How Mercury Cars Work

The Mercury Cougar in the 1980s

The redesign for the 1983 Mercury Cougars brought buyers back to the nameplate, even though it was now a Ford Thunderbird under the skin.

Cougar was Mercury's most-dramatic success of the 1980s -- not the 1970s-era sedan series but L-M's version of the Ford Thunderbird. Blocky and ornate, the downsized XR-7 of the 1970s was little changed through 1982, and laid a gigantic sales egg, dropping below 20,000 units.

But then came 1983's handsome aerodynamic redesign, and volume more than tripled, reaching nearly 76,000 units. Sales rose by another 55,000 for 1984, then held above 100,000 through 1988.

This Cougar had almost everything the latest T-Bird did -- which was plenty. Aiming for a more-conservative clientele, Mercury gave it a near-vertical rear roofline and offered a standard 232-cid V-6 or optional 302 V-8.

The essential Fox chassis of 1980-82 was retained, but more finely tuned for a better ride/handling balance, and interiors could be downright luxurious with just a modicum of options. No XR-7 model was offered at first, but it returned for 1984 as a counterpart to the Thunder­bird Turbo Coupe, with the same hyperaspirated 145-cid four, appropriately beefed-up suspension, and standard five-speed manual transmission. The last was an item that ­hadn't been seen on Cougars since the 1960s.

In all, it was a most pleasing package, made even more so by an interim facelift for 1987, Cougar's 20th anniversary. This involved larger-appearing windows and a shapelier nose bearing flush headlamps and a more-rakish grille.

At the same time, the XR-7 swapped its turbo four-cylinder for a newly fuel-injected 302 V-8 with 155 horses. For '88 came a hotter XR-7 with monochrome exterior and dual exhausts for the V-8, plus 20 more horsepower for the base V-6 (now at 140 total).

But all this was merely a warm-up for the spectacular 1989 Cougar. Based on another all-new T-Bird, it emerged lower and wider but no longer despite a 113-inch wheelbase (previously 104.2). Styling was even more smoothly aero­dynamic, but a vertical backlight and upright grille again lent visual distinction.

The new Cougar followed the 1989 Thunderbird in forsaking both a V-8 and the old turbo-four for a pair of fuel-injected 232 V-6s: a normally aspirated 140-bhp unit for the base LS model and a 210-bhp supercharged version with intercooler for the high-­performance XR-7 -- America's first supercharged six since the 1954-55 Kaiser Manhattan.

It was mounted in a sophisticated new chassis with all-independent suspension, variable-rate shock absorbers, and other technical features that made the new Cougar a road car worthy of comparison with premium European coupes.

No doubt about it: Cougar had been fully transformed in a satis­fying way. Sales remained satisfying too, though volume was down somewhat: to about 97,000 for 1989, then to a more-worrisome 81,500. Higher prices were undoubtedly a factor: nearly $16,000 for the 1990 LS, a bit over $20,000 for the XR-7. Still, those price tags looked reasonable against the far loftier stickers of imported sports-luxury coupes.

For more information on Mercury models, see:

  • Mercury New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Mercury Used Car Reviews and Prices