The Mercury Cougar, A new breed of cat
by Larry Weitzman
In 1967, during the beginning of the pony car craze, Mercury introduced the first upscale sporty car based on the Mustang platform. Called the Cougar, according to the auto critics, it was the best of the pony cars, at least through the 1960's and early 70's.
Powered by V-8's up to 428 cubic inches (7 liters) which manufactured massive amounts of horsepower, it was an instant sales hit. It was Motor Trend's Car of the Year in its initial year and was Consumer's Report top pick for a sporty car. A home run.
Even though the Cougar eventually became diluted by eventually becoming a re-badged Fairmont or T-bird, the older 67-70 models, especially with sequential turn signals, are a sought after collector's item.
But the Cougar is now on its own. There is no sibling or similar product. It is no longer a big V-6 or a bigger yet, 5 liter V-8 with 200 inches of length, but a true small sporty car with a slick high revving, high output V-6.
The new body is unique, with a distinct wedge shape theme that is carried right down to the door handles. From its feline looking front end created by its headlights and grille to its beautifully rounded back end, this car is all sport. The shape has lots of nuances that take some time to appreciate, but it works. All the body creases have a purpose and the way the belt line narrows at the rear hip makes this Cougar into a real looker, especially in red.
The lighting is by tractor beam and unusual. Small bumps on the lens covers in the front and rear add a distinctive touch to a great lighting system.
Cougar rides on a longish 106.4 inch wheelbase with an overall length of 185 inches. Width is 69.6 inches and height is a low 52.2 inches. That puts it bigger than most compacts but smaller than the midsize Accord and Camry. Cougar tips the scales at a svelte 3123 pounds.
Under the hood is the Ford/Mercury 2.5L Duratec jewel, a DOHC, 24 valve V-6. It produces 170 hp at a lofty 6,250 rpm and 165 lb ft of torque at 4,250 rpm. That's significantly more then the bench mark one horse power per cubic inch or 61 hp per liter. There is also a Zetec, two liter DOHC, 16 valve inline 4 that puts out 125 hp at 5,500 rpm and 130 lb ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. This engine is only available connected to a 5 speed manual. The V-6 comes standard with a 5 speed manual with a 4 speed electronic automatic optional.
My test car came with the automatic as I had already track tested the V-6, 5 speed. Performance is brisk with 0-60 taking 9.6 seconds. Passing performance was also snappy with only 5.7 seconds elapsing between my 50-70 acceleration run. Up hill passing will expand that time to 9.5 seconds.
But the five speed completely changes the character of the Cougar from a reasonable quick sporty car, to one very quick cat. Delightful to use, with quick, short and precise throws, expect 0-60 times right at or below eight seconds with passing times reduced at least half a second. The Cougar provides strong part throttle response (the kind used in every day driving) which maximizes the fun while extending the fuel dollar. No need to bury the go pedal in the carpet when entering a freeway or cresting a hill.
EPA rated at 20/29 (automatic) city/highway, expect an El Dorado County average of 25 plus mpg. I averaged 24.2 during my test. Interestingly, the 5 speed is rated at 19/28 mpg. Even the government robot tester must have had more fun with the 5 speed.
Being a state of the art design, Cougar comes with fully independent suspension. MacPherson Struts are up front and lower A arms and a four link system with strut/coil spring/damper units with traverse and trailing arms incorporating passive rear-wheel steering are in the rear. Front and rear anti-roll (stabilizer) bars finish off the system. Steering is variable assist rack and pinion power. It provided accurate feel and resistance with no center dead spot.
How does it all work. Balance is the key to the Cougar. All the parts work in complete harmony which provides a more than pleasant driving experience. A few laps on the road course race track at Willow Springs in the five speed proved that point. The Cougar was able to be driven with complete confidence at high speed without any vices appearing. Tight corners or high speed sweepers did not upset this car's balance, it simply did what was asked of it.
