Home » Ford Made A Version Of The Tempo That Actually Lived Up To Its Name: Holy Grails

Ford Made A Version Of The Tempo That Actually Lived Up To Its Name: Holy Grails

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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.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Today, we will travel down a similar path, and this time we’re going back to Ford.

Screenshot (212)
eBay via Barn Finds

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:

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Ford

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.

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Popular Mechanics

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.

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Ford

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!

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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 Grail

Screenshot (209)
eBay via Barn Finds

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.

Ford Topaz
Ford/Mercury

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.

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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.

Screenshot (213)
eBay via Barn Finds

Weirdly Rare

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.

Ford Topaz1
Mercury Topaz LTS – Mercury

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 tips@theautopian.com and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a ‘holy grail.’

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VolksWinkle
VolksWinkle
1 year ago

The Tempo’s tempo would be Lento. “Word History Etymology Italian, from lento, adjective, slow, from Latin lentus pliant, sluggish, slow.” If I owned one LENTO would be the vanity plate!

NebraskaStig
NebraskaStig
1 year ago

I had a girlfriend in highschool who had a 93/94 Topaz GS with the Vulcan V6 and 3-speed slusher. Compared to my 93 Civic, that V6 was not a great engine particularly with that automatic. As I recall lots of induction noises and a 85-mph speedometer gave some illusion to pep, but there was nothing at all exciting about it. While a stick would make it more engaging to drive, I wouldn’t want one of these in my life then or now.

Beasy Mist
Beasy Mist
1 year ago

The 2.3L Tempo is one of my most hated cars out there – but I drove the 3.0 once and I was shocked at how much better it was. I think the main issue for me with the 2.3 was the NVH and just the sound quality of that engine. Like somebody put ball bearings in a blender.

Griznant
Griznant
1 year ago

I had a ’90 Topaz in ’92 (hand-me down from my dad). I STILL think it’s a good looking car and STILL praise the ergonomics.

The engine and trans were shit though. Yeah, they were reliable, but NVH was not high on the list of things to worry about in the engineering phase.

My grandma’s ’91 Dodge Dynasty with the 3.3L V6 was a relative rocketship by comparison and would BURN DOWN the front tires on its aging K-car platform. That was a sleeper for the time with whitewalls and chrome wire hubcaps.

Beasy Mist
Beasy Mist
1 year ago
Reply to  Griznant

My aunt’s ’88 Dynasty, however…what a dog. The 3.0 Mitsu v6 and a 3-speed torqueflite. I think by ’91 they were using the 4 speed.

Griznant
Griznant
1 year ago
Reply to  Beasy Mist

I do believe it had the 4-speed with OD. A friend’s parents had a New Yorker with the 3.0L and it was NOT the same at all.

Aaron Neilly
Aaron Neilly
1 year ago

Adding two cylinders to the most depressing car ever made didn’t help it.

Plus they always had overheating issues with the V6, I’m not sure if they ran the same size of rad as the 2.3, but as an apprentice when these hateful piles of crap were 10ish years old, any time a V6 came in, it was for an overheating issue.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago

For fun, I checked the EPA website to compare the fuel economy of the different variations of the Tempo. There’s only a 2 MPG penalty for the 3.0 from the 2.3, equipped with the automatic. The manual 3.0 gets the same mileage as the automatic 2.3. The biggest deficit is when comparing the manual 2.3, which beats all variants by 3 and 5 MPG respectively. Kind of surprising.

Paul... Just Paul
Paul... Just Paul
1 year ago

Get you mass freedom out of my favorite website.

Mr.Asa
Mr.Asa
1 year ago

I dunno about you guys, but I generally always embarrass someone at the lights.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago
Reply to  Mr.Asa

Same. That person is me.

Matt Mayotte
Matt Mayotte
1 year ago

The chrome version of that grill is burned into my memory growing up around Detroit in the 90s.

Matt Mayotte
Matt Mayotte
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Mayotte

The second gen that is.

Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
1 year ago

My mother had her first american car (she was a VW fan – Beetle, Rabbit, Jetta, Passat), the Ford Tempo with the 4 cyl engine. 3 months lasted on our household, I remember being stranded on the side of the road on that POS lol she said I am never buying american again and she hasn’t, she switched to Nissan on the 90s, early 2000, then Mazda and now Honda.

Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
1 year ago

Were these related to the European Ford Sierra &/or Granada of the time, or is it just consistent styling across the company that makes them look similar, particularly around the glazing?

Mike Kovac
Mike Kovac
1 year ago
Reply to  Iain Tunmore

No relation, just similar design themes.

Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Kovac

Good to know, thanks.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago

In high school my friend had a hand me down, four banger, manual Topaz. He let me drive it once and I’m here to tell you it was a blast.
Easily the most thrilling driving experience I’ve ever had.
I’m not being sarcastic, but we were both high on mushrooms at the time.
That could have been a factor.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 year ago

I will not be looking for one of these. Circa 1993 rental Tempos had viciously uncomfortable seats and while the Vulcan was great in my 93 Ranger, a Saturn SL2 was quicker.

Rich Hobbs
Rich Hobbs
1 year ago

Greetings all! I had a V6 Tempo for a short while. It was a a “loaner” while my Ranchero was in the body shop. Color me not impressed.Had some power off the line, but made a lot of noise and you wondered if it was going to blow. But it sucked gas! Not very roomy for a 6’ ft 1 “ guy. Plowed going into a turn. Couldn’t wait to get my Ranchero back. A 72 with the jet nose, factory hood with scoop, 351 Cleveland, Color changing Green Blue paint…Sure miss that vehicle.

Josh Turner
Josh Turner
1 year ago

Adding the V6 and the manual was an interesting move but the platform was already severely long in tooth by then—and the 3.0L Vulcan wasn’t really a performance engine in an era of “170” hp turbo Probes and 220 hp Tauruses.

The really striking thing about the Tempo, though, is how thoroughly archaic it seems next to the car that replaced it. A 1995 Contour SE with a 24V, 170 hp V6, a 5 speed manual, and a chassis designed in Europe made the poor Tempo seem like a farm tractor in every particular. It’s really no wonder it’s been forgotten.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
1 year ago

Platform was never, ever designed for a six. Really crammed in there. I refused to change the spark plugs on my buddy’s Tempo six.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago

Great call JDE!

Back in the day, I saw maybe one in the wild, once. It was the wheels that drew my attention I remember, as I was a huge fan of Escorts (still am, actually) and immediately noticed they weren’t from the regular Tempo but the rounded-off-body GT.

alwaysbroke
alwaysbroke
1 year ago

I’m really liking this segment. Never knew there was a performance topaz. Have you looked at the Dodge Dakota from the early 90s. I believe you could get a 318 with a stick which could hang with the lightning and 454ss of the era

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago

The Tempo/Topaz continued to offer the V6 in 1993-94 in its plain trims, it’s a little odd they never bothered to offer a V6 before 1992 given that GM had a V6 in the segment since the X-cars. I could see limited production volume at first since the Vulcan arrived for 1986 in the Taurus and then went into the Aerostar, both of which needed it more, but surely by ’90 when even Chrysler had enough V6s to go around and put the Mitsu 3.0 in the Spirit/Acclaim. Most likely they expected to replace the model entirely by then and when that got delayed, shoved the V6 in as a way to put more life in the line.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago

Also, not complaining as I’m into any mundane car content, but just an observation – it seems like things have been heavy on the Ford side of late – multiple Probe and Tempo/Topaz mentions between shitbox showdowns and other articles for example. Unless this also gets a sneaky Mercury Monday tag after the fact (I checked, didn’t see one there).

