Poor Mercury. While the brand may not have been treated to the same levels of uniqueness from Ford and Lincoln that other “near-luxury” brands such as Buick, Chrysler, and Oldsmobile were from their respective lower and higher ranks, there was a time when Mercury actually offered something distinctively different.
Sharing more with Ford had begun as early as the 1960s, and by the 1990s all Mercurys were little more than rebadged versions of Ford (or Nissan, in the case of the Villager) vehicles. Often, Mercurys were treated to a few unique styling elements, but their differences largely came down to trim. Although Mercurys sometimes came with a longer list of standard equipment, this was the result of base models often equaling the related Ford’s mid-range model.
In terms of lacking distinction, Mercury’s lowest point came with the 1997-1999 Tracer. Mercury had been selling the Tracer in the United States since 1987, when it initially arrived as a rebadged version of the Australian-market Ford Laser, which itself was derived from the Mazda Familia. With no North American-market Ford version, one could say that this was be the high point for Mercury’s smallest offering.
The second generation Tracer would come in 1991, and was now a rebadged North American-spec Ford Escort. There were a few small differences, mainly limited to trim. The Tracer received unique taillight clusters, wheel designs, bodyside moldings, and a plastic grille insert that was replaced by Mercury’s lightbar in 1993. The Tracer was arguably the better-looking of the two, but its negligible differences in appearance and features only further highlighted the question of Mercury’s existence.
Ford would redesign the Escort in 1997, and given its low sales, it probably came as a surprise to some that a Tracer would continue being offered. Its continued existence was likely as a way for dealers to lure buyers into Lincoln-Mercury showrooms, and then try to up-sell them on the slow-selling Mystiques that were piling up on dealer lots.
With this third generation Tracer, any minor trim differences between it and the Escort were virtually eliminated. Apart from the barely different split grille, the Tracer was more of an Escort in all but name than ever – and few people had even heard of the Tracer.
Looking like the Taurus and Contour had a baby, the 1997 Tracer continued the ovoid theme that was popular among Ford sedans of the late-1990s. Maybe it was the oval shape, but for some reason this generation Tracer/Escort didn’t look quite as solid as their immediate predecessors, and tended to scream econo-box much louder.
The story was similar on the inside, where seat fabrics and cabin plastics were noticeably downgraded from ’96 as a result of cost-cutting measures that were taking place in most other Ford products at the time. While the 1991-1996 Tracer’s interior wasn’t anything extraordinary, it had a look and feel that was on par with most other vehicles in its class. This generation’s interior was a downright penalty box, which is exactly what it felt like that night in high school I was forced to ride around in an identical colored Escort.
Door panels were chintzy-looking, hard molded plastic. Door handles looked like they’d break if they were pulled by more than a single finger. Seat backs and sides were covered in vinyl, whereas seating surfaces were upholstered in thin, industrial carpet-like cloth. Of course, all of this would generally be accepted in an economy car, which the Tracer was. But at the same time it was a Mercury. Weren’t Mercurys supposed to be a cut above your average Fords?
For those who asked themselves (or a salesperson) that question, the Tracer could indeed be equipped with leather seats that had all the suppleness of a doctor’s office examination table.
Whatever theoretical premium Mercury once carried over Ford had long eroded by then, and this was made clearer by none other than the Tracer.
The slow-selling Tracer was promptly discontinued during 1999, three years prior to the Escort. The slightly larger and more luxurious “tweener” Mystique ended production the following year, and Mercury would never get a compact sedan again, further thinning its already weakening lineup.
Given their much higher sales numbers and longer production, Escorts of this generation are still frequently seen on the road as cheap beaters. The Tracer of course, is much rarer, and I’ll bet that the majority of them (along with plenty of Escorts) have found a similar resting place is this one.