On the streets of El Dorado County, the 4 speed automatic demonstrated the same fine blend of balanced handling. Green Valley, Bass Lake and Carson Road offered little resistance. Each could be traveled at the speed limit without the Cougar getting close to its limits. Part of that credit is due to the 6.5 X 16 inch alloys shod with low profile 215/50X16 B.F. Goodrich Comp TA's. This is not just another sporty coupe. The Cougar definitely has some serious bite.
Balance again appears in ride quality. Even with the sporty suspension setup, it delivers a supple, compliant ride. Ponderosa Road's washboard surface was easily tamed and bumps in the corners could not upset the rear end. On the highway, the ride is smooth with no tar strip intrusion even though it is on the firmer, well controlled side. Smooth with no float or jarring is still smooth.
Braking is by large 4 wheel ventilated discs at each corner with full antilock braking system (ABS, a $500 option and worth every penny). Stops were sure, straight and short. Pedal feel was excellent with no fad even when running the track at full tilt boogie.
On the inside, Mercury did a superb job. The front seats (my test car had soft tan leather) were as comfortable as they looked. And they looked great. The rear seats are two individual buckets with a cupholder in between that look good, but a place only for vertically challenged adults or small kids. Legroom is actually fairly generous, but headroom is minimal and the seat cushion to back angle is too sharp. My kids fit fine. This car is a true hardtop with no door window frames which makes entry and exit easier, especially in tight parking spaces.
The dash is very clean. The driver's pod contains a large speedo with a left flanking tach. Smaller temp and fuel gauges are left and right. Below the tach is a convenient and very easy to use trip computer with readouts for outside temp, range, average fuel econ, trip odometer and more.
HVAC vents are futuristic and circular. They integrate nicely with the rest of the Eurostyled interior. Airflow and temperature are controlled by three large rotary knobs in the center of the dash. Below in the vertical portion of the center console is the fine standard stereo with cassette. A single play CD is a no cost option with the convenience group package.
Pricing is the best news about the Cougar. The base V-6 stickers at $16,795 plus $400 for destination. The four speed automatic will add $815, an option I would do without. I would spend the $815 for the sport group which adds high performance tires, the rear spoiler, 4 wheel disc brakes and an interior lighting package. I would add several more items: The aforementioned convenience group ($720) which adds cruise, keyless entry and other nice touches, ABS brakes ($500), traction control ($235), power driver's seat ($235), 16 inch polished wheels ($250) and glove soft leather ($895). The total comes to $20,845 for a near luxury V-6, 5 speed, sport coupe.
The base four cylinder lists for $16,295. There are a couple of items that may be worth buying. Side impact airbags at $375 and the remote compact disc changer for $350.
Cougar has been given a new life and is no longer an endangered specie. With newfound performance and unique styling it should flourish and multiply for many years to come without the protection of the EPA. Shingle Springs Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Lincoln and Mercury has a fine selection including red for testing. Check out how nice the addition of a new cat for the family can be.
SPECIFICATIONS Price $16,295 to about $22,000 Engine 2.5L, DOHC, 24 valve V-6 170 hp @ 6,250 rpm 165 lb ft of torque @ 4,250 rpm 2.0L, DOHC, 16 valve I-4 125 hp @ 5,500 rpm 130 lb ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm Transmission 5 speed manual 4 speed electronically controlled automatic Configuration Transverse mounted front engine front wheel drive Dimensions Wheelbase 106.4 inches Length 185.0 inches Width 69.6 inches Height 52.2 inches Weight 2892 pounds (I-4) 3123 pounds (V-6, auto) Fuel capacity 15.5 gallons Trunk capacity 14.5 cubic feet, rear seat up Performance 0-60 9.6 seconds 50-70 5.7 seconds 50-70 up hill 9.5 seconds Top speed Well into triple digits Fuel economy EPA 20/29 city/highway, (19/28 with manual tranny). El Dorado County driving should yield 24-25 mpg with near 30 on the highway at legal speeds.