For another domestic Tempo GLS/Topaz LTS competitor (despite being not in production at the same time) holy grail, perhaps the 1989-90 Chevy Corsica LTZ would count – more closely approximated to a Beretta GT.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
1 year ago

A Lumina Z34 5-speed would fit the bill nicely as well.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago
Reply to  ColoradoFX4

I thought of the Z34 too as a good candidate – but wondered if the Z34 a a bit too “known”.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago

I don’t think so…it and the Z26 (Beretta) were the rarities of the Z-models from that era.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago

Second on the Corsica LTZ! The best version of a decent for its time car that’s almost completely forgotten.

Interesting thing about the Corsica/Beretta was that there was only ever a single design for each…they never refreshed, so the entire run of them looked the same.

Janky_xj
Janky_xj
1 year ago

We had an 88 tempo in the Late 90s. 4 cyl, 5speed. can confirm it was slow but got my wife to work eventually. haven’t seen any tempos on the road in quite a while

Hondaimpbmw 12
Hondaimpbmw 12
1 year ago
Reply to  Janky_xj

I had friends that bought old Tempos at the state auction. Got ‘em cheap. Turned out that getting them smogged was nigh on to impossible. I’d venture that would be a major reason that you don’t seen them in California. Farther east, I’m sure the tinworm got them.

Cal67
Cal67
1 year ago

I’ve had 6 different Tempo/Topaz variants but never one of these. I’ve know about them for years and looked but have never found one for sale. Would buy one that wasn’t rotted out in a heartbeat.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
1 year ago
Reply to  Cal67

> I’ve had 6 different Tempo/Topaz variants

Christ, why?!?

Dennis Ames
Dennis Ames
1 year ago

When you have the Chilton manual, it’s easier to keep buying them. The Devil you know…

Drew Slaughter
Drew Slaughter
1 year ago

I laughed so hard at this. Had an ‘84 that my mom put on its roof. She replaced it an ‘88 4 cylinder auto. The first Gen with a stick was a good first car. The second Gen was dogshit. To me, the unicorn factor for the car pictured above isn’t the powertrain, it’s that all of the HVAC buttons are present.

Thomas The Tank Engine
Thomas The Tank Engine
1 year ago

Could somebody explain what’s going on with those seatbelts?
(Second to last picture)

HeyCharger
HeyCharger
1 year ago

Isn’t that those weird auto-seatbelts the US tried for a while since people couldn’t be arsed to belt up themselves?

C-Bus Gus
C-Bus Gus
1 year ago

They are automatic seatbelts. When you opened the door, they slid forward, and when you closed the door and/or started the car, they slid back. I had a ‘94 (the only year that CR gave good ratings, fwiw), and they were annoying.

Parsko
Parsko
1 year ago
Reply to  C-Bus Gus

And promptly disabled.

Timothy Arnold
Timothy Arnold
1 year ago

In 1991 the US Congress passed a law requiring airbags be installed in all new cars and gave the industry until 1998 to have them fully implemented, but during those 7 years automakers still had to provide some form of passive restraints, so those “mad mice” shoulder belts were one of the solutions many automakers wound up using. They were kinda silly because they were pretty useless unless you wore the lap belt, which still had to be manually pulled out and latched. Some coupe designs put the seatbelt reels in the door and the latch in the middle of the front seats, so the shoulder and lap belts unspooled when you opened the door, but all those did in most cases is encourage people to not wear the belts at all because they made it difficult to enter and exit the car.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago
Reply to  Timothy Arnold

To elaborate a little more on the timeline…passenger cars had to have some kind of passive restraint for the driver by 1990, and the passenger side by 1994.

Ford installed motorized belts on the Tempo/Topaz in ’87 or ’88, so they were pretty committed to that form of passive restraint, even though they did offer an optional driver’s airbag since 1985 (which I think you couldn’t option with the V6 come to think of it, if I remember the brochure correctly).

