Here, Kitty, Kitty: 1997 (or so) Mercury Cougar vs 2002 Mercury Cougar

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! On today’s edition, we’re paying Ford Motor Company a visit, and looking at two very different cars with the same name, both named after a Roman god and a large cat. But before we get there, let’s check back in with Pontiac:

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Well, turn off the Iron Maiden and crank up the Dean Martin, because the old Chieftain is the winner. (And I just now noticed I spelled “Chieftain” wrong in the poll. Dangit. Oh well.) If anybody does buy it, my finder’s fee for this one will be my pick of the records in those boxes. Sound fair?

If there’s a common theme among the dead brands we’ve been looking at, it’s that they were largely superfluous. You don’t need twins of the same car with different grilles sold at different dealerships, especially these days when the concept of dealerships is showing its age anyway. These brands tried, oh how they tried, to differentiate themselves from their better-known kin, but in the end there just really wasn’t much point.

Which leads us to Mercury, whose cars often amounted to “also a Ford.” In fact, I chose two Cougars for today, because we’ve done Tauruses and Crown Vics, and I just couldn’t bring myself to write about Sables and/or Grand Marquises (or is it “Grands Marquis,” like “Attorneys General”?).

The Cougar is an interesting nameplate anyway, because it bounced around to so many different Ford platforms. It has at various points been based on the Mustang, Torino, LTD, Thunderbird, and Contour/Mondeo. It also changed names a couple of times in the ’80s: first it was Mercury Cougar, then Mercury Cougar Mellencamp, then for a while just Mercury Mellencamp. (Oh come on; I had to.)

[Editor’s Note: (rolls eyes) – JT]

Today, we’re going to look at the penultimate and ultimate iterations of the Cougar, and apart from name, they couldn’t be more different. You’ll have to decide which is the nicer kitty.

1997 (?) Mercury Cougar – $1,700

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.0 liter V8, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: La Mesa, CA

Odometer reading: 135,000 miles

Runs/drives? yep! But…

This generation of the Cougar/Thunderbird, introduced in 1989, had the chassis designation “MN12” within Ford, and it was a clean-sheet design, carrying nothing over from the aging Fox platform except the base engine, which remained Ford’s long-lived Essex 3.8 liter V6. The rest of the car was new, featuring independent suspension all around and a lower, wider stance. As with the previous generation, this Cougar has a different roofline than its Thunderbird sister; the Cougar retained a more formal, upright rear window.

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On this particular Cougar, that upright rear window is surrounded by the bad toupée of the automotive world: the landau roof. As a general rule, I dislike these, because they break up a car’s lines and can trap water and cause rust, but on this car I… don’t hate it. At least not vehemently. But it would definitely look better without it. At least it isn’t a full fake convertible top; those are awful.

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Inside, things are quite a bit nicer, despite a liberal dose of fake woodgrain. But it is also inside where I come to question this car’s age: This is not a 1997 Cougar. By 1994, the Cougar had dual airbags and had done away with the motorized seatbelts. This car is, at the newest, a 1993 model. This discrepancy, along with a salvage title and the fact that the front bumper clearly used to be red, makes me doubt this car’s provenance a bit.

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Which is too bad, because I’ve driven a few of these MN12 Thunderbirds and Cougars over the years, and they’re nice cars to drive. Smooth, comfortable, and even the base V6 has enough power for what it is. But that’s where it gets interesting, because if this really is a 1993, and it really is an XR7, then it’s not a V6 at all; it’s a 200-horsepower version of the good old Windsor 302 V8.

But still, check the VIN carefully. Buyer beware and all that.

2002 Mercury Cougar – $1,850

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Oregon City, OR

Odometer reading: 119,000 miles

Runs/drives? “Good,” they say

The final car to wear the Cougar badge wasn’t intended to be a Cougar at all, but the third generation of the Ford Probe. The Probe, as some of our readers may recall, was originally supposed to be the 1989 Mustang, but after AutoWeek famously spilled the beans in April of 1987 (in an article I vividly remember reading), the resulting public outcry forced Ford to back off on the idea, keep the Fox-platform Mustang around, and introduce the already-developed car as the Ford Probe. But in 1999, the circle closed when what was to be the next Probe was instead badged as the Mercury Cougar, which started as the Mustang’s sister model from 1967-1973. (Did you follow all that?)

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Unlike the Mazda 626-based Probe, this Cougar shares its platform with Ford’s Contour, known in Europe as the Mondeo. It features a 2.5 liter version of Ford’s Duratec V6, and in this particular car, a fun-sucking four-speed automatic.

