Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.
I was excited about the Cougar, and my only real complaint as that they decided to saddle the press car with the 4-speed automatic. That questionable decision seems to embody every attempt to try to sell something unique and sporty through Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. They just don’t know what to do with it or how to sell it. The Pantera? Merkur? The Mazda-based Capri convertible? The German Capri was probably the most successful, but those sales numbers weren’t huge.
Like every other attempt, this generation Cougar was short-lived and is now mostly forgotten.
The below review ran on November 9, 1998.
For the first time in its history, the Mercury Cougar will be without a virtual twin at Ford. The original 1967 Cougar was essentially a Mustang. Subsequent Cougars were Torino Elites and Thunderbirds. The radically new 1999 Cougar highlights the plan to give Mercury a unique product line.
Unlike its staid, luxobarge predecessor, this Cougar is a small, sporty front-wheel drive hatchback based on the Mercury Mystique sedan. It showcases Ford’s “New Edge” design, which consists of unusual angles, folds, and creases dominated by a triangular theme. The most visible aspect is the belt line, which begins at the bulging cat’s eye headlights and rises upwards all the way to the bulging triangular tail lamps. The overall effect is appealing to some, hideously ugly to others. But it turns heads, most of them young, and that’s the point.
The interior has a molded, high-tech, space age ambiance with silver and charcoal dash and door trim combined with beige leather seats for four. Although all of the controls are within easy reach, they are not arranged or labeled as logically as in other Mercurys. The interior is cramped, which is the main failing of the Mystique sedan, but here it is more acceptable considering the Cougar’s sporty character.
Fortunately, the Cougar also gains the excellent driving position, firm ride, outstanding handling, and 170-horsepower, 2.5 liter V6 that make the Mystique the closest thing to an American BMW. Combined with low-profile 16-inch tires, you can throw the Cougar around like no other car bearing the name before it. Our car came with the optional four-speed automatic, but the five-speed manual would definitely be a better match. A four-cylinder is standard, and it’s only available with the manual.
Although styled to look like a coupe, the Cougar’s hatchback versatility allows for a cavernous 14.5 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear-seat up. Safetywise, it is the first Ford to offer optional side airbags.
There is no doubt the Cougar will bring younger buyers into Mercury showrooms, and its low $16,195 base price and a-la-carte option list means that those buyers will be able to afford it as well.
For more information contact 1-800-446-8888
Engine:170-horsepower, 2.5 liter V6
EPA Mileage:20 city/29 highway
“There is no doubt the Cougar will bring younger buyers into Mercury showrooms, and its low $16,195 base price and a-la-carte option list means that those buyers will be able to afford it as well.”
– I think I was that younger buyer (30 at the time) but as I recall we bought a new Ford Explorer XLT V8 around that time. The great SUV migration was in full swing, a smaller sporty coupe was not in the plan, certainly not a Mercury, at least on the coast. The high-zoot V6 model looked decent but at the $16k base price it had a four and nowhere near the content, unfortunately. Do you recall your “as tested” price?
It’s under the “Specifications” – Tested Price: $22,375
Oops. Your review was just too long to read it all. 🙂 Thanks.
I’ll try to be more concise in the future. :-)~
Great review, thank you. But I don’t think its “questionable ” that the press car had an automatic. Ford knew the vast majority of Cougars would be sold with automatics, so it makes sense for the press to review the most popular and relevant configuration.
Thanks, SC. However, I have to disagree with you that press cars have the “most popular and relevant configuration.” For sporty cars, the whole point is to get the public excited about the car, and you’re going to get a more enthusiastic review with a stick than an automatic, especially if it’s a good one like in the Contour/Mystique/Cougar. Even in the ’90s, the take rate of manuals was pretty small, yet you would have trouble believing that if you were an automotive journalist. At least half of the cars I tested were sticks.
Edit: Based on cjiguy’s comment below, maybe the stick wasn’t so good. That could be the reason for the automatic in later press cars…
I bought a 2000 with the v6 and a manual 2 weeks ago, and it is a quick little car. I’ve taken it over hwy-17 South of San Jose, and through the mountain roads all the way down to Monterey, CA. I couldn’t imagine this being an automatic car, the manual gearbox in it just fits it so perfectly. Whether it’s driven like a granny car in traffic, or like a madman’s escape vehicle or in the boondocks, it’s been a great deal of fun. The air conditioning still works, and that’s been a strange experience for me from a 20 year old American car. It’s worth a drive in the stick variant, if ever the opportunity arises.