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago
Reply to  Timothy Arnold

“Some coupe designs put the seatbelt reels in the door and the latch in the middle of the front seats, so the shoulder and lap belts unspooled when you opened the door, but all those did in most cases is encourage people to not wear the belts at all because they made it difficult to enter and exit the car.”

Yep, that would be my old Beretta. I hated the auto-mouse belts of that era Fords for the fussiness, but the GM solution seemed lower-tech and maybe palatable?

Nope. Made the door (which being a sportcoupe was already heavy) even harder to open, especially with combined with the Beretta’s stylish but stupid B-pillar mounted pull down door handles. And once you did get it open, you had to contend with bolstered seats with belts pulled tightly across them. So I just buckled and unbuckled like a normal person.

Timothy Arnold
Timothy Arnold
1 year ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

The late 80’s Accord Coupe and hatchback both had them, and besides all of those things we mentioned, if you left them unbuckled, which most people did, the buckle hung against the end of the door trim and would get jammed into the soft foam of the trim every time you closed the door, which eventually just tore that area apart. I saw many otherwise nice cars with torn up door trims. People complained, but Honda just said that you’re supposed to keep it latched – the release mechanism was just in case of emergency.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

The were called “freedom robbers” and led to a small decrease in business for mortuaries and an unfortunate increase in stupid people living long enough to reproduce. Perhaps you are not old enough to recall that car crashes back then usually involved a wrecked car in one location and the occupants sprinkled about in other locations. This was the regulatory attempt to reduce that. It didn’t really work.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago

Hahahahaha! Great explanation. That sums it up perfectly.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago

I called them mouse belts. Because I imagined they were little Snow White like woodland creatures tucking me into my chariot (91 Protege) and making sure my upper torso was a bit more safe.
They are a much maligned safety feature of the past.
Thing is. I loved em.
Armed with a pen and a pack of Post It Notes you could instantly express any sentiment to unsuspecting passengers.
Comedy gold.
I tied flowers to the passenger side mouse belt before I picked up my date for the homecoming dance.
There she was looking beautiful in the passenger seat. I turned the key and a small bouquet of flowers mechanically lifted from the dash, ran up the silly track and hit her in the face.
I loved those seatbelts.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
1 year ago

I know from driving cars with those for years that if you tried to get out of your car faster than the motorized mice could move the belt out of your way you were getting coaked out like an outmatched MMA fighter.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

Even worse… roll down window stick head out of window and oops I dropped something and open door.

Uninformed Fucknugget
Uninformed Fucknugget
1 year ago

I drove a white, barebones, zero option 1986 Tempo sedan in high school that my parents bought brand new.

My sister and I named it Fancy

“She may have been born plain white trash but Fancy was her name”

Citrus
Citrus
1 year ago

It’s weird that only the GLS had blacked out pillars because the body was clearly designed around them. The painted pillar looks so awkward with the trim used.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago
Reply to  Citrus

Tempo always seemed a bit strange with the pillars – the original 1984 sedan greenhouse would have been improved IMO with blacked-out B-pillar trim and C-pillar between the rear door and window. The coupe never had a change to the greenhouse, but looked better from the start so it aged better. Maybe just more of an attempt at making the coupe look more visually distinct from the sedans.

Something about the 1988 refresh made it look smaller and stubbier than the original to me, despite the update’s purpose being to be more in line with the newer Taurus. Blacking out the C pillar trim by the rear window might have made it look too similar to the Sable actually, which did have the trim blacked out – yet the Topaz kept the formal roofline, surely to appease the “traditional” buyer.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago
Reply to  Citrus

I liked the versions that had windows that looked like they were cut out with a router template, much like some of the European Fords of the time. The fifth picture shows that well, but I swear the front end is pure Mazda GLC of the period.

Harrnack
Harrnack
1 year ago

I owned one of these in the mid-90s. It was an auto and it needed the 4th gear really badly. It was LOUD in the cabin at speed. But speed it had and lots of it coming out of the early 80s Corolla I traded in for it.

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