Ford in the 1980s made bold moves with its lineup. The Taurus was a leap forward in car design. The Aerostar promised to do what a Chrysler minivan couldn’t. And the Tempo? Well, many enthusiasts have probably dismissed the Tempo as a disposable compact. However, there was a version of the Tempo and its Mercury Topaz sibling that are worth consideration. In the Ford Tempo GLS and Mercury Topaz XR5, buyers wanting more power could get themselves a compact, practical sedan with Vulcan V6 power. Let’s talk about why these cars were so special.
In our last entry, reader Alex T found a new car to add to my bucket list. Last month, my wife and I bombed about Los Angeles in a Golf GTI, a practical hatch that keeps the smile factor set way high. That car made me fall deeply in love with the concept of a hot hatch; then Alex T came around and suggested that I could have GTI power with an even longer roof. For just a single year, Volkswagen sold the Jetta SportWagen with GTI power. The 2009 Jetta SportWagen SEL paired luxuries like genuine leather and dual-zone climate control to the 200 HP turbo four from the GTI. While missing the GTI’s important suspension setup, this was the closest that Volkswagen came to selling a GTI wagon in America.
Today, we will travel down a similar path, and this time we’re going back to Ford.
Back in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, Ford offered enthusiasts a compelling package. The Taurus SHO featured a Yamaha-designed V6, a manual transmission, and sporty looks all contained in a practical sedan body. But the Taurus wouldn’t be the only practical Ford to get souped up. We’ve already written about the Mercury Tracer LTS, but there were more with the Ford Tempo GLS, Mercury Topaz ZR5, and Topaz LTS.
Ford Downsizes Its Compacts
The Tempo and the Topaz rose from a need at Ford to replace the Ford Fairmont and its sibling, the Mercury Zephyr. Here’s a Fairmont, to give you an idea:
Ford’s models went through a wave of radical changes in the early 1980s. In a period review of the Ford Tempo, Popular Mechanics attributed it to the “new” Ford created by board chairman Philip Caldwell and president Donald Petersen. Going into the 1980s, Ford downsized many models, adopted curvy designs, and released more front-wheel-drive models. The compact Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz had the job of replacing their larger rear-wheel-drive predecessors.
Development began in the late 1970s and a focus on the new compacts was on aerodynamics. As Popular Mechanics wrote, in 1978, the Tempo and Topaz were subject to wind tunnel testing. The vehicles spent over 450 hours in the wind tunnel getting their bodies sculpted to cut through the air. As a result, Ford made over 950 design changes to achieve a slippery profile. The finished product had aircraft-inspired doors that wrapped into the roof and featured a windshield and back window angled at 60 degrees.
In the end, Ford’s engineers achieved a drag coefficient of 0.36 for the coupe and 0.37 for the four-door. The coupe’s drag coefficient was equal to the day’s Thunderbird.
Those aren’t that impressive by today’s numbers, but remember, these are inexpensive compacts developed in the late 1970s. Popular Mechanics went on to note that the Tempo and Topaz slipped through the air better than GM’s J-car competition and completely blew Chrysler’s K-cars out of the water. The magazine also saw the Tempo and Topaz sedans going up to bat against imports like the Honda Accord, Mazda 626, Nissan Stanza, and Toyota Corona, while the coupes would go up against the Honda Prelude, Nissan 200SX, and Toyota Celica.
The Tempo Was Slick, Not Fast
That review found the original Tempo and Topaz to be tasteful and competent, even if they weren’t as sophisticated as other vehicles in Ford’s lineup. Something that I noticed from reviews is that none of them mention anything about driving excitement. Even MotorWeek’s John Davis once said: “However, they also have a reputation for performance and styling that are as exciting as watching ice melt.” Ouch!
Things would improve slightly in 1988 with the launch of the Tempo’s and Topaz’s second generations. Check out this MotorWeek review above, where Davis calls the 12.4-second sprint to 60 mph “mediocre” and the 18.9-second quarter mile run “leisurely.”
Thankfully, handling was found to be “surprisingly competent” and one tester apparently likened the second-generation Tempo’s feel to a Honda Prelude with four-wheel-steering. Initially, power came from a 2.3-liter “High Swirl Combustion” four making 90 HP. Also available was the 2.3-liter “High Specific Output” four, which added ten more ponies. Perhaps the most exciting thing about these cars, at least initially, was that they had available all-wheel-drive. Alright, some of you are probably ready to click out and read something else but hold on.
The Tempo and the Topaz might not have been much, but reader JDE says that there is a version worth looking at. JDE says that the holy grail of the Tempo and Topaz is the version sold with a V6 for a short while, beginning in 1992:
1992 for the Tempo seems to be a Unicorn year for you if you are looking. I only found out about them because of the S-box of the day comparo.