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These Cougars have a hit-or-miss reliability reputation, much like the Contour (and Mercury’s version, the Mystique). But this one has fairly low miles, and is in decent shape cosmetically. And the price is low enough. Spotty reliability or not, this one looks like a more honest used car than the older Cougar above. If it checks out mechanically, it could be a good cheap runabout.

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The styling of these last Cougars is not to everyone’s taste, and it looks an awful lot like the Diamond-Star Motors coupes of the day (Mitsubishi Eclipse, Dodge Avenger, etc) from certain angles. But at least they made it a hatchback, so there is some practicality to the design.

And there they are, two different takes on the same idea. Same name, but such radically different cars that they almost don’t seem to be from the same maker. And neither is anything even close to the drop-dead gorgeous red ’71 Cougar convertible that has been seen prowling around southeast Portland recently. But these are in our price range, and I guarantee you that one isn’t.

So what’ll it be, Autopians? Rear-drive and a hairpiece, or front-drive and a hatchback?

Quiz maker

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77 Responses

  1. I’ve always had a soft spot for New Edge Fords. That being said, Ford cant make a FWD autobox worth a damn. the 02 with a manual would be a no brainer. the 02 sellers ads are quick to disclose flaws in their other vehicles, so chances are, you’re getting a fair deal here.

    that early 90’s one is a mess… i’m also very against landau roofs, and the door handle is busted, the clearcoat is roached.. who the hell knows what else.

    1. Not that shocking… it was an all-new design in 1989… which means the basic design was in production for only 8 years.

      What IS shocking is Ford kept the ancient Panther platform around from 1978 to 2011… as well as keeping the old Fox body around until 2004.

      And even more shocking… the derivatives of the FN10/MN12 could have/should have been the successor to both the Fox and Panther platforms. But because it cost a few pennies more due to being vastly better (such as having an independent rear suspension), Ford kept the older/cheaper/inferior platforms around and cancelled the good Mid-to-fullsize platform they had.

      What’s also surprising… They spent a bunch of money developing a mostly bespoke RWD platform for the money-losing Jaguar instead of just making a derivative of the relatively new (for the time) MN12/FN10.

      So by the early 2000s, they had a mess of 4 RWD architectures.

      And that is what I call bad management and bad planning.

      1. Ok, I agree, the Fn10/MN12 got a raw deal in the realm of Ford platforms. I personally think it should have been used for the V8 95 Continental redesign, instead of doubling down on the FWD Taurus platform. It would have complemented the Mark VIII and made the LS redundant. That being said Ford did get plenty of mileage out of the DEW98 platform in the LS and retro Thunderbird. It was also the original foundation for the 05 Mustang and its D2C platform, until the bean counters stepped in and forced a swap from the LS’ independent rear axle to the Ford 8.8″ live axle.

    2. Somehow, really, I know how, but somehow they were still reasonably popular in SE Michigan at least through 96!

      I worked at a Meijer in high school and there were always a number of customer ThunderCougarFalconBirds in the parking lot.

  2. I voted for the 97. It’s basically a Fox body mustang with some cushion. Yes it’s got a salvage title, but as a weekend/occasional driver, and a car to fiddle and tinker with it’s got a lot more going for it than the 02. Doesn’t even need an engine swap to have fun…though it does need a transmission swap.

    1. Way different than a Fox body. The platform debuted under the 89 Thunderbird. Full independent rear suspension, larger, wider and heavier.

      Transmission swap is tough because the T5 used on a Mutang puts the shifter under the dashboard. The T-Bird Supercoupes used a bolstered Mazda transmission. Not sure if it would bolt up to the 5.0, but it worked with the 3.8 supercharged.

      1. Interesting to know. I was thinking that suspension bits and such would carry over.

        I know the transmission would be a tougher swap but I’m sure with a bit of fab work it could be done

        All said I’d stick with my answer for the fiddle and tinker with reason. It’s a comfy cruiser you won’t necessarily break the bank with when you start tossing things at it, unless you want to.

  3. I respect the hell out of your willingness not to retcon the whole Chieftain thing (I checked).

    Anyway, about the Cougars. I’m not a huge fan of them, depending on the type you’re talking about wink. I had a buddy who used to give me a ride to high school in his MN12 Cougar, so I’m going to choose that. It looks pretty good besides. I’m pretty ambivalent about the Probe-adjacent variety.

