Home » The Eighth-Gen Mercury Cougar Is A Charming Car That Is Vanishing From Our Roads

The Eighth-Gen Mercury Cougar Is A Charming Car That Is Vanishing From Our Roads

Merccougar Top

Guess what day it is! It’s the first Friday of 2023! And you know what that means, right? It means it’s time for Mercury Monday! Yes, Mercury Monday on a Friday, because I keep forgetting to do these and if I’m honest don’t really care about consistency or anything like that, which is why so many parts of my life are a mess, if I’m honest. Look, the fact that I’m talking about Mercurys at all here on the pages of the Internet’s Biggest Car Website (don’t check that) should be considered a fucking gift to every Mercury-lover in the known universe, so let’s all just calm down. Are we calm? Good. Now, let’s get amped up again, because we’re going to be talking about a truly under-appreciated and nearly-forgotten Mercury: the eighth (and last) generation Cougar.

Yes, that Cougar. I bet the last time you can remember seeing one your life was in a very, very different place, because these are almost extinct and have been for quite some time. They’re pretty much all on Ghost Car status now, which is, I think, a shame, and we’ll get into why. The eighth (that word never looks right to me, by the way. I mean, over 66% of that word is “ghth” which reads like the sound you make when you walk crotch-first into a fire hydrant. Also, right now, try saying the plural of “eighth,” which “eighths.” Go on, say it out loud. Eighths. Eighths. Ew, it feels so weird.) generation was sold for the model years 1999 to 2002, and was a real break from Cougar tradition in so many ways.

Yellowcougar

It was the first transverse-engined, FWD Cougar. The first hatchback Cougar. The first Cougar that didn’t necessarily drink gas like a drunk elephant. And, significantly, the first Cougar that wasn’t a Mercurized version of a Ford product. Remember, the first two generations of Cougar were slightly upmarket-ed and chrome-slathered and over-fake-grilled variants of Mustangs, then the next two gens were versions of Torinos, then the next two were Fox-chassis versions of Thunderbirds or Granadas, then the next-gen Thunderbird.

Cougargens

The eighth Cougar was based on the Contour/Mondeo world car platform, but there was no Ford equivalent car that it was re-badged from. There may have been, since it started life as a new version of the Ford Probe, but in the end it stood alone as a unique Mercury, though in global markets that lacked the Mercury brand, it was badged as a Ford Cougar, which may make it the first Mercury to be re-badged as a Ford, in some exciting opposite-day shenanigans. Maybe some commenter will prove me wrong, but at this moment I can’t think of another Mercury that got re-badged to a Ford.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought about these cars in a long time, so when I started looking back at them, I was pleasantly surprised; these things aged well, I think. A lot of that has to do with the fact that this Cougar was the first Mercury to make it to market to feature Ford’s New Edge design language, which I think overall has aged quite well. The New Edge look defined the visual vocabulary of the Cougar, which featured crisp, clean, flowing lines, an actual respect for panel cutlines, which were used to define the shapes of the lighting units and air intakes.

MercconceptThe look was teased with the 1997 Mercury concept car known as the MC2, and it had a more pure New Edge look with more dramatic curves and angles and, interestingly, a more traditional Mercury waterfall grille hiding in that little arched maw, something that wasn’t retained for the production car, which was impressively free of Mercury’s usual fixation on adding a bunch of chrome trim bits and details.

Rear

I always liked the taillights on these, too, with their angular shape but also with those two inset hemispheres growing out of them, like geometric and non-unsightly pimples. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to put the Cougar – and a lot of the Ford New Edge cars – in the same general category of Good 1990s/Early 2000s car design along with cars like the Audi TT. There’s similar motifs of cleanliness and geometry and precision that are pretty timeless.