1992 brought another minor refresh to Ford’s compact cars, and a big change to the GLS/XR5/LTS trims. Taking a play from the muscle car playbook, Ford wedged in a bigger engine from a larger car. The H.O. 4-cylinder was dropped, replaced with the 3.0L Vulcan V6 from the Ford Taurus. In the Tempo/Topaz, it made 130 HP (an increase of 30 HP over the H.O. 2.3L). A higher capacity 5-speed manual from the Taurus SHO was standard, with an optional 3-speed automatic. The suspension was stiffened even more and the 15” rims from the previous generation Escort GT were used. The exterior was augmented with a new front bumper featuring integrated fog lights, deeper side sills, and deeper rear bumper with a dual outlet exhaust tip. The 4-door Tempo GLS also featured a unique blacked out D-pillar. The sports interior was carried over, with the addition of a 120 MPH speedometer. Unfortunately, this last shot of adrenaline into the aging Tempo/Topaz didn’t light the sales charts on fire. In 1993, the GLS/XR5/LTS were cancelled making these a low production one year wonder.
Indeed, it appears that Ford essentially made a SHO version of the Tempo and Topaz, but both vehicles flew under the radar. You may think that the addition of just 40 horses over stock isn’t a big deal. However, the 3.0-liter Vulcan V6 made a dramatic improvement in straight-line performance. Remember how John Davis called the 12.4-second acceleration to 60 mph “mediocre?” Well, these reportedly get to 60 mph in just 7.8 seconds and can complete the quarter-mile in 16.1 seconds.
With these cars you got 40 horses for a car that was much quicker. And as our reader notes, the otherwise boring styling was spruced up with a body kit and sporty interior.
According to Ford news blog Ford Authority, just 464 Mercury Topaz XR5 were built. While I could not find production numbers for the Topaz LTS, the people over at Barn Finds claims that just 676 Ford Tempo GLS units were built in 1992. That’s incredible as Ford sold 1,565,047 Tempos alone between 1988 and 1994. It’s sort of amazing that so few of these made it onto the road.
Perhaps as another example of these cars’ rarity, I tried searching for some for sale and found none. I suppose that fits the spirit of this series; rare versions of common, everyday cars. Surprisingly, JDE wasn’t even the first to recommend this. ColoradoFX4 predicted this post all the way back when I wrote about the Mercury Tracer LTS. Yet, it seems that these cars have been largely forgotten and are only taking up rent-free space in the minds of our readers. If you’ve ever owned one of these, what was it like? Did you ever embarrass someone at the lights?
Do you know of a ‘holy grail’ of a car out there? If so, we want to read about it! Send us an email at email@example.com and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a ‘holy grail.’
For Just A Single Year You Could Buy A Manual VW Wagon With GTI Power: Holy Grails
There Was A Time When You Could Get A Ford Minivan With Rear-Wheel-Drive And A Manual Transmission: Holy Grails
Holy Grails: The Mercury Tracer LTS Was An Underrated Performer With The Body Of A Practical Sedan
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“The magazine also saw the Tempo and Topaz sedans going up to bat against imports like the Honda Accord, Mazda 626, Nissan Stanza, and Toyota Corona, while the coupes would go up against the Honda Prelude, Nissan 200SX, and Toyota Celica.”
First, thanks, great Holy Grail article, though I think Holy Grail implies not only special and hard to find, but also that there is someone out there in a noble quest to find it. The latter part may be a little harder to assume or prove.
The quote above, maybe comparables on the sedan side, but I doubt many people were cross-shopping the Tempo/Topaz coupe and a Prelude or Celica.
In a way, the mouse belts were great, since in my VW Beetle you could pull the door shut by pulling on the belt, since it was fixed to the top rear of the door. The lazy man’s favorite, why reach for the door handle when a hard yank on the belt would do!
“Do you know of a ‘holy grail’ of a car out there?”
Some ‘holy grail’ vehicles out there I can think of… the Toyota Previa with the manual transmission. And the Toyota Previa with the supercharged engine.
As far as I know, there was no manual Previa with the supercharged engine… but if there is, THAT would be the ultimate holy grail Previa.
Another holy grail vehicle… the original Honda Civic hybrid that had the manual transmission for only 2 model years… 2003 and 2004. After that, all the Honda Civic hybrids were automatics.
Not an expert on this but found a Topaz with a V6 looked pretty good on fb marketplace for 6,000.
I’m glad you featured the 92 Tempo GLS as a grail. I also suggested it a while back when the series first started. One of my first cars was a 1993 Topaz 2-door. When you are young and little money, you work with what you have and that’s what I had. At the time there wasn’t much on the internet about these cars, so I ended up starting the TempoTopaz.com website and owner forum. I learned everything I coudl about the cars, and that’s when I discovered this grail and had to have one. Eventually I did find one, with the 5-speed manual trans. Compared to my 4-cyl/auto, it was much quicker and fun to drive.
Regarding production numbers, they are definitely low. While running the site, I ran a script to ping the carfax VIN database to determine an accurate VIN. I did this to come up with an approximation of production numbers (not sure if carfax included cars sold in CA, which these grails were). Since the site is no longer around, I can’t just reference it. That XR5 number sounds right, and LTS numbers were slightly higher. If my memory is correct, the GLS numbers were around 2200, accounting for both 2- and 4-door models.
