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Expert Reviews 1 of 9
By Larry Printz
The Morning Call and Mcall.com
November 29, 1998
When I say Mercury, what do you think of? Some may think of the '49 Merc, a car that's immortalized in celluloid. Others think of chrome-encrusted land yachts. A member of my family said that they're just like Fords, only a little
uglier. But, in the era of brand management, where companies want their brands to conjure up specific images in people's heads, this just won't do. And so, there's the 1999 Mercury Cougar, a fast-forward look at the new styling direction for the
division. Say goodbye to the jellybean. Say hello to "new edge.`' Ford already has employed this look on such European models as the Ka, Puma and Focus. So it's no surprise that, since the Cougar was designed by Ford's European operations, this
the first time the design theme has been employed in America. A sharp rising plane gives the car an edge that plays against the rounded contours of the rest of the design. It gives the coupe a tautness. This triangular plane also gives Ford designers
a theme to carry throughout the car. But Ford designers use circular elements to play against the angularity. It shows up in the tail lamps and on the dash and door panels inside. Even the cat's-eye shaped headlamps show thoughtfulness and integration of
design. The result is a car that's not just edgy, but dances on the brink of post-modern styling. It's visually arresting inside and out. This is important in the small, sporty coupe segment of the market, where freshness counts. Designs have a short
shelf-life. But what this car is meant to do is lead the division away from the tyranny of aerodynamics and, more importantly, help it to stand apart from the Ford division. It looks like nothing else on the road, showing little influence from other
automakers' sport coupes. Note, however: This model is exclusive to Mercury, with no Ford equivalent. This is another way in which Mercury hopes to distinguish itself. Look for more Mercury models to cease being uglier clones of their Ford
counterparts. Lastly, it returns the nameplate somewhat to its roots, as a somewhat upscale sophisticated 2+2 coupe. The Cougar debuted for the 1967 model as a more luxurious Mustang. But the car grew into a fat cat, a large flabby overwrought cousin
of the Thunderbird. There have been attempts to reinject some sportiness into the nine lives of this cat, but only with this sharp departure in design has it been truly successful. Under the interesting design is something most people will recognize
-- Ford's Modeo/Contour/Mystique platform. This compact platform has midwived a line of sporty compacts that already employ great handling dynamics. Here, a firm suspension claws quickly through corners and returns a rather tight ride. You'll feel the
bumps, but that's because it's a sport coupe. Body lean was minimal. There is however, quite a bit of road and tire noise in this car, not unusual in this class. How much "go" this car has depends on which engine y
ou buy. If you know the choice you get with a Mystique, then you'll know the choice here. Base engine is Ford's `Zetec,` a 2-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engine with an iron block and aluminum heads. It's good for a respectable 125 horsepower and 130
foot-pounds of torque. Optional is Ford's "Duratec," a 2.5-liter 24-valve six-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque. These figures are identical to those of the Contour/Mystique. The test model had the six and plenty of
power to make this cat leap off the line. Sure, it's no V8, but it still has plenty of go. The four-cylinder will probably be sufficient, just like it is in the Contour/Mystique. But it's an engine for those who like show, not go. Either engine is
fed through a standard five-speed transmission. A four-speed automatic is optional. The automatic transmission never shifted smoothly, and felt unhappy mated to the V6. It might just have been the test vehicle, but try bot h the manual and autom
atic versions before you decide. Braking ability also depends on engine choice. Four-cylinder models get front disc/rear drum brakes' six-cylinder models get four-wheel discs. Six-cylinder models also get larger tires (P215/50R16 vs. P205/ 60R15 for
four-cylinder models). Anti-lock brakes and traction control are optional, and both are highly recommended. Side air bags are optional as well. So, from a performance standpoint, everything's here that an enthusiast could want, even a pleasing
exhaust note. So what's the inside story? Space is typical sport coupe, with 2+2 seating. That means comfy, supportive bucket seats up front, with good headroom. The rear is supposedly for two people, although headroom is a little sparse. But
this is one clever cat -- it's a hatchback. That means lots of flexible space when you fold down the split rear seats. The dash is a real work of art. You can tell someone designed this vehicle with a sporting flair. Yet the materials are a bit
cheesy feeling, a disappointment in an otherwise nicely designed automobile. But look at the round air vents and how they function with a small clever twist; the pseudo-titanium color of the center of the dash; the clever arch of the door handles.
It's almost good enough for MOMA. Despite the high-intensity design, it's ergonomically sound, although the stereo is buried below the climate controls. Gauges are clear and easy to read. Turn signal and wiper stalks are short, stubby and easy
to reach without removing your hand from the steering wheel. The steering is nicely weighted, with some road feel, but can be a bit heavy. But one must always live with some compromise in a sporty coupe, and this one has few that would outweigh its
stunning design and nimble chassis. This is the current height of fashion in a market that has few competitors and fewer that are as new as this cat. That means the Cougar's a must-see for anyone looking for a sporty, fun-to-drive coupe with an
international flavor. 1999 Mercury Cougar Engines: 2.0-liter 16-valve four-cylinder or 2.5-liter 24-valve V6 Transmissions: Five-speed manual standard, four-speed automatic optional Tires: 205/60R15 or 215/50R16 Standard:
Power windows/locks/mirrors, air conditioning, tilt wheel, AM/FM/cassette stereo intermittent wipers, projector beam headlamps, power driver's seat Major options: V6 Sport Group, V6 Convenience Group, premium sound ABS, traction control side airbags
Base price, base model: $16,695 Base price, test model: $16,695 As tested: $22,375 EPA rating: 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway Test mileage: 24 mpg