Rear-wheel-drive cars have had a bum rap since front-wheel-drive became the norm in the mid-1980s.

The good ol’ boys down south prefer rear-wheel drive to race around the dirt ovals, but bring those cars north to the Snow Belt and see how well they grip when snow is over the top of your boot heels.

At Ford, rear-wheel-drive cars have been delegated to understudy status as attention has been focused on the front-wheel-drive Taurus in its tussle with the front-wheel-drive Honda Accord for the title of the nation’s top-selling car.

The rear-wheel-drive Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar have virtually become invisible at Ford. Of course, another reason Thunderbird and Cougar were given second-fiddle status is that they were overdue for improvement.

The two deserve notice for 1994. Some needed changes have been made.

We test-drove the 1994 Cougar XR7 with the new optional, 4.6-liter V-8. It’s got everything you want in a car-except front-wheel drive, if you are a front-wheel-drive loyalist.

To provide the necessary road grip, however, traction control is available for the new model year. Traction control prevents wheel spin when the vehicle is moving, such as when you make a sharp turn; or trying to move, such as when you attempt to pull away from the light when snow is packed on the pavement. So one of the arguments against rear-wheel drive-poor wet-weather traction-becomes less of an issue for the ’94 Cougar.

And when it comes to stopping, Cougar offers anti-lock brakes, as front-wheel-drive cars do. So no problems there.

Looking back at you from the steering-wheel hub and dashboard top are driver- and passenger-side air bags. Traction control (a $210 option), anti-lock brakes ($565) and dual bags (standard). An excellent trio.

Cougar in past years was a nice-looking luxury coupe, but performance left a bit to be desired. For 1994 the solution is the addition of the 4.6-liter, 190-horsepower engine as an option ($615). It is a 16-valve version of the 32-valve, 280-horsepower V-8 that powers the Lincoln Mark VIII. Hit the pedal and you spring from the light-if you first push the button and disengage overdrive. In overdrive, the shifts are a bit irregular, and the transmission seems to linger before changing gears. With overdrive off, it’s one smooth takeoff.

A 3.8-liter, 140-horsepower V-6 is standard. Considering that the 3.8 delivers only one extra mile per gallon in city driving and 3 m.p.g. less in highway driving than the 4.6, the 4.6 is the obvious choice for those who want to scoot from the light, zip into the passing lane or breeze up the hill.

This summer we drove a 1994 Cougar XR7 with the base 3.8-liter V-6 and without traction control at Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., test track. The 3.8 doesn’t have the life of the 4.6 that was in the car we drove in Chicago. With the 3.8 you back off the accelerator in sharp co rners and wait for the V-6 to take a deep breath before coming back to life once you’ve reached the straightaway again.

Our test car in Chicago was equipped with the optional, wider p215/70R15 tires rather than the standard p205/70R15 tires. The wider tires allow you to sit flatter in turns. The suspension limits body roll and allows you to accelerate coming out of a turn. However, we’d prefer even wider tires for greater road-holding ability.

A few other items worth noting are the fuel-filler-door and trunk-release buttons in the center console and the positioning of controls within easy sight and reach of the driver and passenger. Buttons for the power mirrors, windows and door locks are on the driver’s door, again in an easy-to-see-and-use position. Tilt steering and Freon-free air conditioning are new standard items for 1994.

Seats are wide and supportive, and interior room is very spacious in front, thanks to the placement of the two buc ets in a cockpit-type seating pattern. In back, however, you lose some knee room if the front seat occupants have 32-inch-or-longer inseams.

One of our few gripes with the car is that it’s a two-door in a world that has adopted four doors. Ford proved with the Taurus SHO that a performance car need not be limited to two doors. Pontiac has proved the same thing with Bonneville, Grand Prix and Grand Am. Another complaint is that the dual cupholders are in the center-console armrest at elbow level. To expose the holders you have to leave the console armrest lid open and hope it stays balanced without slamming down on the cups in the holders. And you run the risk of bumping the cups with your arm, because they are at elbow level.

One system missing on our test car that we had the opportunity to experience in Dearborn was the optional cellular phone.

Four buttons in the dash allow you to automatically ring up one of four preprogrammed numbers. A microphone along the rearview mirror provides hands-free operation; you carry on your conversation without having to hold the receiver that’s in the center console.

The base price of the XR7 is $16,260.

Standard equipment includes power brakes and steering; air conditioning; a tilt steering wheel; tinted glass; and dual, power outside mirrors.

Our test car added a $1,510 equipment package that included electric rear-window defroster; dual, illuminated visor vanity mirrors; carpeted floor mats; speed control; power locks; leather-wrapped steering wheel; cast aluminum wheels; and illuminated entry-basically, a lot of gingerbread at caviar prices.

An AM/FM stereo with cassette added $370, a power moonroof $740, keyless entry $215, power seats $290 and leather seats $490.

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