Imagine the jeers, the scorn. You’re pulling into a classic car show in your gleaming, cherry red ’89 Ford Mustang GT Turbo 2.2. Enthusiasts are giving you the side-eye, muttering under their breath, “That’s not a real Mustang.” That’s if you’re lucky – maybe some crotchety old geezer comes up to you and sneers at you and your front-wheel-drive Mustang. You try to tell them the FWD Mustang kept the nameplate alive, that its performance was class-competitive, that it served roughly the same market niche as the original Mustang had. It’s no use. You’re driving the “loser” Mustang. Even the Mustang II fans at the show chortle they have a V8.
You can stop imagining. That reality never came to pass, though it almost did.
No matter how good a sport coupe the first-generation Probe was – and it was pretty good – it was no Mustang. Sure, a lot of Mustang and Probe buyers alike wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between front- and rear-wheel-drive and a lot of Mustang buyers didn’t want a big V8. But, likewise, there were plenty of Mustang buyers who specifically bought Ford’s pony car because of its rear-wheel-drive layout and available V8. By switching to front-wheel-drive and four- and six-cylinder engines, Ford would’ve been saying goodbye to a huge chunk of buyers and ceding the Mustang’s segment entirely to GM. The kind of people who bought Mustangs and Camaros were, for the most part, a different group of people to those who bought Celicas and Preludes. Even by targeting Celica and Prelude buyers with an impressive, Japanese-engineered product, Ford had no guarantee they could sway them. Ford was a domestic nameplate, after all, and plenty of buyers had switched to import brands and become loyal to them.
Nevertheless, this was Ford’s plan, conceived during the early 1980s when high fuel prices showed no sign of abating. In 1982, Ford commenced project SN-8 with the intent of developing a compact, front-wheel-drive coupe with four-cylinder engines. Just a year later, they decided to consult Mazda, in whom they had a 24.5% stake. Mazda was developing the next generation of 626 so Ford joined in, the proposed FWD Mustang to share the 626’s underpinnings. In 1985, Mazda commenced construction of a new factory building on the grounds of Ford’s Michigan Casting Center where the new generation of 626 sedan and coupe (the latter renamed MX-6) and the new Ford coupe would be built.
When word got out the new Mustang was going to be little more than a reskinned Mazda – sans V8 and rear-wheel-drive, no less! – Ford hastily retreated amidst the backlash. The ageing Fox Mustang, therefore, earned a stay of execution while its planned successor borrowed the Probe nameplate from a series of aerodynamic Ford concept cars.
Although the Probe was almost entirely Mazda underneath, it didn’t share a single body panel with its cousin (and rival), the MX-6, and owed much visually to Ford’s concept cars of the 1980s. It was aerodynamic like those concepts, too, with a drag coefficient of 0.30 and slinkier than the more butch and upright MX-6.
The Probe reached showrooms in mid-1988 for model year 1989. The range opened with the GL, priced at $10,943. This was almost $2000 higher than the cheapest Mustang, though its Mazda-sourced 2.2 naturally-aspirated, fuel-injected four-cylinder produced 20 more horsepower than the base Mustang’s 2.3 four (for a total of 110 hp at 4700 rpm) albeit the same amount of torque (130 ft-lbs at 3000 rpm). Both Mustang LX 2.3 and Probe GL 2.2 came with a choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission and the same basic array of features.
The mid-level Probe was the LX, which added, from 1990, Ford’s Vulcan V6, making it the only car on this platform to be equipped with a six-cylinder engine. By this point, even the Mustang was no longer available with a six-cylinder engine. Such an engine was rare in this segment as only the Chevrolet Beretta, Dodge Daytona and much pricier Subaru XT6 were available with one. In the Probe, the 3.0 V6 produced 140 hp at 4800 rpm and 160 ft-lbs at 3000 rpm and was available with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
The LX was much plusher than the spartan GL, adding a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, upgraded carpet and upholstery, a folding armrest, remote fuel door and liftgate releases, power mirrors and a tilt steering column. Unlike the GL, it was eligible for various option packages that added a raft of power accessories. Four-wheel disc brakes were also standard, with the option of ABS.