Even after over 20 years I think this car looks tidy and modern and sleek. It’s handsome and unfussy, and the heavily raked beltline emphasizes the sports-coupé feel. This whole category of car – the sportcoupé, is pretty rare today. Cars like the Toyota 86 or Supra or BMW 2 series are similar in coupé-ishness and size, but they’re all much more serious about their performance and sporting character. The Cougar was just sporty, in that you’d use it to get to work and get groceries and fill the hatch with bags of peat moss and pick up your buddies to go bowling or whatever, but when you’d turn and look back on it in the parking lot, or gun it a bit when getting onto a highway on-ramp, you’d get a little tingle of I-drive-a-sports-car in your bathing suit areas. Just enough to keep things fun.

It’s a hatchback with more fun proportions and I suppose a more cramped back seat; really, for a lot of drivers, what’s not to like about this?

Commercials played up the sporty nature of the car, and in that one above, you get some nice emphatic gear-shifting, too, because that’s how you know fun is being had. The spy thing was a bit of a series for these Cougar ads, and Ford must have taken it pretty seriously, because, look, they got Udo Kier to star in them as the undeterminedly-foreign bad guy!

Damn, that spy is fantastic at disguises! And fast, too!

Other ads and brochures definitely continued to emphasize the sportiness, and relied heavily on the late ’90s/early 2000s love of the word and concept of “attitude.” Why did we like that so much? I feel like today we’d call the same traits we meant by “attitude” just “being a dick.” Maybe I’m wrong.

Aditude

As far as if it was able to cash the checks its sporty looks were writing, I think the answer is that, for the era, pretty much? You could get the Cougar with either a 2-liter four-cylinder Zetec engine that made a respectable but not really notable 125 horsepower, or a Duratec V6 with 500cc more than the four that made a genuinely decent 170 hp. Remember, a significantly more expensive FWD sports coupé of the same era, the Audi TT, was making only 10 hp more. It wasn’t bad!

There were MacPherson struts up front and a quadlink rear suspension, with a rear anti-roll bar, and while I don’t think I’ve ever actually driven one of these, I suspect that they were likely on par with other sports coupés of the time. I mean, MotorWeek seemed to think it was pretty okay:

They especially liked the variable-ratio steering and the exhaust sound, the latter of which kinda surprised me. Also, it seems that cable-actuated shifter is smooth as sex-butter, and you got the Contour SVT’s antilock brake system with the V6 (optional for the four). Hell, they said it had “superb handling!” Their only real complaint was that the back seats might be tough for ample-assed friends. Still, overall, pretty glowing review! A John Davis glowing review!

Today, in the absurd Year of Our Ford 2023, it’s hard to think of a mainstream car more forgotten than the Last Cougar. You pretty much never see them on the roads, and the closest one in anything like my personal orbit is probably the one that was owned by our own Stephen Walter Gossin, but that one caught on fire on the side of the road and is now in Mercury heaven, which is interestingly located in the orbit of Venus, not Mercury.

Swg Cougar

At least you get a nice view of that lovely intake manifold with the charred hood torn off, so that’s a plus. Stephen also gave me a bit of insight as to why these Cougars are all but extinct in their natural habitat of our nation’s roads: they’re a pain to work on. Here’s one example:

Swg2

If a guy like Stephen, who’s tolerances for what is or isn’t worth putting time and effort to keep running far eclipses that of most normal, healthy humans,  is saying it’s better to junk the car, then that definitely means something. It could be that this otherwise charming and appealing little sporty fella just had too many ass-pain Achilles’ heels like this power steering hose, and they ended up all junked when something like this – that could have been a reasonable repair on another car – failed.

Mercury is itself something of a ghost marque, and I think this Cougar is among the ghostiest of Mercuries. You’re more likely to see an old ’60s Cougar or even a Fox-body Capri than an eighth-gen Cougar in the wild. It’s also a shame the Cougar name died with this car, too, because I do love evocative animal names for cars. Of course, the modern slang of a sexually aggressive older woman who seeks out younger partners may have rendered the name an unlikely future choice, but who knows?

Anyway, if you see one of these, I suggest taking a moment to stop and appreciate this handsome and now uncommon lithe cat. And happy Monday on Friday.

