(first posted 9/6/2015) Compact. Intermediate. Full-size. Once upon a time, it used to be so simple: if a Nova was too small, you got a Chevelle. Need more space? There’s an Impala for you. Easy. But American cars bloated so much they needed a crash diet in the late 1970s, and that’s when you ended up with Fairmonts sized like Granadas but priced for less, and compact Volares that became Plymouth’s largest sedan. From this confusion, cars like the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz sprung, tweener sedans that weren’t quite intermediates but were bigger than what had become the normal size for a compact. And although the market had changed massively during the 1970s and 1980s, these two sedans would change very little during their lengthy production run.
By 1984, the compact Fairmont was getting a bit long in the tooth and a replacement was needed. However, Ford was quite cash-strapped during the early 1980s and so the new 1984 Tempo and Topaz were derived heavily from the new, front-wheel-drive Escort. This meant independent suspension front and rear, but uneasy handling and a mediocre ride. However, they were wrapped in modern, stylish and aerodynamic styling.
Unlike the GM X-Cars, the Tempo/Topaz weren’t offered with a V6 at all, initially. Hell, even the Escort-rivaling GM J-Cars got a V6, beginning in late 1985. Of course, Chrysler, Honda and Nissan’s intermediate offerings were several years away from getting a V6 so such an omission wasn’t unheard of. What was unusual was the engine the Tempo/Topaz featured: the 2.3 “High Swirl Combustion” four, a cut-down version of the 200 cubic-inch Falcon six, completely unrelated to the 2.3 Lima four used in the Pinto and Mustang, and initially with 90 hp and 125 ft-lbs. Carburetted at first, the HSC four gained fuel-injection in 1986 although power dropped slightly. There was also a “High Specific Output” (HSO) version of the four available shortly after launch, but it only had an extra 10 hp and no extra torque. The HSO was dropped after a few seasons.
The Tempo/Topaz may not have been a delight to drive, but that didn’t stop the buying public from lapping them up. Sales were extremely high: 531,468 Tempo and Topaz sedans were sold in 1984, around 4/5ths of those with the blue oval badge. In 1985, the Tempo was the tenth best-selling car in the US, and sales remained high throughout the rest of the decade.
Which brings us to 1988. Tempo and Topaz sedans received heavily revised, crisper exterior styling and a new dashboard, while the coupes made do with the new dash and the new front fascia mated rather awkwardly to the old body. The Topaz sedan received a more upright roofline than its Ford counterpart; while it was nice to see greater differentiation between Ford and Mercury models, the very formal Topaz sedan made for a curious juxtaposition with its swoopy Sable stablemate.
The revised models were rather handsome (well, more so the Tempo sedans) but they were about as extensively revised as the Chevrolet Cavalier had been for 1988: that is to say, not much. Ford’s financial situation had improved thanks to the success of the Taurus, Escort and yes, the Tempo, but this mostly cosmetic revision was the most Ford would lavish on their tweener sedans. Three years later, a long-awaited V6 engine, the Taurus’ Vulcan mill, was introduced with 135 hp and 150 ft-lbs.
The only automatic transmission ever offered in the Tempo and Topaz was an antiquated three-speed unit. The lack of a fourth speed had a big impact on gas mileage: EPA figures showed a HSO four Tempo with a five-speed stick was good for 21/29 mpg, but the automatic saw highway gas mileage drop to 26 mpg. There was an even larger gap with the V6: 21/28 with a stick, 20/23 with the slushbox. As for the base four, the gap between highway gas mileage in the manual and the auto was an astonishing 6 miles per gallon.
The Tempo and Topaz were looking more and more antiquated in an increasingly competitive lineup of cars. The Mazda 323-based 1991 Escort/Tracer were the most impressive cars Ford had ever entered into their segment. The Taurus and Sable received new duds for 1992. There was a smart new Probe coupe. Only the ancient Mustang made the Tempo and Topaz look fresh, although it at least had enthusiast appeal. The Tempo and Topaz were selling on price: by their last year on sale, a fully-loaded V6 Tempo with automatic transmission and air-conditioning was available for less than $14k. That was MSRP, so no doubt incentives would have driven that down even further. This was cheaper than a fully-loaded Corolla, let alone a Camry.
Somewhere along the way, the domestic automakers had decided certain segments weren’t worth investing a lot of time and energy into. The Japanese strategy in the early 1990s was to build the best possible car and price it high enough to be profitable. The Korean strategy of the time was to build the best car they could, given their generally lower level of expertise, and price it aggressively. The American strategy, sadly, became to simply build a car (any car) and price it cheap.
Offering these blue-light specials may have netted the domestic automakers a lot of sales, but it sabotaged their efforts to go back upmarket. For 1995, the Tempo/Topaz were replaced with an Americanized version of the Mondeo “world car” badged as the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. Vastly better in every way (except rear cabin space) than the old fossils they replaced, Ford naturally priced them higher to help recoup the $6 billion dollar investment in the new platform. But buyers baulked at the price tags, and sales were far lower than their predecessors.
The domestics made another crucial strategic error. The downsizing of the late 1970s had thrown existing lineups in disarray and the stability of gas prices in the 1980s had further derailed the domestics’ plans. But the aftermath of this was Ford, GM and Chrysler all offered two mid-size platforms each. With Honda and Toyota, you went from Civic/Corolla to Accord/Camry. Having become accustomed to having a fuller lineup and the resulting sales volume, the domestics saw the need to replace their “tweener” models, while the Japanese were satisfied simply offering lower-spec, four-cylinder models of their intermediates. Imagine if the money spent developing cars like the 1990s GM N-Bodies and the Americanized Contour/Mystique had been spent on a wider range of more thoroughly developed compact and intermediate offerings. Choice is a lovely thing and volume is also splendid, but Honda and Toyota came to decimate the domestics by offering just one core compact and core intermediate model each. Food for thought.
On the note of saving money, Ford could have saved some by not developing the all-wheel-drive Tempo and Topaz. While an AWD sedan was quite a rarity in the 1980s, it was a baffling decision by Ford to develop an AWD system only for use in what was becoming quite an old platform. Why not an AWD Taurus? Although it would probably have sold little better, it would have allowed for an AWD Taurus wagon (which perhaps could have taken off) and also resulted in an AWD Continental. Hindsight may be 20/20, but even at the time the decision to make an AWD Tempo was probably a head-scratcher. It was a relatively simple affair designed more for wet-weather traction, and could be switched on and off and sold slowly from its launch in 1987 until its axing in 1991. It was one of the various, curious offerings in the Tempo and Topaz lineups, like the Mazda diesel-powered examples of the mid-1980s and the sport-themed Topaz XR5 and LTS.
By 1993, sales had begun to taper off and a lot of that remaining volume consisted of fleet sales. There were plenty of bargain hunters and “Buy American” shoppers, but eventually the dated sedans reached the end of their natural lives in 1994. By this point, most of the arthritic, cut-price domestic sedans were starting to shuffle off this mortal coil: the Tempo’s main rival, the Chevrolet Corsica, would be axed after 1996, and the even more decrepit Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera were finally euthanized at the same time. And so, the long and difficult healing process had to begin for the domestics: their lust for volume, their greed for easy profits and their sloth in updating old platforms had earned them the wrath of consumers.
Do you want to know why the domestics have been losing in the intermediate sales race for years now? It’s not because a Camry or an Accord is really tangibly better than a Fusion, 200 or Malibu. In part, the reason was past deficiencies in quality and reliability. But it’s also because of the dangerous precedent set by cars like the Tempo and Topaz.