New & Used Mercury Cougar: In Depth
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Mercury Cougar was the badge applied to a wide variety of cars over eight distinct generations, spanning from 1967 to 2002. At times a coupe and a convertible, sometimes a sedan and wagon, then finally a hatchback, the Cougar was at first the counterpart to the Ford Mustang, then generally was paired to the Ford Thunderbird, before it was divorced entirely from any of Ford's domestic offerings--then unceremoniously dropped long before the Mercury brand itself was shut down.
The first-generation Cougar emerged in 1967, and was sold through 1970. A pony car developed in the wake of the success of Ford's Mustang, the original Cougar bore all the hallmarks that had made the Mustang a runaway success. It was offered as a hardtop coupe in the first year, in either base or XR-7 trim, with a choice of V-8 engines that ranged from 200 to 335 horsepower. Three inches longer than the contemporary Mustang, the 1967 Cougar had a unique style with some of the flair of the '67 Thunderbird, and a woodgrain dash. A GT package with an upgraded suspension and a big-block V-8 was offered. Changes were relatively few through the first generation; a convertible was added in the 1969 model year, and the grille was restyled; Ford's 351-cubic-inch V-8 was added to the lineup.
The Cougar upsized in its second generation only slightly, but in terms of styling, it veered off in a far more formal vein that would continue through the 1982 model year, through four generations. The grille of the second-gen Cougar was projected at its center, and the headlights were exposed and surrounded by lots of chrome, in contrast to the swoopy rear pillar. Coupe and convertible body styles were offered, and the Windsor and Cleveland V-8s returned, as did the Cobra Jet 429 in very limited numbers. But the muscle-car era was drawing to a close, and gas prices were on the rise--so Mercury dropped big-block V-8s in 1972.
For the third-generation Cougar, Mercury swapped out its Mustang-derived running gear for a platform shared with the Mercury Montego/Ford Torino and Thunderbird, while it dropped its convertible body style for good. More luxurious than ever, it had opera windows, vinyl tops, and a woodgrain interior. The wheelbase grew to 114 inches, making it a rival for GM's Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevy Monte Carlo. From 1974 to 1976, Mercury offered a range of V-8 engines, but only an automatic transmission.
Now that it was essentially twinned with the Thunderbird, the fourth-generation Cougar was radically downsized, just as Ford's T-Bird was. The two-door coupe was more than a foot shorter than the previous car--but Mercury had more to offer in body styles, adding a sedan and a wagon to the lineup, if only briefly. Styling was much more angular like the contemporary Thunderbird, and power came from an all-V-8 lineup, all well below 200 hp. The wagon model was dropped after one year, but the two-door was a success as the Thunderbird was.
In 1980, Mercury introduced the fifth-generation Cougar, again downsized sharply--and now a part of the Fox-platform family of cars that included the Fairmont, Zephyr, and Granada. Two-door, four-door, and wagon body styles were offered, and the Cougar adopted a hopelessly baroque, angular style that looked awkward on its short body. Engines were all over the map, depending on body style, everything from a base 88-horsepower four with a manual transmission, to a 302-cubic-inch V-8 paired with an automatic. In 1982 the wagon returned after a year on hiatus, and a Villager trim level brought fake woodgrain to its body. It would be the end of the line for anything Cougar with more than two doors.
In 1983, the Cougar joined the Thunderbird in embracing a truly visionary, aerodynamic future. Scrapping all shreds of the Cougar's past, Mercury gave the sixth-generation car a sleek new shape with just a hint of a formal roofline to distinguish it from the slippery Thunderbird. It was a sales hit--even outselling the very popular Thunderbird. Still a rear-driver, this Cougar came in Essex V-6 base trim, while a turbocharged XR-7 four-cylinder joined the lineup along with Ford's 4.9-liter V-8. Most versions had a three-speed automatic, though turbos could opt for a five-speed manual. In 1984, the Cougar got fuel injection; in 1985, it gained a digital dash.
For its seventh generation, the Cougar was completely new, riding on the MN12 architecture that underpinned the new Thunderbird and a Lincoln coupe, the Mark VIII. For the first time it received an independent rear suspension, and a much more spacious back seat thanks to a nine-inch stretch in wheelbase. It was introduced in the 1989 model year without a V-8 engine; the carryover V-6 was coupled to a four-speed automatic. Very spare, plain styling accompanied the revamp, as did new features like anti-lock brakes and a supercharged V-6 slotted into XR-7 models. As sales of all luxury coupes began to slow in the early 1990s, Mercury swapped out the supercharged six for the 4.9-liter V-8, and eventually made all Cougars V-8s, coupled to a four-speed automatic. A facelift for the Cougar accompanied the new Ford modular V-8, installed in 1996.
In 1997, Ford stopped production of the Cougar, putting the nameplate on hiatus until 1999. At the time it had been planning a third generation of the Probe compact, but to give Mercury a much-needed new face, the car in development was made a new Mercury Cougar. Radically smaller and based on Ford's front-drive Contour sedan, the new Cougar made its debut in the 1999 model year. A sharp-edged, sporty coupe at long last, the smart-looking Cougar was derived from Mazda's 626 running gear, and was built alongside Mazda products in Flat Rock, Michigan in a single hatchback body style. With an independent suspension, the new Cougar handled well, and came with a choice of a four-cylinder or a six-cylinder engine, with either a manual or an automatic.
Ford's attempt to breathe new life in the Mercury brand met with failure. The Cougar was well-reviewed but was a slow seller. By 2002, the Cougar was dropped from the Mercury lineup, and within five years, Ford would begin the process of shutting down Mercury itself.