Relatedbar

Everyone Forgets About Mercury So We’re Solving That With ‘Mercury Monday’

Mercury Monday: The Mercury Cougars Of The 1980s Are The Fox Bodies Everyone Forgot About

The Mercury Bobcat Was A Lesson In The Barest Definition Of Luxury: Mercury Monday (On Friday!)

The Mercury Villager Nautica Always Reminded Me Of This Particular Shoe: Mercury Monday

Mercury Monday: The Un-American Mercury Tracer, The Econobox With A Miata Engine

 

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95 Responses

  1. Someone in Victoria BC has one of these in red. I did a double take the first time I saw it because I couldn’t believe any of them were still on the road.

  2. My dad in Germany bought a CPO 2001 Ford Cougar V6 in 2003. He loves it and has it to this day. He keeps it meticulously maintained, including body rust repair and having the rusted out rear sub frame replaced. He even had the factory stereo upgraded with a Becker Traffic Pro 1 DIN navigation system (shortly after he bought the car) that he still uses (with the last software update from like 2016).

    He absolutely loves this car (his other one is a BMW convertible), and drives it regularly, especially in the Winter when the convertible stays in the garage.

    I’ve driven it numerous times, and even though its performance and handling can’t compete with modern cars, the smooth and responsive V6 nice engine and it is fun to drive. I look forward to taking it for a spin when we’re in Germany this Summer.

    1. “Becker Traffic Pro 1 DIN navigation system”

      WOW! This is something I had no idea existed. What an amazing piece of tech – I can only imagine what they cost back in the day. Very very cool.

  3. I had a 99 Cougar as my first car. It was a V6 automatic and I hated it. The suspension was too stiff giving it terrible ride quality. It was hilariously slow for a “sporty” car. It was genuinely good looking, but that’s the only nice thing I can say about it.

  4. I have bizarre memories of this car.

    My father was impressed by this gen Cougar (for some reason), and my parents ran out and bought a brand new V6 one in green in 1999. (My dad was always a fan of the Cougar- he had a white convertible 1973 cougar that sat in the garage and never ran in my lifetime. He rear ended some lady in a VW beetle before I was born and ended up having to buy her a new bug, so the Cougar sat, neglected in the garage for years. Sneaking into the garage and sitting in that car as a child is arguably one of the reasons I’m so into, specifically older, cars today- but that’s a story for another time).

    I was in elementary school when my parents got the ’99 Cougar, and my mother would drop me off in the morning in the line of all the other kids getting dropped off. This would not be such a big deal, if it weren’t for the bizarre quirk that our particular car had. On many occasions, despite unlocking the car with the key fob as one usually would, opening the door would set the alarm off, and no amount of locking or re-unlocking with the key would shut it off.

    Eventually, at the risk of me being late for school, my mother would resign to getting in the car and driving me anyway, lights flashing and horn blaring all the way. As if to add insult to injury, actually starting the car and driving it would result in a noticeable increase in the pitch of the horn (maybe the higher voltage provided by the alternator being driven by the running engine was to blame? I have no idea honestly.)

    The net effect of the horn going up an octave made it seem as though the car was shrieking with increased desperation to make the ride to school as embarrassing as possible. My mother would eventually pull into the long line of cars, and all of my peers and teachers were promptly alerted to my arrival. The splendor and drama would continue as we inched closer to the drop-off point. Sometimes, I think I got out early and walked the rest of the way, just to get away from the spectacle. After getting out, I would hear my mothers car shriek and eventually fade off into the distance as she drove away.

    After my mom would get home from dropping me off, leaving the car shut off for a while eventually quieted the alarm- content in the fact that it had sufficiently embarrassed us and added unneeded drama to our day.

    The alarm thing wouldn’t happen every day, or even every week, but every so often when the car was feeling spicy, you would be in for an exciting morning.

    I am not sure if the dealer ever found out what the issue with our car was.

    Several months later, my mother spun out in that car on the freeway, despite, in her words, “not doing anything abrupt”. She did a full 360 and thankfully did not hit a single other vehicle or object. Needless to say, we ended up with a 2000 Lincoln LS not long after..

