Maybe it was the paint job that did it.

My eyes had barely adjusted to the glow-in-the-dark "Zinc Yellow" of our 2001 Mercury Cougar Special Edition Zn by the time my right foot stomped and my heart sank.


Sorry, Cougar, your growl is worse than your bite.

Where was the oomph of the upgraded V6 engine? Where was the "fun to drive" factor Mercury bragged about? And where was the bounce in a new, improved cat that promised to steal you away from all the other sport coupes?

Redesigned, repackaged and relabeled with fancy names on special edition models, this year's Mercury Cougar is an animal without the moxie. From the inside-out, it's a stunner, to be sure - "It says ... here I am. Look at me," said Jennifer Moneagle, Mercury Group's Brand Manager. And with sharp edges, big spoilers and a wrap-around interior, she's right. It's just not a racer.

At the very least, among younger buyers and female drivers, the Cougar's been a winner since it first rolled off a Michigan assembly line in '99 with edgy, wedgy styling in a small sport-coupe package. The V6 was an option then, a four cylinder the standard. A manual transmission a must.

In a field of overachievers - the Acura Integra, the Toyota Celica - the Cougar suffered at the stoplight. Buyers claimed it was sporty enough in the suspension department, it was just lethargic in the fun-quotient. So for 2001, Mercury went back to the drawing board and came up with ... the same thing. Almost.

Cosmetically, anyway, things are new and improved.

This year's "Edge" Cougars (as Mercury calls them) get nose and rear updates, adding a more rounded exterior to what was an angular ride. Its bubble-shaped headlights have been tucked into a flat, covered, cat-eye casing with smoked lenses - much to the delight of insurance companies that paid out for every busted lamp. And the back end has been bolstered by an aggressive-looking spoiler that gives Cougar a whole new edge.

The Special Edition Zn, our tester, features the afore-mentioned stare-at-me yellow paint, a hood scoop, 17-inch wheels, black sport seats and a six-disc changer.

There's also a new grille, new fog lights and new colors - Dark Shadow Grey, Tropic Green and French Blue.

French Blue? We digress.

Inside, the changes are also obvious and good. Cougar does a great job of making the conventional unconventional. With a rubberized finish that stretches from the driver's side door to the passenger and back, the interior is a mix of Euro flash and North American dash.

This year, in the V6 Sport and S models, the instrument panel and pedals get an aluminum-edged makeover and gauges are clustered together in an easy-to-see cockpit of ebb and flow. The center-positioned stereo system is upgraded to include a standard single-disc system and melds well with the easy-to-use climate control system that spits through circular vents.

Again, more kudos for a car already cons idered one of the more distinctly styled vehicles on the road. It's just getting down the road that we had a problem with.

Underneath the skin, most of the components of the Cougar feel eerily familiar. It is still blessed with an excellent suspension, crisp handling and powerful brakes - all of which make for fun driving in tight corners. With the Zn package, ride quality is a little thumpy and harsh, but the suspension is retuned for flat cornering and a tighter ride.

It just doesn't move you when you really want to move.

Ford offers a 125-horse, four-cylinder as its base engine, not exactly the kind of vrooms you expect for the "ooohs," of its exterior. Our Zn Cougar came with a 2.5-liter V6 that produced 170 ponies, most of which must have been left at the stable. Stomp on the pedal and watch the Cougar hesitate, then roll - not flat-out fly (we measured 0-to-60 mph in 10 seconds).

Compare that to a Volkwagen GTI or a Mitsubishi Eclipse, and the Cougar co s out a bit shy.

In city driving it was adequate, but take it on the highway and better hope there isn't a need for slick passing. The automatic transmission didn't help. It had a tendency to quickly thrust into overdrive, which usually meant cruising at 40 mph at 1,400 rpm - barely enough to get a pulse.

Passing required a second thought; racing was an afterthought. We think a manual would make a difference.

Thank heaven - or Mercury - for the limited-production Cougar S. The Cougar S comes standard with a 200 horsepower V6, a manual-only transmission, 17-inch wheels and a suspension ready to really roar. On the whole, the new S will be a welcome sight for those more in tune with driveability than Sunday drives.

Just don't punish your friends in either model by asking them on a long trip. The back seats are smooth, contoured and shaped to fit; they're also too tight under the headliner. My 5-foot-nothing frame barely snuck under the rear glass, forcing me to tilt forward or sink down to avoid banging my head. That doesn't bode well for the rest of the population.

Trunk space, on the other hand, is downright plentiful. A pop-up hatch allows for plenty of groceries, just watch for blind spots backing out with the rear wings arched.

Pricing is also a plus. In many ways, this is still a very reasonable first buy. At just over $17,000, the base Cougar offers plenty of options without a lot of cost at the dealer or the pump. Fuel mileage is respectable (20 mpg city/29 highway) and standard features include power windows, power locks, keyless entry and air conditioning.

Step up to the V6 Sport Group ($865) in the Zn and you'll get the spoiler, front fog lamps and a warning system.

All totaled, the Cougar Zn rolls in at a shade over $23,000 - not under-priced and not over.

Regrettably, just underpowered.


Rating: 2

HIGH GEAR: With unique styling, plenty of standard features, solid handling and lots of trunk room, the new Cougar keeps much of what made it a solid buy. Just as it always has, it corners with tenacity and, stylistically, captivates from the inside-out.

LOW GEAR: Acceleration, even out of the 170-horse model, is seriously lacking, especially in a manual. Rear-seat room isn't tight, it's downright suffocating.

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, front-engine, two-door, four-passenger hatchback.

Standard equipment: Five-speed maul transmission; dual front airbags; air conditioning; power, tilt steering; power driver's seat; heated, power mirrors; power windows and locks; AM/FM/CD audio system; theft-deterrent system; alloy wheels.

Competition: Acura Integra, Ford Mustang, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Toyota Celica

Engine: 170 horsepower, 2.5-liter V6

Torque: 165 foot-lbs. @ 4,250 rpm

Wheelbase: 106.4 inches

Length: 185 inches

MP G rating: 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway

Manufactured: USA

Warranty: The basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; the drivetrain is three years/36,000 miles; body corrosion is five years/unlimited miles; and roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price (I4 model): $17,200

Price as tested (Zn, including options, destination and delivery): $23,680

Jason Stein's column appears every Monday in Business. Each review is based on a one-week test of a vehicle supplied directly from the manufacturer. Jason can be reached by e-mail at