I have previously explored the 1969 Ford Capri on CC, as a European take on the Ford Mustang and concluding on how Ford were unable, unwilling or maybe even afraid to replace it. The Capri lasted until 1987, and was allowed a quiet retirement in 1987, leaving Ford absent from the sporty coupe market entirely in Europe.
Of course, Ford’s competitors were not sitting idly by. From the Nissan 200SX, Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude, Opel/Vauxhall Calibra, B3 Audi Coupe, VW Corrado to the Alfa Romeo GTV and Fiat Coupe (officially the Coupe Fiat) most offered credible alternatives to the Capri concept and showed that there was business to be done in that part of the market, and image gains available. For a number of years Ford sat out this market segment in Europe, apart from the smaller Fiesta based Puma.
Of course, for many people, a fast Ford saloon or hatchback was ideal. After all, the Fast Ford Phenomenon had started in the 1960s with the Lotus Cortina, the fast Escort saloons with the rally heritage and then the Escort XR3 and smaller Fiesta XR2, aimed squarely at the Golf GTi and Peugeot 205GTi. Perhaps best of all were the Sierra Cosworth saloon and hatchbacks, with ever increasing power, speed and rear wing sizes throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. But not a mid size coupe. All these had the image of the regular Ford with added power, speed and profile.
To fill this void, in the market if not in the business, Ford did something none too common: its US-built 1994 Probe was shipped to Europe. Conceptually, this was a car more relevant to Europe than many American cars, as it shared a platform with the Mazda MX-6 rather than, say, a Mustang or a Tempo, so the support infrastructure for the engine and gearbox was already in place.
The Probe was not a great success in Europe, possibly limited by the styling not linking well to the rest of the Ford range in Europe, by the size of the car for the accommodation and in comparison to the more compact European and Japanese competitors. It was also a bit softer than a typical fast Ford might be, and to be frank, the name might have sounded great in a meeting but in the showroom it didn’t. Doctors use probes…..
The Cougar arrived in 1998, and was now based on the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique. These were the US versions of Fords CDW27 project, the European member of the family being the Ford Mondeo. Although these cars were designed jointly in the US and Europe, the final versions differentiated substantially. Ford billed them “world cars”, in reality the only parts that the American and European Mondeo shared were the windscreen, front windows, front mirrors and door handles. So the US-built Cougar actually shared very little with the its European stablemate Mondeo.
The Cougar came with a choice of the Zetec 2.0 litre twin OHC four cylinder or the Duratec 2.5 litre V6 engines, mounted transversely. The European Mondeo was generally accepted as being one of the best best cars in its class in Europe, which included the Vauxhall Cavalier, Opel Vectra, VW Passat, Renault Laguna, Citroen Xantia, Rover 600, Toyota Avensis, Peugeot 405 and Nissan Primera.
Arguably the Mondeo was too large to make a successful basis for a Capri for the 90s, a Corrado beater or Celica champion. This was a car with a wheelbase of 106.5 inches, and it showed. The Cougar was rather a bit too large to be a European sports coupe, a Capri or a Calibra competitor, and was much better suited as a luxury tourer. This positioned the car significantly further up market, and made it more expensive than the Capri. A true neo-Capri would have been based on the Escort, or held over to 1999 and based on the Focus.
Except there was a big issue there too. The Cougar was large on the outside, but cramped on the inside, with very limited rear headroom, as a consequence of the striking glasshouse profile. A small fuel tank, some reliability issues including oil pump failures leading to replacement V6 engines and five recalls in three years didn’t help.
But the biggest issues were probably the styling, the interior and the brand and its image. There was no single thing actually wrong with the styling – this was not an ugly car per se – but rather the whole was less than the sum of the parts. Whilst there were many neat details in the styling of the car, the glasshouse profile was fine, and even reminiscent of the Alfa GTV, the rear end a bit underwhelming, the front was too big, and the front overhang too long.
It was one of Ford’s first attempts at the “new Edge” styling, and the execution was a bit mixed, to say the least. It needed more than the neat detailing, and some how lacked presence
The interior was similar – the Mondeo hard points could be seen in much of the base, which is probably OK, but some of the finishes were hard, shiny and frankly cheap looking. Take a close look at this console to see what I mean. Are those the switches off your bedside alarm clock? That gear shifter didn’t look very Euro-premium either, which linked to the third issue – the image or more accurately the lack of it. This car was pitched against anything from the Fiat Coupe to the 2 door BMW 3 series – cars with definite images and personalities – which the Cougar couldn’t match.
Driving wise, it was more of a tourer than a sport coupe, which given the size was pretty inevitable. The 2.0 was more popular in Europe and was no ball of fire, the more powerful 2.5 V6 a smooth engine that enjoyed being revved, which was just as well. The handling was much better, but the ride harsh, and the overall impression a bit confused. Some thing was lost in the translation from Mondeo to Cougar. The Mondeo had a class leading ride/handling balance, but this didn’t read across anything like as convincingly to the Cougar.
The European market cars were built alongside the Mercury Cougar in the US, before being shipped to Cologne in Germany for final finishing of Euro-spec details like lighting, etc., including the left to right hand drive conversions for the UK and Australia.
The feature car is a 2.5 litre, fitted with the smooth 24 valve V6. On paper this car had some power and speed, but in practice the torque was not really present early enough, and although it was great to rev, you don’t always want to go to a 7000rpm redline. Having said that, this is a great example, worn leather on the driver’s seat aside. You won’t many more like this one in Europe now. This one is fully loaded with anti-lock brakes, cruise control, a full set of airbags, climate control, leather and automatic, and truly is a compact 2+2 luxury tourer rather than a sports coupe.
The Cougar lasted in Europe until 2002 – the 1993 Mondeo died in 2000 and the next generation Mondeo was never made as anything other than a saloon, family hatch or estate. Indeed, since 2001, every fast Ford has been a hatch with power, stripes and bulges, and great ability, in some cases setting a new level of class standard setting, for example the current Fiesta ST. An affordable fast Ford.
And that, really, is what a fast Ford should be. An affordable fast Ford, just as the Lotus Cortina, Escort Mexico, XR3i and Sierra Cosworth all were.
The Cougar got a great ad, though.