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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Jim Mateja
April 20, 1997
Ford Motor Co. is a pack rat. It doesn't like to let go of things, especially names. Thunderbird has been around longer than dirt. Ditto Cougar, Escort and Mustang. And the Mark has more Roman numerals after it than a Sylvester Stallone movie.
The end is drawing near for Thunderbird and Cougar. Both midsize, rear-wheel-drive coupes will be dropped from the lineup once the '97 model runends. But both apparently will be back--as front-wheel-drive coupes--sporting the same monikers.
The 'Bird may return in a few years on a new platform; Cougar will return for sure early next year on a new platform. Escort may be in for a long-awaited name change when the next revise comes out in 1999 on an all-new platform, but some marketing
types have vowed to stick their heads in an oven (electric--Ford marketing types are serious folks, but not stupid) if the Escort badge is replaced. We were reminded of how old some of Ford's names are when a '97 Cougar XR-7arrived, the 30th
Anniversary edition with badging on the pillars, seats and floor mats. Ford was taking no chances. Cougar debuted Sept. 30, 1966, as a '67 model. It was Ford's response to the success of the Thunderbird. As long as Ford division had a good thing
going, why not a Mercury version? Besides, those were the days when a different grille and higher price tag was all it took to give a sister division an "all new" car. Ford wasn't alone, of course. General Motors survived for years simply using
mirrors. With Cougar came Chauncey, the snarling feline made famous by Sign of the Cat TV commercials and auto show appearances. It was for Chauncey that Lincoln-Mercury coined the term "spokescat." But while Cougar debuted as a luxury
sports car, it would be difficult saying what it is today. Luxury car? Not starting at $17,000. Sports car? In your dreams. We tested the anniversary edition because this is the last of the midsize, rear-wheel-drive breed. It will remain a coupe,
though the '98 model coming early next year will be built off the same platform as the compact, front-wheel-drive four-door Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique sedan. There will be some screaming and gnashing of dentures that another RWD car is biting
the dust. NASCAR owners and those who live in climates where snow iswhat appears on postcards from relatives will gripe that another one of those FWD wimps has won out. In truth, the way Ford finally has equipped its '97 Cougar--to better handle
adverse highway conditions--gives RWD enthusiasts a right to complain. It's got big road-holding 16-inch tires and you can purchase optional ABS as well as traction control to ensure that Cougar keeps its footing when heavy rain and snow clog the pathway.
But switching to FWD has more to do with product consolidation and the economies of scale from building a variety of models off the same platform than it does
the merits of FWD versus RWD. So while RWD aficionados have a legitimate gripe, save the postage and forget writing Dearborn to complain. When Ford brought out the Mondeo in 1994, parent of the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, in Europe, Chairman
Alex Trotman had to dodge a lynch party.Critics groused that Ford sold the store by investing $6 billion in three new cars and a couple of new engines. Though that's a lot of money, especially considering GM is spending $6 billion in 1997 to bring
out 16 vehicles, a new Cougar and Thunderbird off that platform will further amortize the original cost and help ease some of the gripes over spending too much money. What Ford is doing with Mondeo, Contour, Mystique and, soon, Cougar and
Thunderbird, is the same thing GM is doing with its Oldsmobile Aurora platform, building a variety of models off it to reduce development costs. But back to Cougar. No complaints about ride and handling with the sp
orts suspension, though a wide-tracking Pontiac Grand Prix is still more nimble and agile. No reason to question get-up-and-go with the optional 4.6-liter V-8 that replaces the base 3.8-liter V-6, though if you want the V-8 to step up and
outquickly you must press the button on the gearshift to disengage overdrive. In overdrive, the V-8 hesitates just before the frequent and abrupt shifts. Leave overdrive off to enjoy crisp, smooth acceleration, though again, thisis not a Prix nor a
Taurus SHO when it comes to powerful performance. Also, SHO and Prix do their magic and offer four doors. Just as FWD has taken over from RWD, so, too, have four doors become the choice over two. Thirty years ago being seen in a four-door
meant Mom and Dad lent you theirwheels. Today, with flush-mounted and body-colored door handles rather than chrome monsters protruding 3 inches as in the '60s and '70s, you often have tolook twice to see whether a car is a sedan. About the only difference
between sedan and coupe is that coupe has the slanted roof line, which may be fine forsporty looks, but contributes little to rear-seat headroom. One of Ford's finer cars, the Mark XXXVVVIII, (sorry, we lost count after III) is also an all-around