  5. I test drove one of these around 2007ish to use as a daily driver. It was a V6 model but was crazy gutless and I was very much underwhelmed by the test drive. I wasn’t going in with high expectations, I thought they looked cool and just needed some A to B transport to keep miles off my convertible. I ended up passing on it and getting a Grand Am instead.

  6. Two things:
    1. Anyone else remember the auto show poster for the MC2? It was like a blueprint and printed on transparent paper. I tried hanging it down from my bedroom ceiling so I could see both sides. I used scotch tape so you already know how well that worked.

    2. Anyone else wanna hear John Davis say “WE think the back seats might be TOUGH for ample-ASSED friends!!!”

  7. Ewwww, I always hated these – but then again, I have always had the opposite of a soft-spot for family car-based coupés. Engines and transmissions being equal, I will always take a Carina over a Celica, an R18 over a Fuego, and an Ascona over a Manta.
    Also, the photos of the yellow car makes me think of the Geely Beauty Leopard or the Changli, with the plasticky color, tacked-on bits, and cheapo aftermarket wheels.

  8. My brother had this gen of Cougar for years. It was a pretty good car. The V6 was pretty sweet. It was also a very un-Mercury Mercury.

    But the fact is, it wasn’t that fast compared to other vehicles you could get for the same money at that time.

  9. I had some merch from when these were new, from when new models sometimes meant a lot of supporting materials that they’d send to customers – I can’t remember if I got it at an auto show or just from ordering on the world wide web, seems more likely the latter because my area didn’t have big enough shows for it to be the case. A t-shirt, some postcards and the like, which I think I still have somewhere. IIRC one of the postcards was holographic too.

    I liked the car well enough and it came in a variety of colors. But even if it were in Ford showrooms, it would’ve been outclassed.

    Years later in high school, there was a used one on the lot at the dealer that I worked at, a silver V6/5MT without many options, it was maybe ~7 years old. I think it ended up being wholesaled because it was otherwise glued to the lot- pretty sure I drove it more than anyone just to move it. One day it didn’t start, can’t recall if it was the battery or something else, but had to be pushed to a service bay. Didn’t help that it had a sort of musty post-ozone machine smell to it, like it had been a smoker’s car or something previously.

  10. When I was in eighth and ninth grade there was a yellow one that was parked in the lot of the psychiatrist’s office, owned by an older lady who worked there. I remember sitting out on the field behind the old school building and watching her leave for lunch. That car didn’t exit the parking lot. It didn’t dart out. It LAUNCHED LIKE A ROCKET. First gear on that car was something insane. According to info I found, it had 3.42:1 for first gear and hit 30MPH in 2.9 seconds with a manual. That’s as fast as the ’99 Audi TT with it’s Quattro AWD system. 0-60 was 7.9 seconds versus 7.7 for the ’99 Audi TT and 7.5 for a ’99 V6 Mustang. It’s no wonder street racers loved these things.

    These also very heavily seemed to mirror the third generation Mitsubishi Eclipse with the full half-circle roof and taillights. It seemed like the Chevrolet Cavalier (don’t laugh I’m being serious) created a rush for “Y2K sharpness” with perfect radii and intersecting scallops after the aero-organic era of the 1990s.

  11. At my last home there were TWO of these on my street. A blue one that someone DD’d and street parked, and a red one which sat in someones driveway.

  12. Oh man, when I was a college student shopping for a car in the mid-to-late 2000’s, this was at the top of my list. I could never find a V6+manual in decent enough shape, though. I ended up with a Cobalt, which got me through my 20’s with very little trouble. I still see this gen Cougar maybe once or twice a year on the road, and I always think back fondly of The One That Got Away.

  13. I remember seeing these in lower income areas, usually with Walmart stereo systems blasting something out of them. Wheel bearings roaring and brakes squealing.

    It’s a shame because I remember hearing how fun they were to drive, but the stigma kept me out of one.

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