Ged help you when it comes to servicing that motor. It’s so tightly fitted into the engine bay that the book directions for any access to the rear cylinder bank starts with “remove intake manifold”. A brief ownership of a V6 Mystique put me off ever again owning a compact with a V6. I’d love another Contour or Mystique, or one of these, but definitely Zetec 4 cylinder only.
I think by that model year they’d permanently fixed the wiring harness insulation issues, so at least you’re unlikely to face the bundles of bare wires that plagued me.
“It’s so tightly fitted into the engine bay that the book directions for any access to the rear cylinder bank starts with “remove intake manifold””
That’s more or less every transverse V6 these days, FWIW
I was this-close to buying one of these as my first car out of college, but I found the seats to be way too narrow and uncomfortable, and at the time I was 5’11” and 150 pounds so not a big guy by any means. Otherwise, though, it was a pretty awesome car for the time, especially considering I was shopping in the sporty coupe segment which was dwindling quickly.
I am a big guy, and, at least to me, the Cougar’s seats were the worst ever. the previous worst seats ever were the ones in my stepdad’s 1986 Olds 88, and a close second were the ones in the Dodge Daytona/Plymouth Laser from ’85 or so.
A friend of mine’s wife had a green Cougar, and loved it, for some unknown reason. I spent four hours of hell riding and driving it to Chicago. By the time we got there, my friend and I were in misery, and trying to figure out a way to leave it there and never sit in it again. I lucked out and ran into, by pure chance, someone I knew and got a ride home with them. I bought lunch and filled up his tank, thankful not to have to sit in the Cougar again.
My friend got the pleasure of driving it back to Toledo, solo. He made it a mission to get that car out of his garage. It took him another 5 years to do it.
I liked these. That V-6 would have been fun with the 5 speed! I haven’t seen one on the street in years tho, they must have been somewhat troublesome to keep running.
I seem to recall seeing these in the UK … were they also built there (or on the Continent) or were they imported? Or am I imagining things?
These were indeed available in the U.K. so no, you weren’t seeing things. I do remember reading a road test or two in CAR magazine, but don’t remember where they were built (I suspect all production was in the U.S.) or if they were offered with RHD.
The British reviews were somewhat lukewarm, if I remember correctly. I think that reviewers lambasted the indifferent interior build quality (like the alway do on American cars) and the quirky control layout.
UK market cars did indeed have RHD, and came via Germany. Never very popular I feel, partly due to the “new edge” styling and partly due to a reputation for unreliability.
Yes, they were Fords in the UK, but just a bit too big to fit the old Capri niche. I thought the styling on them was pretty successful and striking.
I always assumed the Ford stylists who came up with “new edge” were smoking some pretty powerful ganja. I hated it almost as much as Bangles’ Beemers.
That market was rapidly dying out, so there could really have been no sales success for it. Yet Mercury tried. I see very few around anymore. But then, I don’t see many of its competition around anymore either.
I wish I could have cared for the Cougar, but no one I knew had any interest in these little sporty cars anymore. Had it arrived a decade sooner, perhaps.
I bought V-6 5 speed new.
Great cat, clawed the road.
In 2013 I lived on a street where not one, but 3 of these were parked. They were all owned by different households, presumably bought well-used for young drivers. I always found the styling kind of cartoonish.
These were priced closely in line with the Mitsu Eclipse, which appeared to sell in greater numbers and was arguably better styled. I’m sure Mitsubishi dealers financed the hell out of those Eclipses in ways your Mercury dealer couldn’t match, which was probably a big help with the target demographic. This Cougar just didn’t fit the mold of what was expected with a Mercury badge. Sort of an anomaly all the way around.
At least they decided to call it “Cougar” instead of the originally planned “Probe”.
Car and Driver compared one of these with its contemporaries of the time, and let’s just say things aren’t looking so good when an Impreza coupe is deemed a sportier car. They said the stick was awful in that car, and literally recommended purchasing the auto if one just had to have a Cougar…
I can’t find that article, but they do have the long-term test results, which were a little nicer. Apparently, the staff was split between “OK” and “Notchy”:
I tried finding it too, but no luck. I recall the results being Cougar, Impreza RS, Integra GS-R, Celica GT-S, Eclipse GT, Prelude (winner).
