag in 1985 is a typo. By my knowledge, Ford didn’t begin offering SRS systems until required in 1990. The Taurus, released AFTER the Tempo/Topaz did not offer an airbag until it’s 1990 refresh.
THat being said, this article is really well written, and I enjoyed reading about it. This car is one of my guilty pleasures. I get especially excited about encountering one with the little All Wheel Drive badge. Kinda like seeing the 4WS badge on 3rd-gen Preludes. 🙂
I owned one, this car’s near-identical twin but with a 4 speed stick and vinyl seats (an ’84 so the interior was also a lighter gray). It had been babied and done under 70,000 miles in 10 years but it aged quickly. I was 20 and ran it harder than it had been used to but I was a long way from hooning it. Note that all of the below took place in one year and maybe 10k miles.
Even at that age more than a 25-mile drive would make my back hurt because of those Ford seats that forced you to slouch whether you wanted to or not. And that was before one of the stamped-sheetmetal hinges that support the backrest failed. The parking brake never worked and the service brake blew a seal forcing a very cautious limp home topping up brake fluid as I went.
The engine both burned and leaked oil, not enough of either to be obnoxious but enough to keep me feeding el-cheapo Kmart “Motorvator” oil into it without ever needing to take any out – self-changing oil! I was told the Ford 2.3 could blow at any time and wasn’t worth fixing by my cousins who knew cars.
Finally a glancing blow with a deer took away any possibility of it being worth putting through inspection for another year. Really, the broken driver’s seat back months before should’ve taken it off the road at least until it was fixed – I’m damn lucky I didn’t hit the deer head on with a seat propped up by a broom.
I put in a new sealed-beam headlight and very crudely fixed the turn signal with a new bulb and amber lens tape, drove it until the sticker ran out and started looking for another $500 beater.
For this car to have survived another 20 years, either Ford really did make quality Job 1 for 1985 or someone really put a lot into keeping this pile of parts rolling in as tight formation as it is.
Between a Corsica and a Tempo #IDK which one was a bigger #blahhhhhhhh to drive?
The 3.0 V6 from the Taurus did work wonders for the gutless Tempo/Topaz; as did the V6 engine option in the Corsica. At least when V6 powered they were peppy enough from stoplight to stoplight.
My memories of driving a Tempo and a Corsica, both with 4 cylinder engines and automatic transmissions are that the Chevy was so slightly better…like Splenda or Equal. The assembly quality was also about the same.
Considering the near identical power outputs, I don’t understand why Ford didn’t use the Escort engines. When the Tempo debuted in 84 the Escort GT had a high output engine that produced the same 84 horsepower that the 2/3rd of a 6 cylinder produced.
My understanding is that Ford wanted to use the Escort’s engine. However, they didn’t have the capacity to build enough of them, and being the early 1980’s there was no money to expand their factories either. The engine the Tempaz did get was what Ford was able to do cheaply with already existing tooling and assembly lines. Which was basically chopping 2 cylinders off of an otherwise obsolete I6 engine from the 60’s.
While the above could be excused, what can’t be excused is not updating the power train at all, even well into the 90’s. I guess it was cheap and sold well enough, so Ford decided not to bother.
“so when Ford finally introduced a modern, sweet-handling, legitimately European compact, there were far fewer takers.”
Well, a legitimately European compact that had far less room in back. The Tempaz was an appealing package let down by cheap mechanicals, while the Contour was the opposite – an appealing drive let down by an interior far too small for the class. Turns out the Tempaz was the more durable of the two as well, at least in my experience.
I thought these were good looking cars early in their runs, preferring those before the mid-cycle refresh.
Once Ford got the bugs worked out (around 1986), along with the switch to fuel injection (same year), these became a Falcon six for the late 1980s. Not much in the way of driving excitement, although their interiors were a cut above the GM and Chrysler competition in both design and materials.
The exterior styling was also better. It was radical for this class at the time. It’s hard for some to realize how radical it was because the Tempo and Topaz, along with the late Taurus and Sable, made the aero-look the “default” style for middle-market family sedans.
The 1988 restyle was handsome, in my view, and still better than what GM and Chrysler were offering in that class at the time. Too bad Ford didn’t see fit to also upgrade the drivetrain with a more modern and refined engine.
‘How often does this “make a little engine out of a bigger engine” work, anyway?’
Fairly often. The Chevy II four and six used the same architecture. Pontiac cut a V8 in half to make a 4, as did International Harvester. Buick chopped off two cylinders from its V8 to make a long-lasting V6. In WWII, Ford turned a V12 aircraft engine into a V8 tank engine. I’m sure there are other examples from the British, German and Japanese manufacturers.
