The most intriguing aspect of Mercury’s new-for-’99 Cougar coupe is the brochure that the company is directing to its dealers. “Who are these people?” it asks alongside photographs of spiky-haired snowboarders and tattooed vixens riding mountain bikes. The answer is cautionary and urgent: They are your next generation of car customers, so don’t blow ’em off...understand? This from the near-anonymous Ford Company division whose average customer was, until recently, 63 years old.
Such is the image/age/sales-revolution Mercury is hoping to effect with the debut of its resurrected Cougar sport coupe. When Ford retired the twin Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar platform for the ’98 model year, auto buffs scarcely mourned the passing. After a moderately successful 31-year run, the ’66 Cougar musclecar had evolved into a ’90s fat cat with hardly more ambition than to curl up onto a soft comforter for a nap beside a sunny window. For ’99, Mercury has gone back into the design jungle and emerged with another kind of kitty entirely. Bearing an angular, sharp-edged exterior and an athletic powertrain and chassis, the new Cougar means to slice its way into a completely new customer base. “Escape claws” is more than just an overly clever ad tag for this car; it’s also the high-priority mission that Mercury must accomplish to evade a moribund fate.
The new Cougar combines sparkle and substance in interesting ways. Based on the Ford’s European Mondeo platform, it shares a pedigree with Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique models in the U.S. Much more than even these sedans, however, the Flint, Michigan-made Cougar coupe is a global project that will ship virtually unchanged throughout North America and Europe (where it will wear Ford Cougar badging). Judging by the radically angular flying-wedge profile, and by a design team comprising U.S., British, and German engineers in even proportions, Cougar follows a distinctly European playbook in its bid for Gen-X sympathies.
Mercury unveiled the Cougar for auto journalists last week at Road Atlanta raceway, where the coupe’s new persona was immediately apparent. This is not your typical American or Japanese afforda-coupe. Ironically, as the famed roadracing venue was being groomed in a multimillion-dollar bid to attract European World Sports Car and Formula One events, the front-drive Cougars mimicked sporty Eurocars as they drifted through the esses with confident and predictable direction changes. Sweeping right and uphill in full third-gear acceleration put the car at the limits of tire adhesion, yet steering remained firm and precise. Whether cornering or braking hard, a taut suspension resisted body rollthe nemesis of both handling and driver confidence. A broad and lusty powerband characterizes Cougar’s twin-cam V6. It glories in the midrangesay, 3400 rpm. A little sluggishness in revving to red-line is the primary reminder of its civilian status.
Several hundred miles of sport-touring through the famed “twisties” of northeast Georgia highways confirmed the Cougar’s Euro sensibilities. The car is not only conspicuously out of place in this NASCAR neighborhood of “Awesome Bill [Elliott] from Dawsonville,” it is also adept at making cut-and-thrust passes around logging trucks and at making hard, full stops behind school buses that suddenly appear around the next hairpin.
In short, the car couldn’t bear any less resemblance to the floaty, boaty V8 Cougar of yore. Two engines are available. The 2.0-liter inline-four makes 125 HP and delivers 24/34 miles per gallon city/highway with a manual transmission; the 2.5-liter V6 gets 19/28 MPG. The interior is edgy and newleading to Mercury’s adoption of “New Edge Design” as its aesthetic touchstone. A giant, sickle-shaped comma, for example, sweeps from dash to rocker sill in each door panel; here is where form and function, together, dictate placement of the standard power window and lock switches. Contrary to its own staid tradition, Mercury has abandoned the interlock between Cougar’s optional fog lamps and its low-beam headlights. How Euro, in other words, to burn those low-mounted cat’s-eye fog lamps at dusk, with running lights providing just the right touch of amber accent.
Seating upholstery is drum-skin tightcomfortable enough and a real boon to aggressive driving; but it is a little dismissive of personal preferences. “You must sit up straight,” the non-adjusting lumbar bubble seems to scold. The optional power adjusters require a blind grope to locate them under the driver’s left knee; the steering wheel tilt lever is deep-set into the dash near a nest of wiring spaghetti.
The front seats, however, are exemplary for at least one thing: They incorporate optional seat-mounted side airbagstouted as the first ones in a small coupeto provide combined head, neck, and thorax cushioning. Safety, that invisible “hard sell” for manufacturers, is indeed one of Cougar’s image-buster attributes. Despite the inherent engineering challenge posed by a large-opening hatchback, Cougar boasts even more structural rigidity than the Contour SE and Mondeo GT sedans with which it shares a platform. This rigidity, surrounded by deformable crush zones, is meant to ensure an enclosed “safe space” for four occupants.
Computerization yields safety dividends as well. Optional electronic traction control operates, as needed, upon both front-wheel braking and/or engine ignition to control wheelspin during acceleration. Optional anti-lock brakes combine with integrated “electronic brake-force distribution” (EBD); when the weight of the vehicle shifts suddenly to front, rear, or sides, braking pressure reacts appropriately to clamp hardest upon the wheels bearing the most weight. Effectively, EBD preserves the traditional feel and operation of the Cougar’s four-wheel disk brakes by delaying the onset of the anti-lock system until absolutely necessary. The unnaturally demanding braking conditions on Road Atlanta’s race track prove the point; even during “hot laps,” the telltale stutter of ABS-triggered brakes never distracted the driver nor upset the Cougar’s precarious balance. And yet the car scrubbed off speed quickly, predictably, and without significant brake fade.
Even before its appearance in showrooms on May 7, Cougar is shaping up as Mercury’s category-breaker. Betraying the very mind-set that Mercury executives hope to banish with this car, one journalist in attendance at Road Atlanta questioned whether Cougar’s razor-sharp steering feel would appeal to Middle-American matrons, who presumably prefer vague, billowy steering. A nonplused engineer was spared from cooking up a waffling reply by the spontaneous hissing of fellow journalists who were suitably impressed by the car’s stellar steering. To another auto writer’s plaintive plea for more than a single cupholder, the car’s design chief Darrell Behmer could manage only a sigh. Secretly, he must have wondered if breaking America’s fixation with 75-ounce “Big Slurps” might not represent some unforeseen altruistic gesture by this new Cougar.
Ultimately, however, any grand gesture made by this car will be selfishby necessity. Young, hip, nontraditional customers may indeed swell Mercury showrooms in pursuit of the division’s only model not to have a fraternal twin in some other dealership down the street. If they like what they see and drivenot to mention the way they’re made to feel by Mercury salespeopleCougar just might lead this fading brand into a whole new succession of nine lives.
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