Interesting to note a later test from about ‘01 laments the termination of the planned Cougar “S”, basically a Contour SVT with Cougar skin, and therefore exclude another Cougar from this group that was Beetle Turbo S, Tiburon GT, Eclipse GTS (tie), Celica GT-S (tie), RSX type S (winner).
In 1999, a young woman who worked for me was in the market to buy her first new car. She narrowed the field down to a Cougar and the Chrysler Sebring. She preferred the Cougar for its ride and handling (she was something of a gearhead), but couldn’t get the Lincoln-Mercury dealer to come down on price. She ended up with a Sebring coupe that came with special financing for recent college grads, but the car proved to be less than dependable. After three years, she turned to Toyota for a Celica and, to my knowledge, has never looked back at any of the American makes since then.
I’ll bet the ending wouldn’t have changed had she chosen the Cougar instead.
The ad at the time featured a sort of Huey Lewis looking character sitting on a bench, but with his head twisted nearly 180 degrees around to look at the new Cougar. Nobody ever said this was subliminal advertising, but it sure was unsettling, to the extent that I’m still in disbelief such ad content would’ve been approved.
Even as a 10 year old I preferred its staid, luxobarge predecessor I’d buy used 7 years later. Don’t think these “new edge” Cougars we’re out of my budget either, their depreciation was crazy.
Only drove one my friend had out of curiosity, also an automatic. Pretty much performed and felt exactly like the Contour it was based on. My 94 4.6 Cougar won every stoplight race too. Styling wise it reminded me of Pikachu. The resemblance is uncanny in yellow
Ugh, I am strongly biased by my 68.
The German Capri was probably the most successful, but those sales numbers weren’t huge.
The German Capri was an unqualified sales success in the US. In 1974, it pushed aside the VW Beetle as the second best selling import car, surpassing the Corolla that year.
You are absolutely right, sir. According to “The Standard Catalog of Imported Cars”, over 500k total were sold, with 113,069 Capris for MY1973 (which started in July 1972) alone. I just don’t remember ever seeing that many of them. Quite shocking.
A very well written review, BTW. Your ability to sum up a car in 350 words is terrific. What else is there to add? 🙂
I bought my 2000 V6 manual used in 2002, and still own it to this day. It was my rust-belt 4-seasons daily driver for 11 years, and in all 18 years and 211,000 miles of ownership, has stranded me ONCE. I swapped the original 2.5 V6 out for a Taurus 3.0 at 205,000 miles, not because it was bad, but because the car had just reached the point of being worth less than nothing in resale value, so it was converted over to a dedicated track car and the extra 35% power and torque increase was required. Handling is shockingly good, having the Ford Mondeo bones and all the British Touring Car racing heritage that brings. The long wheelbase makes it exceptionally stable in cornering at high speeds. It surprises lots of folks on course.
You’re correct, there aren’t many left these days. Being so affordable and having such “youthful” styling, most of them ended up dying ignominious deaths at the hands of beginning drivers. Very few were well cared for due to the low price and disposable reputation that brings. There are still a handful of us “faithful” who meet up annually to catch up, run some autocross, and swap stories.
I loved and thoroughly enjoyed the 2nd gen Ford Probe GT. Its ergonomics we’re perfect. The low cowl yielded great visibility. And it cornered exceptionally, like it was on rails. Yet, I hated the successor… this Mercury Cougar. The proportions were wrong (wheelbase too long). The styling was immature and contrived. And the Ford of Europe roots yielded lower quality the the Probe’s Marzean roots.
The 4-cylinder engine was suppose to have an optional automatic, but the fat cat Cougar was too porky. That realization occurred during launch and after an embarrassing number had already been built. They found homes in the hands of bargain hunting Ford employees, before being sold as used vehicle to the general public. Note: Buick did the same with the Reatta convertible (for NVH and structural issues in Buick’s case).
I liked these when they came out, but I remember wanting to like them more. First saw one in a mall when they were new, and at that time, it struck me that they were the most successful visual interpretation of Ford’s “New Edge” design language. I didn’t care for the ’99 Mustang refresh, and the new Focus, while a substantial improvement over the Escort it replaced, seemed so tall and narrow.
I was driving a ’94 Probe at the time, and my only other thought was that while this new Cougar had some very cat-like styling cues, they should have picked another name.
It was nice to read a review about the cougar. I currently own a 1999 Mercury cougar with the V6 that has a manual transmission. It also has only 68,000 original miles on it. It has been a fun car to drive and own. Thank you for the review.