Also chevy took off 2 cylinders off the small block v8 to make the 1978 Malibu v6 200 c I
Which later became the 4.3 v6
With some extra engineering Ford probably could have made a sweet engine and built a big following. They certainly had the engineering talent available and could see what Toyota et. al. were doing right with 4 cylinders. How different would the market be today if Ford had built a great 4 cylinder. Same goes for GM.
The trifecta of complete failure… uncompetitive 3-speed automatic…. uncompetitive/worst-in-class 2.3L engine (particularly early iterations with CFI), and frumpy styling (poor bumper integration, poor tread width, poorly defined wheel arches and small tires). All-in-all, it was a very expensive boat anchor.
I appreciate the differentiation these early Tempo/Topaz had from each other, much like early Taurus/Sables. You could tell they were clearly related but well beyond badge jobs like the previous Fairmonts/Zephyrs.
It never ceases to amaze me how Ford had a cross flow OHC four cylinder a full decade earlier in a bottom of the barrel compact car through the 70s and went backwards to a reverse flow pushrod design whose architecture wasn’t even that good in 1960 in the 80s. The HSC seemed like a undeserved fancy acronym to compliment the troublesome but at least ambitious CVH in the Escort.
I always preferred the looks of the early Tempo since the 6 window greenhouse with spoked alloys looked a lot like the Sierra. My only experience driving these was with rentals in 93-94 where the most memorable feature was a bar in the seat frame that gave me backaches.
The styling of these cars has aged pretty well—surprising to me given that I thought they were horrid when new. Rarely has the styling of a new car affected me as negatively as these did. I thought they were dopey looking, heavy looking due to the thick proportions and rounded window corners, and unspeakably dull. Inside I found them cramped and squishy, and the out-of-round steering wheel didn’t say much for quality, even before firing up the lumpy four. They made me sad for America.
Now, it is easier for me to see how they led to the Taurus, with the kinship quite evident in the refreshed version. Not sure if my eyes didn’t know how to look at them then, and if the relationship to the Taurus, of which I was an instant fan, is simply easier to see in retrospect. I might have to admit that I find the coupe version borderline attractive.
The Tempaz seemed so much “less car” (one size class below) than predecessor Fairmont/Zephyr.
I remember these cars having terrible front ends with garbage ball joints that often failed even with low mileage. They also had those terrible motorized retracting belts in the later 80’s onward and when a driver’s airbag was ordered in the 90’s you lost the ability to purchase cruise control and tilt wheel which always struck me as bizarre.
Somebody over at Ford must have been really drunk or high when coming up with an engine for this lump too. They actually thought the 200 OHV six was so good in the Fairmont that it would be a good idea to chop off 2 cylinders and create the HSC 2.3 for the Tempo/Topaz family? Why why why? They already had the 2.3 OHC for goodness sakes. And to add insult to injury they carbureted the first year’s engine in 1984! GM did the same thing with the Cavalier and other J-body cars but that was 2 years prior. Why didn’t Ford have TBI ready from the beginning?
My dad suffered through ownership of a silver 1989 Tempo sedan that we just could not unload at the dealer. It had close to 100K (probably why it didn’t sell) but ran okay and shockingly had very little rust on the body being 6 years old at the time. It had a replaced 3 speed automatic but for some reason we could not get it to shift properly. It either upshifted at 15 MPH or held first gear until 40 MPH! No happy medium. The motorized belts drove dad nuts. So did that transmission where he had to manually hold it in gear to get anything resembling passing power. The A/C didn’t work and we never bothered to fix it. The trunk leaked. So did the valve cover even after several re-seals and the interior was a cacophony of squeaks and rattles. Dad kept it for 2 years and then we put it back out on the lot as a cheap Winter rat where it eventually did sell. About the only good thing I can say for these was that I preferred the styling to the boxy K-cars of the time and even the older J-bodys.
The last brand-new car I’ve ever owned was a 1985 Ford Tempo. My former wife drove it until it died.
No, it wasn’t anything other than basic transportation. But it did that job well.
Despite the slight rust this car looks great for its age. The aerodynamic body paired with sealed beam headlights is just so 1980s you got to love it.
Recollections of hiring one of these (a Ford Tempo TBH) in I think late 92 and being completely underwhelmed to the extent that I can’t recall anything further about it.
And, I admit, I didn’t see the Sierra-esque styling as clearly as I do now. Not sure it works, with thick pillars and seemingly recessed windows. Some will say the window shapes are supposed to echo the Porsche 928 and Boeing 737 cockpit windows. I think they look too small and, so did Ford based on the 1985(?) refresh
My sister had an ’85 Topaz GS sedan, dark slate blue with the 5-speed. Not a bad car to drive for a young family, but nothing exciting. I do remember it had a really nice interior and a nice paint job. Her father-in-law had a used car lot, so she had a new car about every year for a while. When kid #2 came along, away went the Topaz, replaced by a white Sable LS wagon. That was a nice car!