  4. I would have voted for RWD and V8 power, but the pre-1994 Cougar has way too many red flags. It might be worth half that if you want to pull the motor. I have an illogical soft spot for the 2002 Cougar because it shows a rare moment when late stage Mercury tried to stand out from Ford. It may not have been a great car, but I appreciate the effort. The newer Cougar wins today.

  5. The MN12, hands down.

    Ford’s build quality and reliability goes in cycles. The last-gen Cougars barely beat out early-1980’s Ford in quality and reliability. It’s why you see so few on the road today. The polarizing styling didn’t help, but what killed them more than anything else, was their own atrocious quality and reliability. This was supposed to be a Ford Probe, but it was rejected for that. In fact, it was the only Ford in North America to use that platform. Which should tell you a whole lot right there.

    The prior generation Cougar in contrast, is peak Ford reliability. In no small part because it’s an MN12 platform. The engine’s either a 3.8 Essex or a 4.6L Mod motor, two of Ford’s stoutest if unexciting engines. The transmission’s your classic C5/AOD-derived 4 speed 4R70W straight from the trucks. And we know just how serious Ford is about their trucks. Sure, the materials aren’t anywhere near ‘great.’ But it’s basically a Ford truck in a coupe body. And the IRS on these is actually legitimately good. (Yes, they have IRS!)

    Yeah, there’s a shitton of red flags. But it’s fuck it money. So fuck it. Keep the 5.0, hop it up, throw a Mustang manual behind it, beefier shocks, and go have some fun at the track.

  6. As someone who made the horrific mistake of purchasing a NEW 1997 Ford Craptour with the 2.5L V6 and a 5-speed stick, and then spent the next three years living with that godforsaken POS I will HARD PASS on the Cougar. Seriously folks, I have never owned a worse car. Ever. I don’t care how many cars that “97” is built out of, the base material is better than the ’02.

    On the plus side, after the 85 days in the shop with literally every part failing in 40k miles, I did get a lemon-law payout that allowed me to buy a new A4, so that was nice.

    1. I owned a 95 Mystique with the V6 and manual with the Young America Edition package. The car looked sharp as hell and loved driving it.

      Unfortunately the under hood wiring harnesses in that car were disintegrating within 4 years. I replaced them all myself, but the interior wiring was no better.

      Everything that could break on that car, DID BREAK.

      Also, changing the alternator was fucking torture. You needed a 3 foot extension to get to the backside of the bolts. The alternator was underneath the engine and required removing the passenger side wheel and inner fender lining. It was a 6 hour job with two experienced wrenchers (me and my friend).

      1. IIRC, Ford spec’d it as an 8-hour job. But, using the 4-foot extension of the extension, there were guys on who could get in and out in an hour. 40 mins was the record, but this guy had done a lot of them.

        Still better than the plugs on a Thunderbird SC. Ford spec’d that as an engine-out job. Yes, they put in double plats at the factory. It could be done without dropping the motor, but apparently it wasn’t fun.he

        When I bought my 89SC, first question I asked was whether the plugs had been done. He had service records, and they had. That car (5 speed) was a lot of fun.

  7. Hard Pass on both. If I was going to buy a car with Contour/Mystique underpinnings, I’d buy a Contour. SVT Contour, please. And the vinyl topping on that notchback roof gives me the willies….

    No, I would hold out for a Kougar. Those old Jaguar inline-sixes sounded just plain wonderful.

    1. Ford was *this* close to offering that SVT engine in the Cougar, to be called Cougar S. By the time Ford canceled it, at the *very* last minute, dealers had already taken deposits for them, and you can still order some of the parts specific to the Cougar S.

  8. I went for the old-timer this morning. It has so much more potential even with the questionable registration/previous damage. I always looked at these (and Thunderbirds of the same era) as more comfortable Mustangs with better suspensions. I used to hate the styling, but it has grown on me over the years, and the interior looks like a legitimately nice place to spend time. Now, I used to really like the 2002 Cougar before I found out how horrible that platform is. The styling is kinda cool, but no thanks. My friend who sells cheaper used cars calls Mercury Mystiques (same platform) “Mercury Mistakes” because they are such pieces of crap, and this guy has moved some questionable metal over the years….

        1. It can be done, but the trouble is that there isn’t always paint under there. I took a padded vinyl top off a Chevy Nova years ago, and there was nothing but gray primer under there. Not sure if Ford does it the same way or not.

