Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Euro Cat

The Mercury Cougar lives

By Marc Stengel

MAY 17, 1999:  I would have never really suspected that Ford Motor Company was a closet cat lover. Then again, the company did purchase the exhausted Jaguar concern earlier this decade. In 1998, however, Ford's Mercury Division made no apologies for perpetrating a singularly calculating act of felinicide: The company put its Cougar to sleep just as the sports coupe celebrated its 30th birthday.

By that point, it was obvious that Cougar's (often wayward) nine lives were all used up. From its late-'60s youth as a sporty muscle car with European pretensions, Cougar aged and atrophied over the decades into a bloated two-door cruiser lost somewhere in the marketing lineup between Ford's Thunderbird and Lincoln's Mark VIII. By the late '90s, Cougar's appeal was about as fossilized as that of a saber-toothed tiger, and Ford decided that the better part of valor would simply be to kill the cat and move on.

Or so it appeared. Ford actually had a much more subtle plan in store whereby Cougar, after a year's interlude in the underworld, should return reborn and resolved to lead its next nine lives in far more exemplary fashion.

Most significant in Cougar's resurrection is its decidedly European expression of a vaguely extraterrestrial sartorial style. This, it seems, is North America's first encounter with Ford's "New Edge" product design and business philosophy, which champions global cooperation--and taste--in place of national idiosyncrasy. In keeping with Ford's world-car convictions, the new Cougar exploits the sophisticated mechanical platform of Ford's Euro bestseller, the Mondeo sedan. Herein lies the irony: Mondeo is also the archetype for the company's lackluster North American models, the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique.

In contrast to the sedan's rounded, extruded shape, the Cougar wears a taut skin of sheetmetal that has been pleated and creased in provocative ways. There's a suggestion of the doped fabric that was stretched over the wings and fuselages of early aircraft and dirigibles. The Cougar's interior exploits the theme of its exterior more completely--and self-consciously--than any other contemporary vehicle. A unique arc in the door panels extends the line of the hood directly into the cockpit, as if a Roman ballista were cinched tight to maximum tension. Switches for standard power windows and door locks fit into the top of the arc, with the sculpted door handle nestled just behind. Instruments and gauges, illuminated by an eerie blue miasma, peep out of their binnacle in the dash between three-vane air vents that hark back to the '60s.

Seats up front are sporty buckets, faced in optional leather for $895. Supplementary side air bags in the outboard bolster are optional as well ($375) and are designed for head and neck protection as well as for the torso. Rear seating is of the deep-dish, only-if-you-hafta variety. At least the lowered cushions force the thighs to angle upward, allowing one's calves to squeeze smartly into the 33.2-inch minimum legroom. For the V6 tested here, a $775 Sport Group adds a number of cosmetic interior and exterior goodies such as fog lamps, rear spoiler, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. Optional four-wheel-disk brakes and 16-inch wheels come with this package as well, although ABS brakes require yet another $500 outlay.

The Cougar's powertrain is perhaps the most favorable reminder of its Mondeo pedigree. Worldwide, auto enthusiasts are virtually unanimous in their acclaim for the 125-horsepower four-cylinder Zetec and V6 Duratec twin-cam engines, both of which are available in the Cougar. The V6 makes 170 horsepower and is plenty competitive for this class of car and weight (2,800 lbs.). Its short-throw five-speed manual transmission makes positive enough shifts that nevertheless feel just a little spongy.

What's a bit unusual in an American context is the engine's relatively high-rpm powerband, which delivers power "late." Torque builds slowly only to unspool in a heady rush toward peak output at 4,250 rpm. The result is an encouragement to "gas it hard" when starting from a stand-still and to "stoke the revs" for better throttle response by sticking with lower gears 'round town. Understandably, this sort of technique raises interior noise levels beyond that of, say, a Sunday driver's lazy cruise. Just the same, out in the wild backroad yonder, the Cougar coaxes redline gear changes on its way to thrilling speed--often before you're even aware.

In its resurrected state, Cougar is the only model the Mercury division doesn't have to share with anyone else--not even in Europe, where the Mercury badge probably hasn't been seen for half a century. How ironic, then, that this Euro-designed, U.S.-built sport coupe suffers a unique form of suspension schizophrenia.

On the eve of Cougar's introduction to the States last year, Mercury's British and German design team decided at the last minute to test-drive the car on American roads. "We were horrified," admitted Ford's Martin Lunt to Automotive News; the car "rode harshly and noisily, and the suspension settings were obviously unacceptable to an American audience." Straining for a diplomatic tone, the Cougar's British chief engineer conceded, "We found there was no substitute for testing over extensive disturbances on the broken concrete of public roads in North America."

Fortunately, there was just enough time to make last-minute, significant re-calibrations of suspension settings to "tune" ride and handling to "the broken and hole-scarred pavement of U.S. highways at U.S. speeds." Euro models, on the other hand, will retain their original settings and, as a result, a bit more of Cougar's authentic sporty road feel. For American buyers, however, that may be just as well. It's enough for now to have a spirited Cougar back in the hunt, even if it means prowling 'midst the potholes on little cat feet.

Pants on fire

As if car dealers didn't have enough trouble trying to banish a reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts, GM's Cadillac Division admitted last week that it lied to win last year's sales contest with Ford's archrival Lincoln Division. As reported here last month, Cadillac was exultant for having inched past Lincoln by a scant 222 vehicles to retain the luxury-car sales crown for '98. The dramatic come-from-behind victory prevented Lincoln from besting Cadillac for the first time in their rivalry of at least half a century.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal and other sources last week, however, Cadillac's so-called victory depended solely upon a bare-faced lie: The division consciously overstated its December sales by 4,773 vehicles. We now know that Lincoln did indeed outsell Cadillac by 4,551 vehicles, based on the following audited annual figures: Lincoln 187,121, Cadillac 182,570.

Alas, Lincoln has been preempted until now from crowing about its feat with the traditional self-congratulatory fanfare that marks the arrival of each new model year. The chance to do so again may be a long time coming: Mercedes-Benz has become the leading luxury brand through April '99, with sales of 56,716 so far this year. Toyota's Lexus Division, too, has managed to wiggle through the crack that Mercedes pried open to earn second rank to date. That leaves Cadillac in third place and Lincoln a distant fifth behind BMW.

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