Curbside Classic: 1998 Mercury Mystique LS – Case of Mystique-en Identity

(first posted 1/5/2018)       Developing a new vehicle completely from the ground up is no easy undertaking for any automaker, even if it is one of the world’s largest automakers, possessing a multitude of resources on hand. The challenge is even more monumental when said vehicle is an entry in a highly competitive, high-volume segment, with its level of success having major ramifications on the automaker as a whole.

It’s a gamble alright, and unfortunately, it’s a gamble that sometimes doesn’t yield big payouts. While hardly the same snafu as the GM10 (first generation W-bodies), which cost General Motors some $7 Billion in development and lost the automaker some $2,000 on every vehicle produced, Ford’s CDW27, arguably the first true “world car” marketed across 59 countries in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, and Australia as Ford Mondeo, and in North America as the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique was met with varying degrees of success.

How the CDW27’s success is measured is largely based on the factors and markets in which one segments it by. In the vital European market, the Mondeo was largely a success, receiving considerable praise and strong sales, even if neither matched its Sierra predecessor.

In other markets however, chiefly the North American, the car faltered, never gaining widespread popularity nor acceptance. No matter how appropriate, it’s only a coincidence that the name of the Mercury-badged Mystique sounded so close to the word “mistake”.

Released in fall of 1994 as a 1995, nearly two years after the Mondeo was in Europe, the Mercury Mystique and its higher-volume Ford Contour twin were the de facto replacements for the aging “large compact” Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz duo, slotting above the Escort/Tracer and below the Taurus/Sable in Ford and Mercury’s lineups.

Among the many slightly smaller and larger cars they competed against, the Mystique and Contour were most frequently compared to Chrysler’s similarly sized yet roomier JA platform “Cloud Cars”, the Dodge Stratus, Plymouth Breeze, and Chrysler Cirrus, the latter of which was the Mystiques’ most direct competitor.

Right from the get go, that “in betweener” size was a crippling achilles heel, and would continue to limit the car’s potential its entire life. Although externally sized directly between the Escort/Tracer and Taurus/Sable, the Contour and Mystique suffered from interiors that were barely, if any in some dimensions, roomier than the Escort and Tracer. To make matters worse, they were priced considerably higher than the economy Escort/Tracer and their value-oriented Tempo/Topaz predecessors, and much closer to the larger Taurus and Sable, further diminishing their value proposition.

In their own right, the Contour/Mystique were perfectly competent largish-compact/smallish-midsize sedans. Benefiting from their European engineering, they offered far superior handling and driving dynamics to any workday Ford or Mercury sedan available in North America. Standard rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension that was comprised of a MacPherson strut front and multilink rear were decidedly European-like, providing a controlled and precise feel. In fact, lateral acceleration matched that of the BMW 325i and Mercedes C280 Sport.

Engines were impressive too. Both the 2.0L Zetec inline-4 and the 2.5L Duratec V6 featured dual-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. With output rated at 125 horsepower and 130 lb-ft torque for the four cylinder, and 170 horsepower and 165 lb-ft torque for the V6, both engines were suited for the Mystique’s relatively low 2,800-pound curb weight and could be mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.

Style-wise, both cars featured a clean and contemporary design sharing cues with many 1990s Ford products, both North American and European, for strong brand unity. Both North American variants sported altered styling from the European Mondeo, with each initially featuring identifiable brand-specific front and rear fascias. In fact, versus the Contour, 1995-1997 Mystiques gained entirely exclusive sheet metal from the A-pillars forward.

Eschewing the Contour’s ovoid headlights, grille, and taillights, the Mystique displayed a more upscale waterfall grille as part of the phase-out of Mercury’s signature lightbar treatment. The front fascia was also distinguished by slimmer wraparound headlights outlined by a thick chrome band that signified the Mystique’s more upscale intentions. A similar chrome band highlighted the Mystique’s full-width taillights.

Inside was a generally very pleasant place to be for a 1990s American car, provided you weren’t a six-footer relegated to rear seats, as despite several attempts to eke out more head-, knee-, and legroom by lowering the rear seat cushion and scooping out the front seatbacks, the Mystique’s rear seat was still decidedly cramped.

Fit and finish was on par with Honda and Toyota, with pleasant looking and feeling plastics, tight fitting panels, and inviting cloth and leather upholsteries. Front seats were heavily bolstered, dash layout was functional and correct, and the Mystique was even treated to its very own (and more attractive) upper dash design through 1998, something Ford did away with in 1999 to reduce costs.

Positioned as a somewhat more premium offering, the Mystique was available in standard GS and better-equipped LS trims. Despite its upscale ambitions, popular equipment such as power windows and locks, air conditioning, cassette tape player, remote keyless entry, and rear window defroster were initially extra cost items on the GS (many were made standard in later years). LS models added these, along with features such as 10-way power drivers seat, four-wheel disc brakes, and dual power mirrors. Leather, previously an option, became standard fare on LS models beginning in 1998.

A significant exterior makeover came in 1998, with the Mystique gaining a rounder (and quite frankly, homelier) front end featuring large upswept headlamps, a more prominent chrome waterfall grille, and the necessary hood and front quarter panel changes to accommodate them.

While not interchangeable due to their unique grilles shapes, headlamps were essentially identical to those now found on the Contour and Mondeo, for less distinctiveness. Around back, the Mystique was unchanged, though the Contour now sported a full-width effect taillight much in the style of the Mystique, once again for a closer resemblance.

The facelifts did little for either, as sales continued to decline for each. At least in North America, the Mystique and Contour’s success was largely limited by their size-to-price ratio when compared with the smaller Escort/Tracer, and especially the larger Taurus/Sable. For this featured car’s 1998 model year, Mystique GS and LS base prices were $16,235 and $17,645, respectively, versus $19,445 and $20,445 for Sable GS and LS sedans.

Particularly in the case of Mercury, in the eyes of its more traditional clientele, a roomy family car was the far more appealing choice than a European sports sedan with a cramped back seat. To many shoppers, the larger Sable was simply much more car for the money, a fact aided by steeper incentives due to the 1996 redesigned Sable’s lukewarm reception and slower sales compared to its predecessor. With 1998 model year sales of only 47,128 Mystiques versus 111,676 Sables, it’s clear which car buyers preferred, regardless of whether they were private or fleet customers.

While competitive enough cars, the Mystique and Contour simply did not offer enough of a value proposition to the majority of consumers. Although successful in Europe, in nearly all other markets, Ford’s first true “world car” never met sales projections, prompting the automaker to discontinue sales of the Mystique, Contour, and Australian-market Mondeo after a short 2000 model year, with no direct successors.

In most markets, the more competitive, lower priced Focus effectively covered Ford in the compact segment. Mondeo production in Europe continued until late-2000 when it was replaced by a completely redesigned and larger second generation Mondeo, a car never sold in the United States, Canada, and Australia. As for Mercury itself, no direct replacement ever came for the Mystique, further enhancing the car’s question of very existence, and its reputation as a “mistake”.

Photographed: World’s End, Hingham, Massachusetts – November 2017

Related Reading:

1996 Mercury Mystique

1996 Mercury Sable