          1. In the case of this Cougar, that’s an aftermarket job. So there should be paint under that Landau top. But there is a good chance that the paint could be damaged from how the landau was affixed to the roof.

  9. I heard of a junkyard dog but that 97 is a junkyard cat. A bunch of scrap parts thrown together and pick a year based on parts used. Or the seller has no idea what the year is, and probably knows nothing else.

  10. Cars like this make me nostalgic. Nostalgic for cash for clunkers. How much to rent a backhoe and bury both of them? I voted 2002 red hatch on a technicality, you can’t legally buy something that isn’t owned by the seller.

  11. I can’t stomach the thought of buying either of these for myself, so I’m changing the rules a bit.
    My vote is based on which one I’d rather buy and make one of my kids drive until they’re more responsible behind the wheel. 2002, it is.

  12. I may be in the minority, but I really liked the early-aughts version of the Cougar. I actually tried to purchase one as my first real car in 2005, but was turned off by how awful the dealer was. If he’d just been a bit nicer, I’d have driven away that day.

    Ended up buying a jet-black ’99 Grand-Am SE 2-door instead and drove the fucking doors off that thing until 2012.

      1. That car was quite literally bulletproof. Well, the engine at least. I had a coil spring snap clean, an alternator die doing 80 on I-95 in Boston, the power windows and mirrors broke… But my god, you couldn’t stop it from running.

  13. Going with the older one here despite the salvage title, assuming it drives down the road straight. Depending on when the accident occurred it could have literally been a fender bender that “totaled” it. The fact that the interior still looks hints that while the prior owners may have had questionable taste with the roof mod they certainly cared for their car. This is echoed by the fact that the cloth top is still in one piece. It looks comfier for trips and my wife already says I’m a 60 year old man so may as well steer into the skid on this one. $1,700 isn’t a ton of money for a cushy cruiser.

  14. That is probably a ’91 Cougar, actually. I had one in 92. It was a glorious car.

    One of the last cars in the world where a grown adult didn’t mind sitting in the back seat on a road trip.

  15. Yesterday: Ford caves to public outcry over canning the Mustang and introducing the Mazstang.
    Today: Public outcry over calling their new electric SUV/vehicle Mustang. Ford says oh well we are doing it anyways.

  16. I never drove a last generation Cougar, but did drive several Contours of that generation. I thought it was a reasonably engaging drivers car, but judging by the other comments, glad I didn’t buy one.

    Anyway, still going with the newer Cougar, neither is pretty, but the older model is butt ugly, if a T-bird I could warm to it quite a bit more.

  17. I went with the newer one. I’m half owner of a MN12 Cougar that we turned into a Gambler 500 car. Sure ours was $475 and pretty worn out but even if it was in better shape, I can’t see it being anything more than a just OK car. For what it’s worth, ours made it through two Gamblers now and still works just as good as it did when we got it

  18. That would be Grand Marquiseseseseseseseseses.

    On the the cars. Initially I saw the landau roof and I was like hells no. Then I saw the interior, 5.0 and low mileage. Then I was thinking maybe I’ll have a better look. Then the shifty stuff – wrong year, salvage title, etc and I’m back to hells no. So I guess it’ll be the newer Cougar.

  19. Also, I don’t think those bumpers used to be painted red. I feel like I’ve seen that before and it was just the unfortunate color of the plastic bumper. Love how the lettering on the left rear taillight just says Mercur… So close.

  20. “It also changed names a couple of times in the ’80s: first it was Mercury Cougar, then Mercury Cougar Mellencamp, then for a while just Mercury Mellencamp.”

    Hah – reminds me of my Rock Band video game character, a pretty boy named “John Cougarcatcher”

  21. I was ready to hit the older one, then saw salvage and number of alarm bells. I backed away slowly while maintaining eye contact. Then hit the other one.

    I don’t really like either, but I needed a cheap beater, the 2002 fits the bill.

  22. The 2002 Cougars basically came from the factory with fogged headlights, didn’t they?

    Still, even if the MN12 wasn’t lying about its age like an older woman from the stereotype factory, I’d go with the newer one. Spunky sport coupes need more love.

  23. This is a “hold your nose and vote” selection, but I’ll take the 2002. My brother had one of these in the early 2000s, and it was adequate. It handled well, was reasonably fuel efficient, and the front seats were comfortable (the rear seats probably violated the Geneva convention, though). The engine wasn’t great. I recall a review that made a statement to the effect of “the v6 revs like a boat anchor is attached to the flywheel.” That statement is spot on. The engine was slow to respond to throttle inputs, even in neutral. Despite that, it was generally fun to drive (his had a manual transmission, unlike this one), and was certainly more fun to drive than other cars in its price range. This 2002 seems like a decent value at $1850, even if the automatic reduces its appeal.

