1999 Mercury Cougar Reviews and Ratings

Coupe 2D

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1999 Mercury Cougar
Mitch McCullough, Editor-in-Chief

Introduction
While the previous Cougar was nothing more than an overweight, rebadged Thunderbird, the new one is a sporty coupe designed to appeal to younger professionals.

With that in mind, Mercury's marketing people took a group of dealers to the House of Blues. Mercury dealers are most comfortable selling Grand Marquis, Villagers and Tracers, but the launch of the Cougar will bring a type of buyer into their showrooms they have never seen before. They needed to understand that they shouldn't immediately show someone the door just because they were sporting green hair and wearing tattered clothes.

Outside, a guy wearing a nose ring, asked one of the Mercury marketing executives what kind of car he was driving. Told it was a new Cougar, he eyed it again, took a drag off his cigarette, exhaled, squinted and said, "That car looks phat, man." If you know that's a compliment, then you just may be the type of buyer Mercury has in mind for this new car. If you don't, you may still be interested in this great new coupe. Walkaround
Cougar sports Ford's New Edge school of design, which features smooth, sculpted surfaces defined by clean folds and sharp intersections. This car looks like it was sculpted with a sharp knife, yet the rounded Lexus SC 400 can be seen in the rear fender. Mercury says the new coupe is true to heritage of the 1967 Cougar, which combined style and performance. With its catlike headlamps and sweeping lines, the new Cougar looks like nothing else on the road. We give it a thumbs up.

A relatively long wheelbase for this class with European-style short overhangs indicates the car is ready for high speeds and winding roads. The platform is based on the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, but Cougar rides on a wider track--the distance between the right and left tires--and uses a much firmer suspension to please enthusiast drivers. They increased chassis rigidity, added stiffer anti-roll bars, used higher-rate springs, and redesigned the motor mounts, among other things. Weight distribution is 50/50.

We like details such as the small triangles showing the location of the jacking points and side markers that act as turn signals for drivers next door.

Two engines are available. The 2.0-liter double overhead-cam, 16-valve inline-4, called the Zetec, is rated at 125 horsepower and 130 foot-pounds of torque. The 2.5-liter dohc, 24-valve V6, called the Duratec, is rated at 170 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque.

They can be distinguished by looking at the wheels and tires: Six-spoke 16-inch wheels come with the V6, five-spoke 15-inch wheels come with the 4-cylinder. A rear spoiler comes standard with the V6, but can be deleted for a $235 credit; it's an option with the 4-cylinder.

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.

Base price for a Cougar is $16,595, which 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 brings the total to $18,495 and 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 $720 convenience group adds cruise control, rear washer and the premium stereo. An automatic transmission is available only on the V6 model for $815. Options include $375 side airbags, $500 ABS and $235 traction control, a $615 sunroof, and a $140 in-dash CD player. Interior
New Edge 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.

The front bucket seats are firm and supportive. 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.

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. Driving Impressions
We were impressed with the looks of the '99 Cougar when we first saw it at last year's Detroit auto show, but skeptical Mercury would produce a car that was genuinely fun to drive. So we accepted an invitation to wring the car out at Georgia's Road Atlanta racing circuit with some trepidation.

To our surprise and delight, the Cougar offered outstanding handling and solid stability at speed. Nowhere was this more noticeable than at the entrance to Road Atlanta's Turn 2, a 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 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--not the ideal situation for 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 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.

This 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 Contour SVT, 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 Cougar the punch of an Acura Integra GS-R, Honda Prelude SH or Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T, it could keep up with them in those Georgia mountains. Just don't get in a drag race. Low-speed and standing-start acceleration is good, but passing power is excellent. Top speed is 137 mph, but we didn't verify 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 has been redesigned to shift smoother and to reduce hunting up and down grades.

Though it handles well, the Cougar's suspension offers impressively good compliance for a nice, smooth ride on rough pavement. Summary
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.

Model as tested
V6
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Flat Rock, Michigan
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
16595
Price as tested
18775
Options as tested
High-output CD stereo, delete spoiler, side airbags

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Safety equipment (standard)
Dual front airbags
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
125-hp 2.0-liter dohc 16v inline-4
Transmissions
5-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
(Sport V6) Air conditioning, power windows, locks, and driver's seat, AM/FM/cassette stereo, rear spoiler, cruise control, fog lamps, sport seats, high-level trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob

Engine & Transmission
Engine
125-hp 2.0-liter dohc 16v inline-4
Drivetrain type
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
170 @ 6250
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
19/28
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc
Suspension, front
Independent
Tires
P215/50VR16
Suspension, rear
Independent

Accomodations
Seating capacity
4
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
37.8/NA/42.6
Head/hip/leg room, rear
34.7/NA/33.2

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
12.4
Wheelbase
106.4
Length/width/height
185.0/69.6/52.2
Turning circle
35.8
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
N/A
Track, front/rear
59.3/58.7
Ground clearance
N/A
Curb weight
2941


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