Mercury's Cougar may well be the best-named car in today's litter. A sleek predator on a winding road, it bounds and pounces cat-quick, with cat-like reflexes. There's something feline about its New Edge look, too, and just like a real cat, not everyone will like it. Bold and decisive, yet playfully quirky, Cougar's styling is stubbornly out of step with current fashion. And that's a good thing.
Speaking of fashion, Mercury added two sporty new models in February: the Cougar Zn and Cougar C2. Available in bright zinc yellow, French blue and other vibrant colors, they sport special styling cues and refreshed interiors.
Cougar 4 ($16,700); Cougar V6 ($17,200); Cougar S ($22,050)
Although only two years old, Cougar has already received a significant facelift, inside and out. Front and rear bumpers are new for 2001, and the new front bumper brings a horizontal-lined air opening along with integrated fog lamps for S models. The headlamps are different, too, though subtly so; they're a little smoother than before.
With its catlike headlamps and sweeping lines, the Cougar looks like nothing else on the road. It features smooth, sculpted surfaces defined by clean folds and sharp intersections. Parts of this car look as though they were sculpted with a sharp knife, while other parts, its perky rear, for instance, are abundantly, voluptuously rounded. Cougar offers artful exterior details as well: Small triangles show the location for the jacking points. Side markers act as turn signals to alert the driver next door. Cougar looks ready for high speeds and winding roads. Part of the reason for this is its relatively long wheelbase, with European-style short overhangs.
Cougar Zn is an eye-catching vehicle with new features and distinctive styling, including unique zinc (Zn) yellow clearcoat paint. With its zinc yellow hood scoop and spoiler, the Cougar Zn also will offer for the first time standard 17-inch machined aluminum wheels with ebony accents and center caps. Adding to its unique look, the Cougar Zn is dressed with the Cougar logo in the back-glass blackout
Cougar C2 adds its own unique styling features and a one-of-a-kind French blue paint. In addition, a French blue instrument panel and color-keyed spoiler, as well as machined aluminum wheels with French blue center caps, are also offered. (Cougar C2 is also available in silver frost, vibrant white and black.)
The Cougar Zn offers midnight black diamond-patterned sport cloth bucket seats while the Cougar C2 offers French blue. Also available on each model are midnight black leather seats as well as dark graphite floor mats. Both the dark graphite floor mats and the midnight black leather seats include either the zinc yellow or French blue Cougar logo badging. AM/FM stereo with an in-dash 6-disc compact disc changer/player is now standard on all base 2001 Cougar Zn and C2 models.
Cougar's New Edge school of design is carried over inside. The new-for-2001 instrument panel is stark and racy. Round gauges feature dark markings on satin aluminum faces, and the speedometer overlaps the tachometer in the current fashion. Switchgear looks high-tech and is highly functional. Sturdy bullet air vents effectively aim the airflow exactly where it's wanted. Also new for 2001 are lightweight and aggressive-looking aluminum pedals for Sport Group V6s and S-models.
Front bucket seats are firm and supportive. Although other adjustments are manual on base models, the driver's-side height adjustment is powered; that's a thoughtful touch. Getting in back is easy than it looks, and the rear buckets are surprisingly comfortable. Scooped out seat bottoms allow good headroom, while space under the front seats provides manageable legroom. Still, this is no sedan. No one will want to ride for a long trip back there.
The base sound system has been upgraded for 2001 to an AM/FM/single-CD unit. S-models get a cassette player, too; while an in-dash six-CD changer debuts as a stand-alone option.
Cougar offers surprisingly good handling, and solid stability at speed, as I discovered at Road Atlanta, a gutsy high-speed road-racing circuit in north Georgia. Nowhere was this more noticeable than at the entrance to Turn 2, a relatively slow technical spot in terms of chassis dynamics. The turn-in point for this right-hand corner is at the top of a hill and is immediately preceded by a quick left. I crested the hill topped out in third gear. As the car comes over the top of the hill, of course, the suspension is unloaded, so there is little weight on the tires, and therefore little traction for smooth braking. But fairly hard braking is required to slow the car, and it's easy to brake too late and shoot past the turn-in point, or even spin the car in this situation.
But the Cougar felt rock solid at the turn-in point, allowing me to open up the V6, plunge down the hill and take the following set of high-speed curves flat out. By comparison, a previous-generation Mitsubishi Eclipse GS felt uncertain, which reduced exit speed from the corner. A Saturn SC2 felt downright crude, though it handled fairly well. Through the high-speed turns, the Cougar was the Rock of Gibraltar. Its steering offered better feel than the other two cars and the suspension provided more control.
Cougar's platform is based on the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, but it rides on a wider track (the distance between the right and left tires) and uses a much firmer suspension to please enthusiast drivers. A rigid chassis, stiff anti-roll bars, and high-rate springs are calculated to enhance handling. Specially designed motor mounts are intended to reduce noise. Weight distribution is 50/50. The front suspension uses MacPherson struts with coil springs and lower A-arms. The rear is a Quadralink system with strut-type coil spring/dampers and passive rear steering.
The racetrack exercise was followed by a lengthy blast through the mountains north of Atlanta, where the Cougar clung to the road like a cat to a tree. The Cougar felt at home in the mountains and seemed aptly named there. Its stability provided confidence while its crisp handling and brisk throttle response encouraged spirited driving. The bigger brakes used on the S-model and Sport Group V6 borrow their 10.9-inch rotors from the high-performance SVT Ford Contour, and they performed without fade in spite of repeated hard use.
My impressions were reinforced a week later, where the Cougar's precise steering and well-tuned suspension helped it slice cleanly through a tight autocross course near Baltimore. By comparison, an SC2 seemed destined to collect pylons, and the power steering pump on an Eclipse GS could not keep up with steering inputs through the slalom.
And though it handles well, the Cougar's suspension offers impressively good compliance for a nice, smooth ride on rough pavement.
Even the base Cougar is a highly capable car that encourages spirited driving. Ford's four-cylinder Zetec engine provides good response at highway speeds. This engine weighs less than the V6, which improves the balance of the car.
Still, it seems a shame to order a Cougar without the brilliant Duratec V6. Smooth and sophisticated while cruising, it emits a satisfying growl when riled. While it doesn't give the Cougar the punch of an Acura Integra GS-R or Honda Prelude SH, it could keep up with those two sport coupes on north Georgia's mountainous roads. Just don't get talked into a drag race for pink slips because you might lose. Low-speed and standing-start acceleration is good, but passing power is excellent. Top speed is estimated at 137 mph, but we haven't tried that.
The smooth-shifting five-speed manual gearbox is suited well to the V6, with ratios that complement the torque of the engine. We highly recommend it. The four-speed automatic ($815, and available only with the V6) is designed to offer smooth shifting and to minimize hunting for gears when traveling up and down long gra
Driving enthusiasts in the market for a sport coupe should take a close look at the Cougar V6. People who want a stylish, practical coupe can't go wrong with the four-cylinder model. Both are priced aggressively to compete with respective models from Japan. And both offer a breathtakingly different look, a sharp-edged contrast to the soft forms of current fashion.