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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. “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”

  15. 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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