Curbside Musings: 2000 Mercury Cougar V6 – I Am Not What I Was

2000 Mercury Cougar. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, July 30, 2023.

This Cougar was my second, notable Mercury find this summer, the first being an ’03 Marauder I had seen only a few blocks away from this silver coupe.  I say “notable” because I’m sure I’ve seen some Mountaineers and Mariners around in my peripheral vision, and maybe even the stray Montego, but the final Cougar has always been special as the last Mercury that stirred anything inside of me.  I remember seeing one new for the first time, parked in a display area inside a mall in Tampa.  My friends and I spent a good five minutes or so examining that gleaming black example, and we all seemed to concur that it was genuinely cool.  My insurance career was in its infancy, and I was a young professional at work in my first, post-college career job.  I was driving a teal-colored ’94 Ford Probe at the time, and this new ’99 Cougar was its spiritual successor.

1999 Mercury Cougar spec sheet was sourced from the internet.

I still roll my eyes when I hear or read that others don’t consider this car a “real” Cougar.  Allow me to digress, and I will circle back as to why.  It has been my observation that others are resistant to when we personally change or grow in some significant way.  Since I had first left my parents’ household as a young adult (with a one-year return to the nest), I had not only tried on many different hats, but had genuinely grown in directions that were different than what had been familiar to others from me before.  There has always been some reaction I’ve had to deal with, or ignore, in every phase of my life thus far.

Some of my straight-laced friends raised their eyebrows when I started listening to alternative music and started dressing and presenting myself in a manner decidedly outside the mainstream.  Some of my edgy, more counterculture-leaning friends would look at me sideways when I’d talk about things like loving nature and going to church.  When I quit drinking three years ago, that was another whole thing for some people I used to know, and it has actually been more than fine for me to let certain individuals keep their distance.  Throughout most of my life, I’ve been simultaneously told by different groups, individuals, and family members, that I’m too much of something and not enough of something else.  Not Black enough.  Not Christian enough.  Not “gay enough” (whatever that means).  Et cetera.  Not enough in some way, or adequately waving some flag in someone else’s estimation.

“You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” – Ricky Nelson

The only lasting peace with many different aspects of my identity arrived when I had finally internalized that, ultimately, nobody else’s ideas about me matter, as long as I’m a good person.  All of that external noise was deafening and distracted me from simply being the best me I could be.  Caring about others’ opinions may be something I’ll always fight against just a little bit, but awareness of this tendency puts me leagues ahead of where I would be, otherwise.  I’ll still always be Joe Dennis, even if I am not exactly the same as I was last year, five years ago, or at age five.  I have given myself the grace and freedom to reinvent myself as needed and appropriate.

2000 Mercury Cougar. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, July 30, 2023.

When I had first seen it, I thought the ’99 Cougar was beautifully styled, exciting, loaded with cat-like identity, and perhaps most thrillingly, distinctive as a Mercury.  Some seemed to like it, but what I remember most was others whining about how it should have been called something else because it: a.) was front-wheel drive; b.) didn’t have a V8 option; and / or c.) was a hatchback.  Many of us here at CC are car people, and we remember a particular model at its most memorable incarnation.  The original ’67 Cougar was a stunning car by any standard, and still looks terrific today.  Its V8-only, rear-drive, hardtop notchback configuration was completely and acceptably modern when the first one hit the market in the fall of ’66.  It was luxurious and capable of tire-smoking performance.

By the introduction of the eighth-generation Cougar, however, attributes of a truly modern sporty car had been expanded to include front-drive and V6 engines as well as some well-executed four-cylinders (according to a license plate search, this one has the V6, as did most examples).  Sure, the New Edge-restyled ’99 Ford Mustang was still a RWD coupe with six- and V8- engines available, as were GM’s F-Body Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, but let’s at least acknowledge that then-new iterations of these cars occupied a niche that was much narrower than in the decades prior.  By the late ’90s, the Mustang hadn’t been the kind of car for everyone it that it was when it had originally started life.

While I acknowledge the Probe’s failure to launch as the Mustang’s front-drive, partially Japanese-engineered replacement in the late 1980s, it’s also true that the Mustang, unlike the Cougar, had been a cultural icon from its introduction, arguably on an international level.  This has bound it to its same, basic formula from its inception with the exception of the supplemental Mach E (and the ’74-only lack of a V8).  It will be an enormous paradigm shift when a rear-drive, V8 Mustang is no longer available for purchase as a new car.  I also simply will not buy the argument that all front-drive cars are inferior, and would buy ringside tickets to watch the biggest Acura Integra fan on the planet face off against someone who would try to tell him or her that their favorite car is deficient.

1999 Mercury Cougar print ad was sourced from the internet.

The Cougar was no Integra, to be sure, but it was a good car when new.  According to one period test from Car And Driver from May of 2000, their car had two major issues among a set of strengths.  Front seat comfort of the standard units was poor to the point of being uncomfortable on long trips (I would actually care about that), and the 170-horsepower, 2.5L V6 did some wonky things while idling at rest.  Performance was said to be good (0-60 mph in 7.7 seconds with the five-speed manual), as were numbers for braking (188 feet to fully stopped, from 70 mph) and skidpad (0.85 g).  These figures weren’t best in class, but were certainly right in there with other cars of its type.

Styling is subjective, but this was only the second genuinely attractive, new Mercury of my entire lifetime, following the ’79 Capri.  (The earlier, imported Ford Capri, was also a great-looking car, though it was not technically, nor marketed as, a “Mercury”.)  There were cat-like shapes and cues all over the place, including the almond shape of the headlamps, the triangular taillamps which mimicked a cat’s ears, and the smooth, rounded rear quarter panels which resembled a cat’s rear haunches as it would prepare to pounce.  Its entire look was genius to me, with an exceptionally clean, almost Audi-like profile.  Four model years yielded sales of only 176,600, half of which were for the first model year.  That kind of downward trajectory in production was to be expected for a sporty coupe from twenty-five years ago, but when the car was discontinued after 2002 with only about 18,300 sales that year, I remember lamenting to myself that the Cougar’s story just wasn’t supposed to end that way.

2000 Mercury Cougar. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, July 30, 2023.

I’ll wrap with my thought that the final Cougar was a clever, modern interpretation of the original Cougar formula, which was a distinctive package chock-full of feline identity that offered a certain, sporty elegance over other cars in its class.  Could Ford have reskinned the SN-95 Mustang and repackaged it as a Mercury?  Not only would that probably have been a bad business decision (ponycar sales weren’t what they were even ten years prior), but there was no way a modern Cougar was going to look or have proportions similar to the original.  It was clean-sheet time.

It’s the essence of what the original Cougar was that should have been examined, and I think Ford did that in the development of this car.  Should the Cougar have been allowed to die after the last rear-drive ’97 left the factory?  To me, that car was no more of a ’67 Cougar than this one, which in its final, eighth-generation was allowed to be reimagined and become a new expression of an original idea.

Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, July 30, 2023.