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 firstname.lastname@example.org and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a ‘holy grail.’
There Was A Time When You Could Get A Ford Minivan With Rear-Wheel-Drive And A Manual Transmission: Holy Grails
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