My writeup about my own car: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/cars-of-a-lifetime/coal-1992-ford-tempo-gls-sho-little-brother-that-you-didnt-know-existed/
That’s a great story, thanks for sharing!
The Fox wheels look good – how could they not – but come on, the rubber accordion shift boot is SO wonderfully that-era Ford! (I’m kidding of course)
But speaking of that-era Ford, Bimini Blue was such a great color. Always seemed to me to, in a small way, connect our stuff to Ford’s forbidden fruit Euro offerings across the pond.
Fun Fact: The manual transaxle in the Tempo will mate to the 3.0L Vulcan in a 3rd and 4th gen Taurus.
I’ve seen it on the internet before, but someone’s manual swapped a 4th generation Taurus with a transmission from a Tempo.
(Not-so) Fun fact – the Tempo had concave back seats. Guess what? Concave back seats provide ZERO back support. I got to learn that in the back of a Tempo on a 1,000 mile family trip to Orlando. Combined with the indelible stench of vomit from my car-sick-prone sibling, that plodding ride was a human rights violation on four wheels.
Btw my husband’s family owned a manual diesel Topaz. It may have been awd as well, but I’m not 100%. That sounds like it would be worth scoping out, but not bucket list-worthy as no Tempo/Topaz deserves to be.
Alright, my FoMoCo suggestions are getting noticed. Here’s another: 1984 Ford EXP Turbo Coupe (built by Ford SVO, just like the SVO Mustang!).
You have my eternal loyalty. I loved EXPs and that one was the best version. I can’t remember, did it come with the misbegotten TRX wheels?
But one of the best, unknown features of these cars was…they were two seaters.
So insanely impractical, so easy to just add backseats but Ford seemingly said no damnit this is the era of peak sport coupe so leave the kids at home you mother. I miss those days.
Yes, the EXP Turbo came with the TRX wheels. Pretty sure it came with everything from the TR Performance Package.
Besides being a true 2-seater, another distinction is the EXP was Ford’s first multi-port fuel injected vehicle offered in the U.S.
All this EXP talk makes me realize Mercedes simply must do a Rare Rides on the EXP. Maybe even the rarest of rare McLaren ASC EXP?
And the similar turbo Escort, which I think was even rarer?
Yes, the equally short-lived Escort Turbo GT. Not sure which was rarer, but considering the Escort turbo was available from ’83 to the first half of ’85, while the EXP turbo was ’84 to the first half of ’85, and that the Escort was a much better seller than the EXP, gotta think the Escort turbo was slightly more common. Either way, Mercedes can just lump them together for one monumental Holy Grail of mid-80s small Ford awesomeness.
Or the Diesel Ford Escort.
Or the Lincoln Mark VII with the BMW I6 turbodiesel!
A Ford tempo was never a rare car. Or a holy grail. This girl that wrote this doesn’t know squat about cars. Tempos were economy junk. Riddled with nothing but problems.
This is gross. Hate on Tempos all you want but you clearly don’t know much if you think Mercedes is uninformed.
Mercedes is not me, two separate people.
And who are you? Not the one with a byline on this article.
My reply was only meant as a word play joke on my username.
I love Mercedes(the person) articles and will actively search those out to read first when I visit this site
Just go away.we dont need the hate
Sigh….the interwebs. I thought it was funny.
And to be very clear so there is no misunderstanding.
Mercedes(the person) and her wife are welcome to eat at my table any day.
Mercedes if you are ever in SW Michigan and need a place for a wrenching session(not sure if a bus will fit in the barn but it’d be fun to find out) a place to crash, or you just want someone to share a couple beers with and talk cars, do not hesitate to reach out.
1. If you bothered to actually read the article, then you would learn that the GLS/XR5/LTS was the rare version of the Tempo/Topaz that Mercedes was alluding to, as stated by the production numbers.
2. A holy grail is subjective.
3. My friend in Christ, saying Mercedes doesn’t know squat about cars is like saying Edward R. Murrow doesn’t know squat about McCarthyism.
Congratulations. Your comment was not pertinent, useful or clever.
I don’t know, I’d think a trim with fewer than 1,000 examples counts as rare. Also, I just adore how people like you write comments and send emails about how “this girl” or “this woman” doesn’t know anything about cars. Clearly, you don’t know anything about me!
‘This Girl’ is clearly meant as a pejorative in this case. Hopefully the poster will go back and read the article properly, realise his mistake and apologise. Misogyny doesn’t fit in on this site.
Bravo Mercedes you don’t need us to defend you but sorry we will. But it is a car thing not a guy thing.
Welcome to today’s episode of “Troll or Idiot?”! I vote troll.
I had no idea this thing existed. The rental fleet version of the Tempo was a sad little appliance. In fact it was so bad, it is probably the main reason I have never bought a Ford.
We rented a V6 Tempo back in 1994 or so, and compared to the Dodge Spirit with the 2.5-liter engine it felt very fast. I was intrigued, but the only thing my dad remembered about it ten years later was that the headlights were pretty awful – I imagine that means it was dull to drive.
And as usual, where is Ford Tempo Fanatic? I think Autopian should put on a search.