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New Car/Review

1999 Mercury Cougar

by Carey Russ

Mercury Full Line factory footage (7:17) 28.8, 56k, or 200k

The past year has been one of major transformation for Lincoln Mercury. First, a name change from "Lincoln-Mercury Division" (of Ford Motor Company) to "Lincoln Mercury" - no hyphen, no "Division". And then the move from Detroit to Southern California. As company officials say, "it's not about changing our state of residence, it's about changing our state of mind." Nothing shows this better than the new Cougar coupe.

The name may be familiar, but the car is completely new. Not since the first Cougar back in the late 1960s has a Cougar been designed and built to appeal to younger buyers. The past twenty years or so of Cougar production have been cars seemingly stuck in the 1970s. No longer - the new Cougar is aimed squarely at the "Generation X" youth market, and is the first car from any American part of the Ford empire to emphasize "New Edge" styling. It is based on the same platform as the Mercury Mystique and Ford Contour sedans, with nearly the same wheelbase for plenty of room. It shares the good-handling independent suspension and energetic 2.0-liter, 125- horsepower "Zetec" four-cylinder and 2.5-liter, 170-bhp "Duratec" V6 engines of the sedans.

Unlike any Mercury since the original Cougar, the new Cougar gets seriously noticed. During my week with one, its "New Edge" styling attracted plenty of attention, particularly from young people - who quite possibly never looked at a Mercury with any interest before. I found the Cougar to have the same great road manners as the Contours and Mystiques I've driven over the past few years, and almost as much interior and trunk space. There is plenty of substance underneath the 1999 Cougar's flashy skin.

APPEARANCE: Although the Cougar's basic rounded, fastback shape is pretty much "generic small sports coupe", its treatment of details makes all the difference. "New Edge" is Ford's term for a blandness- fighting combination of curves and lines, and the new Cougar is an excellent example. Its front is especially striking, with heavily- sculpted, slanting eye-like projector-beam headlights and a massive integrated bumper with a small "nose" opening above and "mouth" below giving a very definite feline face. Crisp lines break up curving surfaces on the hood and sides, with a prominent character line going from the underside of the headlight in front to the top of the taillight in back particularly emphasizing the wedge-shaped profile. The undercut rear panel is a successful blend of curved forms and linear highlights, with large triangular taillights.

COMFORT: Although less radical, the Cougar's inside is just as sporty as its outside. With contoured-fit sports seats, a thick, leather-wrapped tilt-adjustable steering wheel, and well-placed, short-throw gearshift lever, it's designed for serious driving. The main instruments are easily read, and auxiliary controls are conveniently located and easy to use. The rotary climate system controls and large buttons on the AM/FM/cassette/remote CD changer stereo are especially convenient. Instrument panel warning lights are repeated in an aircraft-style overhead console. Despite its small size, the Cougar has a surprising amount of interior space. Two adults can sit in the rear bucket seats. The passenger-side front seat can be easily moved forward for rear-seat access, and brought back to its original position and seatback setting. Convenient storage spaces around the cockpit and a sedan-sized trunk under the rear hatch show that the Cougar's striking form has not overshadowed function. It's a sports coupe for the real world.

SAFETY: The 1999 Mercury Cougar has dual second-generation airbags, and optional side airbags.

ROADABILITY: The Cougar's suspension is a little firmer than that of the Mystique, so it has less body roll in corners and a slightly firmer, sportier ride. The steering effort is just right, and the ever-rarer uncrowded twisty back road is a joy to drive. Sports coupes are supposed to be fun, and the Cougar definitely is. It is also quiet inside, with commendably low noise levels even with the sunroof open. The four-wheel antilock vented disc brakes on my test car worked very well.

PERFORMANCE: My test car had the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter "Duratec" twincam, 24-valve V6. Its strong, punchy midrange power, allied with the well-spaced ratios and smooth shifting of the 5-speed manual gearbox, makes Mercury's little cat quick and thoroughly entertaining. The engine has a wonderful, musical exhaust note, which should please the enthusiasts and make enthusiasts out of formerly unenthusiastic drivers. A 4-speed automatic is offered with the V6. Four-cylinder Cougars are available only with a 5-speed manual transmission.

CONCLUSIONS: There is new life at the sign of the cat. The 1999 Mercury Cougar wraps performance, comfort, practicality, and power in a high-style skin.

              1999 Mercury  Cougar

Base Price               $ 18,095
Price As Tested          $ 21,505
Engine Type              dual overhead cam, 24-valve V6
Engine Size              2.5 liters / 152 cu. in.
Horsepower               170 @ 6250 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           165 @ 4250 rpm
Transmission             5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length       106.4 in. / 185.0 in.
Curb Weight              2900 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    17
Fuel Capacity            15.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded regular, 87 octane
Tires                    P215/50VR16 Firestone Firehawk GTA
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / vented disc,
                          antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear   independent strut /
                          independent multilink strut
Drivetrain               front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      19 / 28 / 22
0 to 60 mph                        7.7 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                    16.0 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)           0.32

               OPTIONS AND CHARGES

V6 Convenience Group - includes:
  rear washer & wiper, remote keyless entry,
  auxiliary warning system, illuminated
  entry and mirrors                $ 720
Antilock braking system            $ 500
Traction control                   $ 235
Power tilt & slide sunroof         $ 615
Power driver's seat                $ 235
CA / NY / MA etc. emissions        $ 170
16-inch polished aluminum wheels   $ 185
trunk-mounted CD changer           $ 350
Destination & delivery charge      $ 400