How Mercury Cars Work

Mercury ''Cub'' Cougar

Sales peaked early and then tailed off for the smaller but surprisingly peppy Mercury Cougar, shown here in its initial model year of 1999.

The vintage-1989 Cougar was cancelled after 1997 sales of just over 35,000, less than half the volume of four years before. There was no surprise in this. Buyers had been turning away from big coupes, and the basic Thunderbird-based package looked quite dated after nine model years.

Though the old 5.0-liter V-8 option was replaced for '94 by the modern 4.6-liter "mod" unit, it was a decidedly mixed blessing that netted only 10 more horses and perceptibly less low-end torque. And whatever buyers still expected of the XR7 name, they were surely disappointed in the base version with its coarse pushrod V-6 dating from the 1980s.

But while Ford went to working up a new T-Bird, Mercury had a new Cougar at the ready, a model with no Blue Oval counterpart. It arrived for 1999 as a front-wheel-drive hatchback coupe based on the Contour/Mystique platform.

Wearing the most adventuresome Mercury styling in many years, this "cub" Cougar, the smallest ever, opened to mixed reviews, but benefitted from fortuitous timing, as demand for compact performance coupes was on the rise. A relatively long wheelbase gave it a decent ride, and adept suspension calibrations gave it fine handling.

Though Mystique's 125-bhp 2.0-liter twincam-four engine was standard, the optional 170-bhp Duratec V-6 proved far more popular, delivering excellent performance for only $500 extra. So equipped, the new small cat was a budget-pleasing match for most Japanese competitors. Not everyone was thrilled. Consumer Guide®, for one, found plenty to criticize, though others reacted more favorably.

A Cougar S with a 195-bhp V-6 was in the works for 2000, but never appeared. There was no point. As often happens with trendy cars, Cougar sales peaked early -- at nearly 57,000 for calendar '99 -- then tailed off. The model was thus abolished after 2002 with no interim changes of note save a minor '01 facelift.

Offered throughout the run was a desirable V-6 Sport, a package option through 2001, and a separate model for '02. The V-6 Sport delivered such worthwhile upgrades as wider tires on 16-inch wheels (versus 15s), four-wheel disc brakes (made standard for all '02s), foglights, grippier seats, and a rear spoiler. Antilock brakes, traction control and front side airbags were available, but only with V-6. So, too, a few late-game cosmetic packages: C2 and Zn for 2001, XR and 35th Anniversary for '02.

The last pair was interesting. The $950 XR option comprised 17-inch wheels, high-speed tires, special interior trim, and body add-ons attributed to veteran Ford racing specialist Jack Roush. The $1195 35th Anniversary package also featured a specific rear spoiler and dummy hood scoop, plus chrome wheels and firmer sport suspension. It wasn't much of a birthday present, but at least Cougar hung on long enough to mark the occasion.

Mercury seemed to lose interest in the small Cougar soon after the press introduction (for which it secured the services of late-night TV host and genial car guy Jay Leno). That was perhaps understandable given the early sales slide and strong new competition, especially the Honda-built Acura RSX.

But the main reason this Cougar died early was cancellation of the parent Contour/Mystique after 2000, which rendered it a platform orphan with insufficient sales to cover manufacturing costs.

For more information on Mercury models, see:

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