Sporty handling, good passing power in a stylish coupe.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $16,540
As Tested $19,890
Mercury's Cougar combines edgy styling with sporty handling and an available V6 engine. The 1967 Cougar combined style and performance, and Mercury says it tried to achieve that same balance when designing this newest generation model with front-wheel drive.
Two engines are available. The base engine is the Zetec, a 2.0-liter double overhead-cam, 16-valve inline-4 rated at 125 horsepower and 130 foot-pounds of torque. Optional is a 2.5-liter dohc, 24-valve Duratec V6 rated at 170 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque.
You can tell which engine the car has by looking at the wheels and tires: Six-spoke 16-inch wheels come with the V6 model, five-spoke 15-inch wheels come with the 4-cylinder model. A rear spoiler comes standard with the V6, but can be deleted for a $235 credit; it's a $235 option with the 4-cylinder.
Base Cougar comes with air conditioning, 15-inch aluminum wheels, power windows, power door locks, power height-adjustable seat and AM/FM/cassette stereo. The Sport V6 option includes the spoiler, 16-inch wheels, disc brakes, fog lamps, sport seats, high-level trim, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. A convenience group adds cruise control, rear washer and the premium stereo. An automatic transmission is available only on the V6 model. Options include side airbags, ABS and traction control, a sunroof, and an in-dash CD player.
With its catlike headlamps and sweeping lines, the Cougar looks like nothing else on the road. This coupe features smooth, sculpted surfaces defined by clean folds and sharp intersections. Parts of this car looks like it was sculpted with a sharp knife, while the rear fender is rounded, and reminiscent of the Lexus SC. This car offers some nice exterior details: Small triangles show the location for the jacking points. Side markers act as turn signals to alert drivers next door.
Cougar looks ready for high speeds and winding roads. Part of the reason for this is its relatively long wheelbase with European-style short overhangs.
The exterior's New Edge school of design is carried inside with a sweeping arc that encompasses the driver's domain. It's a highly functional environment that's entertaining to the eye. Sporty instruments feature white numbers on a dark gray background. Switchgear looks high-tech and is highly functional. Sturdy bullet air vents feature individual integrated on/off switches.
The front bucket seats are firm and supportive. Getting in back is easy and the rear buckets are surprisingly comfortable. Scooped out seat bottoms provide good headroom, while space under the front seats provides manageable legroom. Still, this is no sedan. No one will want to ride for long periods of time back there.
Cougar offers surprisingly good handling and solid stability at speed as I discovered at Road Atlanta, a gutsy high-speed road-racing circuit in north Georgia. Nowhere was this more noticeable than at the entrance to Turn 2, a relatively slow technical spot in terms of chassis dynamics. The turn-in point for this right-hand corner is at the top of a hill and is immediately preceded by a quick left. I crested the hill topped out in third gear. Because the car is cresting the hill, the suspension is unloaded and there is little weight on the tires - a difficult place for smooth braking. But fairly hard braking is required to slow the car and it's easy to brake too late and shoot past the turn-in point. Braking and turning at the same time is always a challenge and it's very tricky with the suspension unloaded. It's easy to spin the car in this situation.
But the Cougar felt rock solid at the turn-in point, allowing me to open up the V6, plunge down the hill and take the following set of high-speed curves flat out. By comparison, a previous-generation Mitsubishi Eclipse GS felt uncertain in Turn 2, which reduced exit speed from the corner. A Saturn SC2 felt downright crude, though it handled fairly well. Through the high-speed turns, the Cougar was the Rock of Gibraltar. Its steering offered better feel than the other two cars and the suspension provided more control.
Cougar's platform is based on the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, but rides on a wider track - the distance between the right and left tires - and uses a much firmer suspension to please enthusiast drivers. A rigid chassis, stiff anti-roll bars, and high-rate springs are designed to enhance handling. Specially designed motor mounts are intended to reduce noise. Weight distribution is 50/50. The front suspension uses MacPherson struts with coil springs and lower A-arms. The rear is a Quadralink system with strut-type coil spring/dampers and passive rear steering.
The racetrack exercise was followed by a lengthy blast through the mountains north of Atlanta where the Cougar clung to the road like a cat clinging to a tree. The Cougar felt at home in the mountains and seemed aptly named there. Its stability provided confidence while its crisp handling and brisk throttle response encouraged spirited driving. The brakes, which use rotors borrowed from the high-performance SVT Ford Contour, performed without fade in spite of repeated hard use.
My impressions were reinforced a week later, where the Cougar's precise steering and well-tuned suspension helped it slice cleanly through a tight autocross course near Baltimore. By comparison, an SC2 seemed to collect pylons, and the power steering pump on an Eclipse GS could not keep up with steering inputs through the slalom.
The base Cougar is a highly capable car that encourages spirited driving. Ford's 4-cylinder Zetec engine provides good response at highway speeds. This engine weighs less than the V6, which improves the balance of the car.
Still, it seems a shame to order a Cougar without the brilliant Duratec V6. Smooth and sophisticated while cruising, it emits a satisfying growl when riled. While it doesn't give the Cougar the punch of an Acura Integra GS-R or Honda Prelude SH, it could keep up with those two sport coupes on north Georgia's mountainous roads. Just don't get talked into a drag race for pink slips because you might lose. Low-speed and standing-start acceleration is good, but passing power is excellent. Top speed is estimated at 137 mph, but we haven't tried that.
The smooth-shifting 5-speed manual gearbox is suited well to the V6, with ratios that complement the torque of the engine. We highly recommend it. The four-speed automatic is designed to offer smooth shifting and to minimize hunting for gears when traveling up and down long grades.
Though it handles well, the Cougar's suspension offers impressively good compliance for a nice, smooth ride on rough pavement.
Driving enthusiasts in the market for a sport coupe should take a close look at the Cougar V6. People who want a stylish, practical coupe can't go wrong with the 4-cylinder model. Both are priced aggressively to compete with respective models from Japan.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.