The range was topped by the GT, available exclusively with Mazda’s turbocharged 2.2 four-cylinder. Also available with a five-speed stick or four-speed auto, the GT produced 145 hp at 4300 rpm and 190 ft-lbs at 3500 rpm. The GT was actually slightly less slippery than the GL and LX with a drag coefficient of 0.32. It did, however, come with 15-inch alloy wheels, a firmer suspension tune, and speed-sensitive variable assist power steering. Additionally, Ford borrowed Mazda’s Automatic Adjusting Suspension system from the MX-6 GT. This allowed the driver to flick a console-mounted switch to select one of three drive modes – Soft, Normal or Sport – to adjust the firmness of the shock absorbers.
While adaptive shocks weren’t unique to Ford and Mazda, it was another stark contrast to the Mustang across the showroom floor. All Probes came with four-wheel independent suspension, too, unlike the live rear axle-equipped Mustang. Ford’s two coupes were almost identical in length, height and curb weight – if not width where the Mustang had a distinct advantage – but they were two very different cars.
First-year Probe production totalled 133,650 units compared to 209,769 Mustangs, although the latter had the advantage of an available convertible and two different coupe body styles. The Mustang’s advantage diminished shortly thereafter, however. Ford produced 109,898 Probes and 128,189 Mustangs for 1990, followed by 93,737 Probes and 98,737 Mustangs for 1991. It’s hard to extrapolate any cannibalization of the Mustang from those figures.
Of course, the Probe wasn’t intended to rival the Mustang but instead complement it. The real rivals were imported coupes like the Honda Prelude and Toyota Celica and the Probe typically outsold them. Even in the first-generation Probe’s worst year – its last, 1992 – Ford built 50,517 of them. That was more than the Celica (41,598) and the Prelude (36,040) which it undercut on price. The Probe also decisively outsold the ageing Dodge Daytona, perhaps its most conceptually similar domestic rival.
The LX V6 was arguably the sweet spot in the Probe range. The base four-cylinder was willing but rather gruff while the turbocharged four-cylinder suffered from excessive torque steer. The V6, in comparison, was more refined and with more predictable power delivery. It weighed roughly 200 pounds more than the base four-cylinder (or, for that matter, a Toyota Celica) but so did the turbocharged GT and it was still good for a 0-60 time of 9 seconds. That was about the same as a Daytona V6, which had almost identical horsepower, torque and curb weight figures, albeit a less sophisticated rear suspension and a price around $2k lower.
The GT’s performance proved Mustang purists right. In testing, it just couldn’t get its power down satisfactorily due to turbo lag and torque steer. In Motor Trend’s Bang For Your Buck special, the GT and its Mazda MX-6 Turbo cousin posted a 0-60 time at the bottom of the twenty-car pack – 8 seconds, 1.4 seconds slower than the Mustang V8 which cost a cool $2k less. Though the testers had some favourable comments, including praise for its ample torque and slick shifter, the consensus was its limits were low and its fun factor mid-pack at best. The Mustang V8? It was in the Top 5.
Changes were few during the first-generation Probe’s run, kept commendably short thanks to Mazda’s lead. Ford belatedly made a firmer suspension tune and 15-inch wheels available in the LX V6 for 1992, making that model even more appealing.
Though sport coupe sales were declining in the 1990s, the Probe earned a second generation. The first generation had managed to outsell key rivals without stepping on the Mustang’s toes. Despite this, it doesn’t have the same fervent following contemporary Fox Mustangs have today. Fortunately, you won’t be sneered at for taking one to a classic car show.
GTs photographed in San Mateo, CA and Seattle, WA in June 2019. LX photographed in Washington Heights, Manhattan, NY in 2013-14.