    The 1993/97 Cougar seems a bit dodgy, and possibly stolen. Without the year discrepancy and salvage title, this would be a much more difficult choice as I am generally not a fan of small, sporty-ish coupes like the 2002.

  24. I don’t like the landau roof, the Thunderbird’s aero roofline is preferable to the more formal Cougar’s, and the entire thing is a little bit sketchy, but in the current market, $1700 for a big highway cruiser that doesn’t completely stumble over itself in the corners (and would be cheap enough to keep running) seems like a fine gamble for a second car, even if you could probably find a better MN12 for similar money before you finish your morning coffee.

    I’ve got a soft spot for the New Edge Cougar because it’s basically just a Contour/Mondeo sport coupe (not bad pedigree), but the auto is a bigger turnoff in something that’s ostensibly a sport coupe than in the bigger, older Cougar.

  25. I actually had to make this shitbox selection in real life! First job out of college in ’05 required me to commute a bit and I needed reliable transportation… there wasn’t much available with my meager budget but an ’01 Cougar showed up in the local classified ads and looked enticing. Metallic silver, 75k miles, dirty as hell but a fair price. My mom overheard my mentioning interest in a Mercury Cougar and hollered that someone from her church was selling one too. Naturally, that belonged to some lady who was getting too old to drive… but it was spotless, had perfectly documented maintenance and was even cheaper than the ’01. There was no question in my mind which to pick… the grinning cat front fascia and hatchback versatility won me over. Even with my questionable, budget-conscious mods (eBay cat back “dual” exhaust, toilet flange MAF-to-KN air filter adapter, jerry-rigged overdrive switch bypass) that car ran perfectly and served me well for a number of years while delivering something like 30 mpg on my commute. No doubt these two cars are totally different beasts but I’d still pick the New Edge option today.

  26. High school me kinda liked the aero Cougar, although I only ever sat in one in a showroom once and my memory of that experience is that at just a hair under 6′ tall, it was too small for me.

    I am fairly confident I won’t be voting for anything with a landau top ever, so sure, I’ll take poor build quality and clown-car ergonomics

  27. As the owner of a real Cougar (a ’70 XR7 convertible), I gotta insist upon a RWD V8. I have always hated that last-gen “Cougar,” not just because it lacked everything I’ve ever liked about Cougars but also because it was just ugly and boring. I don’t mind the 80s-90s ones, though. Weirdly, every time I’ve seen that generation of T-bird driving by, they’re being driven by total assholes. I really don’t know why, but it’s a noticeable phenomenon. And when I think I see one being driven in a civilized fashion, it always turns out to be a Cougar. Make of that what you will. Also, those Cougars are better-looking than their corresponding T-birds.

    Anyway, even with the red flags, for the price I can live with that older Cougar. Plenty of potential there.

  28. The Cougar XR7 is cheap enough to look past the questionable aspects of its history and if it is really a 1993 model. It is $1700 and presents well. I wouldn’t buy it sight unseen, but if it looks and drives OK in person, go for it.

    With that said, my eye would be looking for a Lincoln Mark VIII if I wanted one of the last personal luxury coupes.

    1. RWD always being superior is one of those old saws that’s not necessarily accurate. The ’02 is lighter and honestly very well balanced little car, while the ‘9? is tuned for comfort and not particularly suited for being stupid. You could probably make the ‘9? handle, but then you’re spending a bunch of money and man hours on making the ol’ personal luxury car into something it’s not.

  29. I was voting for the ’02 anyway, always liked ’em, but I have to mention that you failed to show the significant body damage on the driver’s side of the landau lizard–huge dent on the rear quarter, door trim missing, door probably damaged. Good catch on its misstated year; a bigger clue is the front end, which got a horrid facelift in ’96.

  30. The older one. A friend tried to fix up a newer one with electrical gremlins. It did not go well. Parts were hideously expensive and the packaging made it difficult to work on. The whole car was a siren: it was attractive and drove great when it worked. But that juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.

    The older one can be fixed with a hammer, especially if it’s a 302. And with those common mechanicals, finding replacements and knowledge on how to fix them won’t be hard. It’s nice walking into any parts store and finding replacement parts right then.

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