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The Last Mercury Cougar Was One of the Weirdest Ford Products Ever


The Mercury Cougar had a strange life in the few decades that it spent on this Earth. It started out as a rebadged, reskinned, more luxurious version of the Ford Mustang, but then became a “personal luxury coupe” starting in the mid-1970s to compete with the likes of the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and the Chrysler Cordoba. With that change, it became Thunderbird-based, rather than Mustang-based, and got a little less interesting with every generation.

That is, until the eighth and final generation of the Mercury Cougar, which I think was one of the weirdest cars in the Ford conglomerate’s modern history. On its face, it’s not that weird of a car, but its departure from what the Cougar used to be — and its strange attempt to reposition the Mercury brand — is perplexing.

After a one-year hiatus of the last-generation Cougar, which was little more than a rebadged Ford Thunderbird, the nameplate came back for the 1999 model year — not in the form of a rear-wheel drive luxury coupe, but a front-wheel drive sport compact with a 3-door liftback design, kind of like the Mitsubishi Eclipse of the era. Why on Earth would Mercury, a brand best known at the time for selling couches on wheels to seniors, come out with a sport compact like this?

It’s because of the Ford Probe. The eighth-generation Cougar is what the third-generation Probe was supposed to be, but the Probe was too dead to use this platform. This new Probe, now based on the Ford Contour rather than the Mazda MX-6, was supposed to come out for the 1998 model year — but instead, Ford announced they were shaking up their coupe offerings by discontinuing the Thunderbird and the Probe along with the Lincoln Mark VIII.

So this new Ford Probe was all set and ready to be built and sent to Ford dealers to be offered as a sport compact to accompany the Mustang in showrooms, but instead they slapped some Mercury badges on it and it shared a dealer lot with the likes of the Grand Marquis, the Mountaineer and the Villager instead. This new Cougar was just out of place at Mercury dealers — and the poor sales staffs didn’t know how to sell a sport compact, as it wasn’t something their usual clientele was interested in.

But get this. This thing was sold in Europe as the Ford Cougar! Because the Mercury brand didn’t exist in Europe, they just sold it as a Ford. But that begs the question: if they were going to make this car available as a Ford in Europe, why not just keep the Probe name?

Now, about the car itself. The Cougar could be had with either an inline-four or a Duratec V6, both of which were available with either an automatic or manual transmission. The hottest one you could get was a V6-powered Cougar with the “Sport Package,” which included 4-wheel ventilated disc brakes, a speed governor delete and 16-in alloy wheels. It wasn’t the sportiest thing on the planet, but I imagine these were fun little cars when properly equipped.

The sad thing about this Cougar is the two concept versions of it that never came to light. There was the “Eliminator,” which was supercharged, and the “Cougar S,” which upgraded to a 3.0-liter V6 and even added all-wheel drive. Bringing either of those into production would have made this car a lot more interesting.

The Cougar was discontinued in 2002 due to just not having a donor platform, since the Contour was discontinued two years earlier. The eighth-generation Cougar is a good example of a weird car that wasn’t necessarily bad but was just out of its element. Find a Mercury Cougar for sale

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8 COMMENTS

  1. The mid-seventies Cougar was Torino based when it debuted in 1974. The ’77 T-Bird was also Torino based. As was my ’74 Montego MX coupe, which was nearly identical to my sister’s boyfriend’s ’74 Cougar.

  2. I owned a 2001 Cougar V6 and replaced it with a 2003 Focus SVT (after a Camry decided to total my car while at a stop). The SVT handled better, and was quicker… But man do I miss that Cougar. Just a unique little car.

  3. One of the only cars I’ve ever driven where the A/C compressor cycling on and off had a noticeable impact on power (4-Cyl).

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Eric Brandt
Eric Brandt is an author specializing in Oversteer content, new car reviews, and finding the best car, truck, and SUV deals each month. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Eric can often be found exploring the north woods on his 1983 Honda Gold Wing when the weather allows it. Father of four, husband of one, and unapologetic minivan enthusiast. Eric mastered driving stick by having a 3-cylinder Chevy... Read More about Eric Brandt

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