pleasant performer bedeviled only by the fact it has two doors so anyone sentenced to the back seat must grow scales to slitherinside. Ford, as well as its industry colleagues, insist that aging Baby-Boomers-turned-empty-nesters are putting on
their track shoes and racing to the dealership to buy a two-door coupe the instant the last kid has packed his or her belongings and moved out. The the thinking must be that once the kids have left, Mom and Dad turn antisocial and never travel with
another couple again. Or, that the grown kidswill never return to the old homestead with a child of their own and need the folks to transport a grandchild in their car. Ford has eased the pain of a two-door by designing a belt system with a large
plastic holder that rests against the floor to force the belt out of theway when you step in. But even with that belt, no one has come up with a graceful, let alone comfortable, way to enter a coupe's back seat. In other words, coupes may be
functional, but to many people they aren't practical. It was only a few months ago that a concept was unveiled on the auto-show circuit that could make coupes functional and practical and mighty alluring again. Ford unveiled the MC-4 concept
and Pontiac the Rageous concept, and the twoshared a pair of rear access doors for easy rear-seat entry/exit. The doors work like those on Ford and Chevy pickup trucks. Open the front door and expose a handle to open the small access door. You can get in
and out without bruising your ego or being sling-shot by the seat belts that block your way inback. Hmm. Those rear access doors have made extended cab trucks very
popular, eliminating one of the biggest gripes with extended cabs, getting people and packages in to and out of the back seat. What other vehicle has the same access problem? The coupe, of course. Wouldn't it be nice if Ford offered an access door
option on that new Cougar? Wouldn't a door in back make the Mark XXXVVVIII worthy of yet another X, V or I? Without an exterior door handle showing, you have the clean look of a coupe, but the function of a sedan. Make sense? Sure does, which is
why Ford probably will offer the new Cougar with two doors and call it Edsel. Word is the name will stay Cougar, except in Europe, where it will be Probe. Told you Ford doesn't give up a name easily. The oldest car in the Chrysler lineup is the
Dodge Viper, which bowed in 1991 and when last we looked, the automaker was going gangbusters with a lineup of new products with new monikers. Not one Chrysler dealer has called, choked with emotion and fighting back t
ears, to complain, "Bring back the Valiant and Cordoba." But we digress. The anniversary Cougar starts at a respectable $17,830, but most comfort and convenience features, not to mention safety systems such as anti-lock brakes and traction
control, are optional. The test car quickly passed $20,000. But Ford throws in a commemorative package that includes umbrella, mini flashlight, Cross pen, dash plate and key chain with two keys featuring the 30th anniversary logo, plus a thank-you
letter. The letter must be hand-written. Mercury Cougar update Ward's Automotive Reports, a trade publication, reports a hangup in plansfor Ford Motor Co. to replace its midsize, rear-wheel-drive Mercury Cougarwith a compact,
front-wheel-drive version. As previously reported, Ford willdrop the compact Probe sports coupe built at its joint-venture assembly plantwith Mazda in Flat Rock, Mich., to make room for the new Cougar that will bebuilt off the same platform as the
compact, front-wheel-drive FordContour/Mercury Mystique. Rather than launch the new car shortly after the first of next year as a1998 model, it now appears the car might not arrive until next July as a1999. The problem? Dies for the new
vehicle, reportedly a coupe and not a sedanas first believed, apparently don't fit the Flat Rock presses. >>1997 Mercury Cougar XR-7 Wheelbase: 113 inches Length: 199.9 inches Engine: 4.6-liter, 205-h.p. V-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic
EPA mileage: 17 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway Base price: $17,830 Price as tested: $21,585. Includes $2,475 for preferred equipment package with electric rear window defroster, front floor mats, speed control, power locks, six-way power driver's seat,
illuminated entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 4.6-liter V-8, 4-speed with overdrive, and 16-inch touring tires; $190 for keyless entry; $145 for antitheft system; $495 for 30th anniversary features such as Cougar head in floor mats and seat backs;
$70 forautomatic on/off headlamps; $570 for ABS; $210 for traction control; $155 for automatic control air conditioning; $430 for premium stereo with CD player; $490 for embossed leather seats; and $85 for power antenna--minus $1,130 for anniversary-model
discount. Add $510 for freight. Pluses: Last of two-door, RWD, midsize coupes at Ford. Good room, pleasant ride and handling. Dual air bags standard; ABS and traction control optional.Will be replaced by all-new model off compact FWD Contour/Mystique
platform early next year. Minuses: Two-door, RWD, midsize coupe in a world turned to four-door, FWD, midsize sedans. Is anything standard?>>